ABC News' Over-the-Top Pearl Harbor Coverage
What a great idea it was for the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. The Disney Company will probably make a fortune out of it. And ABC News is doing all it can to help.
Background item one: Pearl Harbor is a new movie produced by Disney's Touchstone Pictures.
Background item two: ABC News is also owned by Disney.
Background item three: The Japanese are nicer to us these days.
It is not news anymore when the news division of a major American company promotes the interests of another division of that major American company. But with the release of Pearl Harbor, the line between news and publicity is no longer a line at all — it's just this big smudge, overlapping here, receding there; messy, messy everywhere.
It should come as no surprise. About two weeks ago, Disney Chairman Michael Eisner sent a memo to all Disney staff employees. The subject: The importance of Pearl Harbor for everyone who owes his paycheck to Mickey Mouse. "I don't need to list the cast or give you the synopsis of the plot," Eisner wrote. "I will just give you the synopsis of the film's significance for our company: Enormous (enough said)."
As a source of inspiration, the Eisner memo does not rank with the Gettysburg Address or Churchill's World War II speeches to his fellow Brits. As a threat, though, it was superb.
ABC News' Good Morning America read the memo; it did a batch of interviews with stars of the movie. ABC News' World News Tonight and World News Now read the memo; they did reports on the 60th anniversary of the actual bombing. The ABC News specials unit read the memo; it brought David Brinkley out of retirement to update a previous documentary about Pearl Harbor. ABC News' This Week read the memo; it gave a plug or two to the Pearl Harbor-related material on ABCNews.com. And as for ABCNews.com, well, it found a few places where that line I mentioned earlier wasn't fuzzy enough and then smooshed it into total submission.
On correspondent Sam Donaldson's Webcast, a piece has been running that cuts back and forth between newsreel footage of the real Pearl Harbor and movie footage of the fake Pearl Harbor. It cuts back and forth between interviews with actual Pearl Harbor survivors and interviews with actual Pearl Harbor actors. The result is dizzying; there is too much movie hype to take the reality seriously, too much reality to pig out on the hype.
And speaking of pigging out: If you click on the right places on the ABCNews.com Web site, you can get a coupon for a free bag of popcorn. A small one, of course — the Pearl Harbor budget was more than the gross national product of the Third World and part of the Second; Disney can't be passing out huge quantities of free junk food.
Even more disreputable than the way ABC News is promoting the movie is the way it is promoting the promoting. The front page of the Web site has been running this headline:
The Attack on Pearl Harbor ...
Did the U.S. government have advance warning?
What did ABCNews.com find? Nothing. Everything in the Web site's report has been known to historians for at least a decade.
Pearl Harbor made a lot of money in its first weekend in release. Then it made a lot of money in its second weekend, which probably means that memo maven Michael Eisner has mellowed out.
But he should not be too mellow. By his shameless hucksterism, he and his accomplices have tarnished the image of ABC's news division, a term which these days seems to mean that the news is divided between actual journalism and corporate self-interest, and that the line between them is even more blurred, the more the latter gains ground.