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Disney CEO defends actions, calls DeSantis’ retaliation ‘anti-business’

It was the most outspoken anyone from Disney has been since the conflict began simmering last year.
 
Visitors walk toward Sleeping Beauty's Castle in the background at Disneyland Resort on Jan. 22, 2015, in Anaheim, Calif. Disney CEO Bob Iger on Monday called efforts by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature to retaliate against the company for its policy positions as not only “anti-business but anti-Florida.”
Visitors walk toward Sleeping Beauty's Castle in the background at Disneyland Resort on Jan. 22, 2015, in Anaheim, Calif. Disney CEO Bob Iger on Monday called efforts by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature to retaliate against the company for its policy positions as not only “anti-business but anti-Florida.” [ JAE C. HONG | AP ]
Published April 4, 2023|Updated April 4, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — In the face of a legal brawl with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the head of the Disney entertainment empire forcefully defended his company’s actions at the annual shareholder meeting on Monday and said the governor’s “retaliation” against the “biggest taxpayer in the state” is “anti-business” and “anti-Florida.”

“While the company may have not handled the position that it took very well, a company has a right to freedom of speech just like individuals do,’’ said Bob Iger, the CEO of The Walt Disney Company during a question-and-answer period at the company’s virtual annual shareholder’s meeting.

It was the most outspoken anyone from the entertainment company has been since the conflict between Disney and DeSantis first began simmering last year.

It also came as the governor was launching his latest salvo, ordering his inspector general to work with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the Disney-aligned special taxing district board for “self-dealing” and other “ethical violations.”

“We love the state of Florida,” Iger told shareholders, adding that his company “respected and appreciated what the state has done for us” because that allowed Disney to “give back in the form of jobs and community service and taxes.”

But, he suggested, the criticism of the company for speaking up against the 2022 Parental Rights in Education bill, also known as the Don’t Say Gay bill, “just seemed really wrong to me.”

His reference was the decision by the Republican governor to sign into law last year a measure intended to end Disney’s decades of autonomy at the Walt Disney World resort after the company spoke up in opposition to the bill, which prohibits any discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in classrooms before fourth grade.

Iger’s predecessor responded to employees

Iger said the move was seen as punishment, and his admission that Disney could have handled things better appears to have been a reference to the company’s response last year under previous CEO Bob Chapek.

As Disney employees pressured the company to take a stand against the proposed legislation last year, Chapek sent a message to all employees “especially our LGBTQ+ community,” and apologized for not speaking out sooner against the bill. He then said the company was pausing all political contributions in the state.

The announcement triggered Republicans and the governor — who has since blamed “a cadre of woke, Burbank-based Disney employees.”

Iger described the turn of events at Monday’s shareholders’ meeting:

“The governor got very angry about the position Disney took and seems like he’s decided to retaliate against us,’’ he said, “including the naming of a new board to oversee the property and the business, in effect to seek to punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right.”

Iger made no mention of the special taxing district that allowed Walt Disney World to tax itself and construct an infrastructure and governing authority that functions like a county government. But he also made it clear that the relationship with the state was a “two-way street” and the special treatment conferred on the company was returned in revenue, community service, and economic growth to Florida.

“And so our point on this is that any action that supports those efforts, simply to retaliate for a position the company took sounds not just anti-business, but it sounds anti-Florida,’’ Iger concluded. “And I’ll just leave it at that.”

DeSantis’ Communications Director Taryn Fenske responded.

“While a company has First Amendment rights, it does not have the right to run its own government and operate outside the bounds of Florida law,’’ she said in a statement. “The Florida Legislature and Gov. DeSantis worked to put Disney on an even playing field, and Disney got caught attempting to undermine Florida’s duly-enacted legislation in the 11th hour.”

DeSantis’ cites ‘woke activism’; Iger calls diversity a priority

DeSantis had used the episode to declare victory over a company that he said “indulged in woke activism.”

“Today, the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” DeSantis declared when he signed the bill that gave him the power to appoint a five-member board. “This is what accountability looks like.”

Iger used the annual meeting to push back on claims from DeSantis and others that Disney is using its programming for “agenda-driven content,” and he reinforced Disney’s commitment to diversity.

“Diversity has been a real priority for us,’’ Iger said, “not just as a company in terms of our employees, but also obviously reflected in the content that we make and reflected in in the Walt Disney board of directors.”

At the annual meeting, a shareholder from New York asked Iger: “How can you explain to parents worldwide that you recently celebrated 100 years of history by collaborating with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus to produce an LGBTQIA+ themed Disney musical? This is a group who have explicitly stated that they want to indoctrinate children.”

Iger responded: “I know you were talking about more than just content you were talking about experiences that we provide to people, which we actually pride ourselves on being accessible to all people.”

He said that over the company’s 100 years, it has been telling stories “that are aimed at entertaining and inspiring families from all over the world.” And while he agreed the company’s mission “should not be agenda driven. It should be entertainment driven” its stories must “foster a greater understanding, greater perspective greater acceptance of all people.”

In a defiant display against the anti-DEI movement, the Walt Disney Company quietly agreed to host a major conference promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in the workplace in Central Florida this September. The gathering of executives and professionals from the world’s largest companies will coincide with the presidential election campaign in 2024 when DeSantis is widely expected to challenge former President Donald Trump for the Republican nomination.

Iger began the meeting with video of him standing front of Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, noting the company’s 100-year anniversary, and reminding viewers that it was Walt Disney’s “dare to dream” that converted what had been “remote swampland” in the heart of Florida to a global entertainment and tourism magnet.

He announced the company plans to invest $17 billion in Walt Disney World over the next 10 years, creating an estimated 13,000 new Disney jobs and thousands of other indirect jobs, “and they’ll also attract more people to the state and generate more taxes.”

He closed the meeting acknowledging that Disney is “never going to please everyone all the time.”

But, he said, “we should be sensitive to the fact that parents have different levels of comfort with the content that is delivered to their children.

“I want parents to be able to trust the content that we’re creating for them,’’ he said.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas