ABC's 9/11: Big Mystery! Where's Disney Chairman George Mitchell In This Mess?

There are many inexplicable facets to this huge political controversy over ABC’s The Path To 9/11 mini-series. But in my view the most bewildering is the whereabouts of Disney’s nonexecutive chairman George Mitchell. He’s long been known as the ultimate Compromise Broker, which is what this ruckus needs. But he’s Missing In Action, as far as I can see. Here’s the evidence: I just did a Nexis database search and he’s NOT mentioned in a single article, news transcript, whatever, about this brouhaha. So I’ve got to ask: Why isn’t he front-and-center? Or, at the very least, alongside Bob Iger, the president and CEO, now under fire? After all, this is a politically charged dispute, and Mitchell used to be one of the most adept politicians ever to serve in the U.S. Senate. Both as a Democrat from Maine from 1980 to 1995, and even as Senate Majority Leader from 1989 to 1995, Mitchell immediately should have been drafted to work out a compromise that would soothe Democratic leaders, from members of the Clinton administration to Congress, as well as Republicans embracing this 9/11 version. Then again, Mitchell has been such a disappointment on so many levels since arriving at Disney both as a longtime board member and, since March 2004, as chairman. There’s a long list of problems associated with his Disney tenure, culminating in 24 percent of shareholders withholding votes for Mitchell’s re-election to the board, an unusually high number. Politically, liberals thought he might work to even the playing field for them inside the Big Media company. For instance, Disney’s ABC radio network and its owned- and operated- radio stations still broadcast virtually 24/7 conservative talk radio 24/7. Mitchell has done nothing to change that. Meanwhile, Disney’s chief lobbyist raises $$$ for GOP midterm candidates for this 2006 election cycle.

If anything, I lay the current strife at Mitchell’s feet; if he had publicly involved himself from the start of what was obviously a hot button mini-series, then ABC could, and should, have come up with a must-be-viewed docudrama that not only the network and political leaders but the whole country could have been proud of. (And, yes, I think that was possible here.) As a master of conflict resolution, Mitchell served for five years as Bill Clinton’s special adviser on Northern Ireland and brokered the 1998 Easter Agreement. Then, his so-called Mitchell Commission’s Road Map to Peace outlined steps by which Israelis and Palestinians might finally co-exist peacefully. And if he could make sense of those two messes, then The Path to 9/11 should be a cakewalk for him, right?

Effective January 1, Mitchell will be succeeded by John Pepper, the former CEO of Proctor & Gamble. Even so this is no time for him to be AWOL. For one thing, Mitchell is still receiving a hefty paycheck from the Disney company. Mitchell owns about $1.8 million in Disney stock and, according to the company notice of its annual meeting, receives $500,000 as an annual retainer as board chairman. It would be interesting to know just how much time Mitchell has actually been spending on Disney business this year, including physically at Disney headquarters. I hear not a lot. After all, Mitchell was chosen to head baseball’s steroid investigation. Even that move was questionable because of his link to the Red Sox and his status as chairman of Disney, which owns ESPN, baseball’s broadcasting partner and outlet for a series on Barry Bonds as he pursues Hank Aaron’s career home run record. Which begs the question, how much is Mitchell putting Disney business first?

In light of the current controversy, I found in archives this story about Mitchell’s understanding of the need for conflict resolution. In September 1992 he led a bipartisan delegation of US senators to the bloodied Balkan region where he and his colleagues passed through a small town on the border of Bosnia and Croatia. Serb militia and townspeople had evicted their Croat neighbours and burned down their homes. Later, the tide of war shifted in favour of the Croats who returned to burn out the Serbs. Mitchell said to the mayor there: “It’s hard for an outsider to tell who won.” Replied the mayor: “Nobody won. We will repair our buildings long before we repair our souls. It will take generations to get over the mistrust and the hatred generated by this war.” Given the political polarization of this country, and how Disney’s ABC this past week helped incite more animosity between the Democrats and Republicans, Mitchell needs to review this early lesson in conflict resolution.

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