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The Walt Disney Company is more than a giant corporation. To many, it's long been synonymous with family entertainment. It's now caught up in a much larger battle in Florida tied to the country's cultural and political divides, prompted by its opposition to the governor's stance on LGBTQ issues.
Well, the Walt Disney company is more than a giant corporation. To many, it has long been synonymous with family entertainment.
It's now caught up in a much larger battle in Florida, tied to the country's cultural and political divides, prompted by its opposition to the governor's stance on LGBTQ issues. The state's Republican-led legislature struck back today.
John Yang looks at the stakes and the larger context.
All is not well in the self proclaimed happiest place on earth, Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
Thank you Madam Speaker.
Today, Florida's Republican controlled House gave final legislative approval to a measure revoking a special tax district that has allowed Disney to self-govern its land. Governor Ron DeSantis has led the push against the California-based entertainment giant.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL):
This state is governed by the interests of the people of the state of Florida. It is not based on the demands of California corporate executives.
I pledge allegiance…
Democrats in the legislature call it political theater, part of the culture wars surrounding the state's recent anti-LGBTQ laws.
State Sen. Victor Torres (D-FL):
This bill is a knee-jerk reaction and a political stunt, which is shortsighted and not well-thought-out.
The 40-square-mile special Disney self-governing area was created in 1967, just before construction began. It exempts Disney from certain taxes, fees and regulations, minimizing state oversight.
The move to revoke the district was triggered by Disney's opposition to a new Florida law limiting what public schools can teach about sexual orientation and gender identity, particularly to younger children. After employees protested Disney's silence with a law was passed, the company said it would cease all political donations in Florida, pledging: "Our goal as accompany is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts."
DeSantis, a possible 2024 presidential candidate, has slammed Disney as a woke corporation, and is expected to quickly sign the bill.
The Walt Disney Company has not yet commented on today's legislation.
We're joined by Mark Pinsky. He's the author of "The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust."
Mr. Pinsky, thanks for being with us.
You have got an interesting perspective. You covered both Orlando, which is the home to Disney World, and Orange County, which is the home to Disneyland, two places where the Walt Disney Company have a lot of influence, a lot of interests.
How big a battle does Disney find itself in now with the governor of Florida?
Mark Pinsky, Author, "The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust": I think the battle is much greater than they thought at the outset.
I think Disney Chairman Bob Chapek tried to finesse the issue when it happened. And then he had a revolt among his employees, both in Burbank and Orlando. So, he changed course. But Governor DeSantis is not used to being opposed. And he snapped back, and I think a greater reaction, a quicker reaction than anybody really expected.
Disney is no stranger to controversy. Your book is about a fight they had in the '90s when they were challenged by Christian conservatives when they announced that their employees would get same-sex benefits.
How does this compare?
It's the same issue. It's the same dispute, the same rupture between the corporate culture in Burbank and the political atmosphere in Orlando and Central Florida and in much of the Sun Belt.
At the beginning, it looked like — of the Southern Baptist boycott in the 1990s, it looked like they had a really strong hand. They represented 16 million worshipers, mostly in the Sun Belt. They were later joined by the Assemblies of God, with another four million people. So that's 20 million people.
But when it played out, it turned out that the Southern Baptists and other evangelicals couldn't deliver their constituency to support the boycott. And so it slowly fizzled. And, in that case, from the very beginning, Disney executives in Burbank would not give one inch. They didn't buckle under. And they wouldn't even give them an olive branch when the when the Southern Baptist boycott failed.
In the '60s and '70s, Disney was criticized for being too conservative, for not being — for being slow to embrace diversity. Now they're being accused of being woke by the conservatives in Florida.
Talk a little bit about how Disney has navigated the political shoals over the years.
Disney has never been a cultural leader, but they have been very sensitive to changes in the culture.
And so, for the past 25 or 30 years, since Walt died and his heirs sort of left the leadership of the company, I would date it from when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg took over. There's been a steady, steady evolution of the portrayal of American values in the Disney content, books, movies, corporate policy. They have embraced diversity. They have embraced various things.
And I think that's an irrevocable change that Disney has made.
How big a deal is losing this or would losing this special district be for the Disney Company?
No one is exactly sure. I think Disney can accommodate itself to whatever's there.
But I think the resistance is more likely to come from Central Florida, from business leaders in Central Florida, who are afraid of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. I think they would like a more gradual change, if there's any change at all.
But my suspicion is that getting rid of these special privileges is going to be a lot more difficult in practice than it is in the rhetoric of the governor.
Handicap this fight for us, the governor vs. the Walt Disney Company.
On the outset, I think it seems uneven, that the governor seems to have all the power. He has the legislature under his control. He has a certain constituency, a base, a Trump base, that he's reaching out to.
But I have to say that governors may come and governors may go, presidents may come and presidents may go, but, in this economy, corporations tend to endure and in the end prevail.
Mark Pinsky, author of "The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust," thank you very much.
Thank you for having me.
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John Yang is a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
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