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On the Media: A 9/11 tribute or an ‘Iger for Mayor’ ad?

Days of tributes and memorials to the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 may have taken their toll, a surplus of sadness pooling like the waterfalls at the new New York memorial. At least most of the stories showed a merciful precision. Most in the media heaped praise on the right figures -- the Goldman Sachs official who died helping co-workers to safety, the firefighter who led a perilous rescue.

That restraint didn’t extend, unfortunately, to one media giant’s communications. In a video memorializing its $5-million contribution to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the Walt Disney Co. put the focus squarely on that unknown 9/11 hero, CEO Robert Iger.

That glossy, overproduced bauble landed in the in-boxes of Disney employees over the weekend and on the website of ABC News, a Disney property. The three-minute video paid tribute less to the fallen warriors, new beginnings in New York or even the movie and entertainment behemoth than to the man at the top of the Disney food chain.

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The video was so frothy, had so many references to Iger’s New York ties, not to mention a couple of links to Empire State politicians, that several political analysts who looked at it for The Times said they could easily see it being the preview to an Iger political campaign. Iger has been mentioned as a possible candidate before. And it wasn’t lost on the experts that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is leaving office at the end of his third term in January 2014.

“If I was seeing that [video] and I didn’t know who anybody was, I would have said, ‘Is he running for mayor of New York?’” said longtime Republican political strategist Allan Hoffenblum. “He says nothing about Disney and 100% about him. That’s what is unique about it; that he is truly a New Yorker and a great fellow.”

The most noisome moments come to us not directly from Iger but courtesy of uber-emoting Diane Sawyer, the anchor of ABC’s evening news. “He’s a great leader. Great gift. Let’s just say what it really is,” Sawyer purrs, before a melodramatic pause and then this: “Courage. Future.”

Seriously? Not that I, or anyone else I can think of, would have the slightest problem with Disney kicking $5 million from the corporate kitty into the ground zero memorial, which appears to be a lovely and fitting tribute to the victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks. But “courage” to give your company’s money to a worthy cause? Maybe the courage referred to some other Iger act of conscience. If so, the reference was lost on us.

That wasn’t Sawyer’s only non sequitur. “Never doubt that he’s a New Yorker,” Sawyer says a moment earlier in the video. “I hate to break this to everybody out there, with their sunsets over the ocean, OK.?He’s a New Yorker. “

Just for the record, no one out here on the coast where the sun sets over the ocean ever said that Iger -- despite working for years at Disney’s corporate offices in Burbank -- was not a New Yorker. He’s all New York’s. We give up. If they want him and he wants to go, no one here would be selfish enough to stand in the way.

A Disney spokeswoman explained that the video was originally created for a tribute dinner, which also honored another major donor and the jury that picked the design for the memorial.

Lynn Rasic, a spokeswoman for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, said that the Iger video was typical of those produced every year, for the last four years, to recognize various honorees. She told one of my Times colleagues she would hate to have the Disney video “misconstrued.”

No doubt many a gushing tribute has been issued before, and many will be issued again, at dinners honoring big-time charitable donors, who are happy to give from corporate coffers, but more generously when they get abundant credit. If the glowing tributes keep the money flowing, let the flattery redouble.

The difference, this go-round, was that Iger pushed the video out to his more than 100,000 employees via an email over the weekend. And ABC News posted the video on its website, under the headline “Bob Iger Honored for 9/11 Memorial Donation.” The subhead on the ABC News site said Iger was recognized for his “benefaction.”

In his email to “fellow employees” on Sept. 11, Iger said “I had the privilege of representing you and The Walt Disney Company as we were honored for our significant and ongoing support of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York.”

The video submerged the corporate “we,” though, in favor of the executive “I.” It shows Iger wearing a hard hat at the 9/11 site. It features him recalling his first visit, shortly after the 2001 attack, in the company of New York Gov. George Pataki. His big moment at the memorial site is telling a New York official how his college roommate was a battalion chief and on the scene in the disaster zone on 9/11. Mayor Bloomberg also offers up a glowing tribute to a fellow corporate titan. “He’s a friend. He’s a great corporate citizen. And he’s a great American.”

If this truly wasn’t about the aggrandizement of a corporate chief who made about $28 million last year, where were the words of thanks to the thousands of Disney employees who built the company that brought in the money to make that contribution? How about a quick mention of, say, Bob Woodruff, the ABC News anchor who had shrapnel tear into his brain while he was in Iraq, covering that post-9/11 war.

That’s one ABC employee who could have been lionized for his “courage,” without making us all flinch in embarrassment.


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