Nearly five years after its purchase of ABC, the Disney Company made history in late March by subjecting a confused 6-year-old boy to a preposterous "interview." For ABC News superstar Diane Sawyer, it was all in a day's work. But former viewers of The Mickey Mouse Club had good reason to cringe. Whatever his failings, Mickey never engaged in such flagrant child abuse on national television.
For three days, Good Morning America featured excerpts from Sawyer's visit with Elian Gonzalez, a traumatized child whose departure from Cuba several months ago ended with a shipwreck that killed his mother. Sawyer sat on the floor with little Elian and eased into questions about whether he'd rather live in Cuba or Florida. The footage, repackaged for ABC's 20/20 show, was all grist for the ABC/Disney profit mill.
Many psychiatrists, pediatricians and other specialists in children's health strongly criticized the faux interview as damaging to the small boy. The spectacle was even too much for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a hardliner against the Castro regime, who called the televised sessions "inexcusable" and said: "It breaks my heart to see a 6-year-old child on TV being interviewed about things that he has no idea what's going on."
So why did Diane Sawyer -- and other bigshots at ABC/Disney -- insist on carrying out the scheme? For the same reasons that they pursue so many of their projects: Arrogance. Self-promotion. And greed.
As it happens, Sawyer's latest efforts are in line with longstanding political proclivities. For eight years that included the bitter end of his presidency, she worked as an assistant to Richard Nixon. "She had not only been a Nixon aide but a Nixon loyalist of the highest order," wrote author Peter Boyer." When Nixon finally resigned in disgrace, she was one of the faithful on the plane that took Nixon on his long journey to exile at San Clemente."
In her 22 years as a national TV news star, Sawyer has been quite selective with her compassion. On ABC's PrimeTime Live, she has excelled at portraying people on welfare as rip-off artists. In a September 1992 report on "welfare fraud," she lambasted "a system that entices people to break the rules and gouge the taxpayers." The multimillionaire anchor chided a single mother for working off-the-books to supplement a monthly welfare check of $600 so that her combined income could total $16,700 a year. The same lengthy report aired again on the network a year later.
ABC News seems fond of such reportage. Last year, on Feb. 17, Sawyer introduced the 20/20 lead story this way: "You may have thought with welfare reform that your taxpayer dollars were finally going only to the truly needy. But as you are about to discover, you are wrong."
A few months later, on July 26, ABC reporter John Stossel eagerly mocked people on workfare for expressing unhappiness with dead-end jobs paying $4.75 an hour. Stossel devoted a 20/20 segment to condemning their bad attitudes and finally exclaimed: "Give me a break!"
While the highest-paid correspondents at ABC News seem glad to ferret out malfeasance and shirkers among America's poor, they have shown little investigative zeal in reporting on their own employer.
At this moment, thousands of people are working in abysmal sweatshops to manufacture products for the corporation that owns ABC. At the C & H Lanka factory in Sri Lanka, for instance, women are paid 16 cents an hour to make Disney toys. The usual shift is 12 hours a day. But "it is not uncommon for the women to be locked in the factory and forced to work through the night and into the next day -- putting in a 36-hour shift," reports the National Labor Committee, a human rights group based in New York. "Workers are not allowed to drink water while on the job. They are fined two days pay for talking."
The committee has documented other grim realities at the Sri Lanka factory, which produces cuddly stuffed toys for Disney. Union members and organizers "have been threatened, demoted, have had their pay withheld, and have been viciously beaten, fined and imprisoned."
Meanwhile, in China, workers at many factories are assembling numerous Disney products under atrocious conditions. Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the committee, sent a detailed six-page letter to Disney CEO Michael Eisner on March 4, 1999. But Disney has refused to take corrective action.
We may be surprised to see Diane Sawyer and ABC News stoop to child abuse in the case of Elian Gonzalez. But they're only adhering to Disney company policy -- doing what they can to generate profits from other people's misery.
-- Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.