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In Publicity Coup, Army of Journalists Accepted Free Trips to Disney World : Press Debates Ethics of Mickey Mouse Junket

November 11, 1986|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — He will be grand marshal of the Hollywood Christmas Parade. He was grand marshal of the Indianapolis 500. Dressed in his familiar little boy's shorts, big shoes and bow tie, he frolicked and was photographed last month at the Great Wall of China after touring Australia and New Zealand.

Perennially happy, with his wide, innocent eyes and high, optimistic voice, he visited more than 120 U.S. cities last year alone, greeting mayors, TV talk show hosts, tourist industry executives, youngsters in hospitals and shoppers in department stores.

He is, of course, Mickey Mouse--one of America's most enduring cartoon characters and, as he approaches his 58th birthday, a quintessential symbol of eternal youth.

Corporate Spokesman

But, nowadays, Mickey has another role as well. Working for a communications conglomerate that mixes theme parks, network and cable television, movies and high-powered consumer merchandising, he has become a potent corporate spokesman and the point man of the Walt Disney company's aggressive emphasis on promotion.

Nowhere was Disney's success at promotion more apparent than at the 15th anniversary of Florida's Disney World early last month. There, amazingly, Mickey shared the stage with former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Nicholas Daniloff, the magazine correspondent who had been imprisoned by the KGB and then freed as part of a trade for a convicted Soviet spy.

On hand at the theme park were about 10,600 news media representatives and members of their families--most of whom had their travel and accommodations paid for by the Disney organization--enjoying one of the biggest press parties in history. And, when Daniloff, who had been greeted by President Reagan only two days before, made an emotional speech about freedom and the Bill of Rights, he provided reporters in the throng with a publicity coup rare for such a party--real news that was available nowhere else.

Controversy Continues

But, if the multimillion-dollar, four-day event combined marketing know-how and news management, it also cast Disney and Mickey on one side of a bitter debate over free junkets and the ethics of journalists--a controversy that continued well after the party was over.

"Whoever thought that Mickey Mouse would act like a Chicago alderman?" chided Mike Royko, the Chicago columnist, criticizing Walt Disney World for staging what could be the largest "freebie" in journalistic history.

"The biggest story from Florida was the way the press debased itself--and those who accepted Disney's gifts were the most likely to miss it," the New York Times editorialized.

"I am angered and disappointed that so many journalists would accept the offer," added Michael G. Gartner, editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, "and I guess that Disney knows more about the ethics of the press than I do."

Issue Argued on Radio

Recently, Gartner and a radio talk show host in Florida who had accepted the free weekend engaged in an on-air argument. "I said I didn't care if he took a free ticket," Gartner said. "My quarrel is not with you, it's with your bosses. My view is, if your bosses feel it's worth covering, they should pay their way. My quarrel is not with Disney, it's with people who took it."

Although most larger papers, including the Los Angeles Times, did not attend at all or paid all their staff members' expenses, there were journalists on both sides of the debate.

"I think it's up to the newspapers themselves," said Aline Jacobs, women's editor of the Laconia Citizen in New Hampshire, who accepted Disney's offer of free food, lodging and transportation. "The New York Times is a very big newspaper. We're a small-town paper. Their budget is entirely different. I had the blessings of my publisher and her husband . . . . There were no qualms on their part."

"I didn't feel any pressure to write anything favorable," said Paul Lacaillade, entertainment editor of the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader, whose trip also was paid for and who wrote two stories about Disney World. "I really didn't give them a puff job."

'The Biggest Party'

"It was the biggest party I ever saw anybody throw, and that's the way I look at it," added Bill Lowe, news director of WHAM-FM in Rochester, N.Y. " . . . I think a lot of people are looking for something sinister. But I didn't see that."

When the Disney company began planning--a year ago--for the big 15th anniversary party, the possibility of press criticism was weighed against the benefits to be gained by focusing massive media attention not only on Florida's Disney World but on the company's other businesses.

The approach was not new. When Disney World's Epcot Center was opened in 1982, Disney brought 2,000 news and entertainment media members to Epcot in groups of 150 to 200 for three-day visits. The entertainment company paid the expenses of half of those who attended and paid for satellite facilities so reporters from 30 TV stations could broadcast live.

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