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Analysis of under-reported news, updates on previous Monitor stories


[Editor's note: Before there were blogs, there were the Monitor "404 Reports," which began in 1997 as a forum to offer updates on previous Monitor stories and discuss items in today's news that deserved greater media attention. Significant additions or changes to the Albion Monitor site will also be announced here. Do not bookmark this page, as the 404 Reports address will change with each edition.]

Real reporting makes surprise appearance on page one

  + THE I-TOLD-YOU-SO'S OF MARCH     March 2007 has been heaven for news junkies, if only because a remarkable thing happened: Celeb scandals were pushed out of the headlines by actual scandals. The Walter Reed/VA debacle and U.S. Attorney/Gonzales probe dominated print and broadcast media, and bestest yet, both were meaty stories built around old-fashioned investigative reporting. Applause to both the Washington Post and Talking Points Memo, which is fast evolving from a guy-and-his-blog into a serious news organ that's putting the big-budget newsrooms to shame. At the same time, it's also important to point out that the newsmedia is forgiving its own role in the development of these scandals, and earlier coverage by a more responsible U.S. press might have prevented either outrage from developing, or at least festering so long.

As reported in a 2005 MONITOR report, "the problems of Alberto Gonzales," he had evaded and waffled answers at his confirmation hearings, and most Senate Democrats were hoping to mount a filibuster to block his ascension to Attorney General. It would have been the boldest confrontation of the Bush White House to date, and the Dems needed to show they had strong voter backing to win the close vote. But in the twenty-odd unique newspaper and wire service stories that appeared in the run-up to the Senate decision on Gonzales, not one can be found explaining what the Democrats would hope to gain from such a stunt. Very few even reminded readers about Gonzales' evasions at the hearings just a few weeks earlier. Instead, the reports that mentioned a possible filibuster usually portrayed it as a delaying tactic -- as if bitter Democrats sought only to hassle Bush by dragging out Gonzales' approval. The losing team playing out the clock. As such, they made the Democrats appear crass and the Republicans look good by comparison. The Senate ended by approving Gonzales 60-36, with six fewer "no" votes that Ashcroft got in 2001.

The press failures on the VA scandal are even more damnable. Salon had produced a remarkable investigative story on problems at Walter Reed hospital in 2005, "Behind the walls of Ward 54," which should have drawn widespread media attention, but didn't. Ditto for reports last year from NPR, The Colorado Springs Independent and CBS News about the situation at Fort Carson, Colorado. There, the Army drummed out some soldiers who sought counseling. Once kicked out of the service under misconduct charges, they became ineligible for new, highly-touted VA mental health services.

Why didn't those earlier stories stir up dust? It's easy to speculate that it's because of the change in Congress and vanishing-point administration approval ratings -- that risk-adverse media moguls now feel they have cover to poke sticks at failed Bushian policies. Also likely is the mainstream media's "Colberticity," which we defined in our 2006 Wayward Press Awards as the willingness of the modern press to knowingly ignore the truth when it pleases. Here, it's a pattern of ducking stories that could be off-putting to subscribers and viewers, such as grim, upsetting news about men and women in uniform. That would do more to explain why the New York Times published only a single news story last year that mentioned soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Now that the Washington Post has furrowed ground by making vet mistreatment a safe topic to discuss, maybe they'll run another one this year.   (March 31, 2007)

The Pooh case nears end...or not


The Pooh Files

"Get Eisner Down Here"

Andersen & Co. Worked on Pooh Case During Shredding at Disney

Pooh Audit May Be Tainted By Conflict Of Interest

California Supreme Court Rejects Disney Appeal

Disney Allegedly Had Reporter Fired Over Pooh Coverage

Judge in Pooh Case Orders New Accounting

Disney Says Christopher Robin's Heirs To Retake Pooh Ownership

Disney Lawyers Claimed Pooh Was Public Domain

Disney Loses Appeal On "Massive, Crippling" Damages

Disney Asks Court To Throw Out Pooh Case

  + DISNEY AND THE HONEYPOT     Pop quiz: Who's cute 'n' cuddly, worth many times more than Donald Trump's entire empire, and has armies of lawyers fighting over custody? No, it's not Anna Nicole's daughter -- and points off for watching so much teevee that such an answer comes quick to mind -- it's that loveable "Silly old Bear" Winnie the Pooh, who pulls in $5-something BILLION for Disney every year, according to Forbes. But after 15 years of legal tug o' war over who owns what parts of the bear, lawyers on both sides are bloodied; Disney has lost its bid to completely control valuable U.S. merchandising, and the family who holds Pooh has lost its claims to some of the millions and millions and millions the mouse should owe. Let's update:

Long-time MONITOR subscribers remember our first reports back in 2002 and 2003, starting with "The Pooh Files," which introduced the case. As told in that feature and later reports shown at right, the long, complex story began in 1929, when New York literary agent Stephen Slesinger purchased most U.S. and Canadian rights to Pooh from British children's author A.A. Milne, who had created the beloved bear for his son, Christopher Robin Milne. In a 1932 letter agreement, Milne and Slesinger expanded the original grant of rights to include live television, radio and puppet shows, as well as phonograph records and devices that would be "analagous" to television in the future.

In 1961, the Slesinger family struck a royalty deal with Disney, giving the Magic Kingdom merchandising rights for Pooh stuff. Troubles started within five years, when the widow Slesinger began to find Pooh items on sale at Sears and elsewhere that weren't listed in her royalty reports. The family's lawyers began making lawsuit noises as more and more unlisted Pooh items appeared over the years, and after Disney claimed that videocassettes are motion pictures, for which it was not required to pay the Slesingers. Believing that the corporation was cheating them out of hundred of millions, the family sued in 1991. And then the fun begins.

The case was completely closed to public view -- and watchful eyes of Disney stockholders -- until the judge unsealed court records in 2001. Now it was revealed that Disney was found guilty of "willful suppression of evidence" by destroying at least 40 boxes of documents. The shredding went on for at least four years, and at one point, the judge threatened to have Disney CEO Michael Eisner, brought into court. Besides records from its Hong Kong manufacturing arm that showed how Winnie The Pooh-related products were made, shipped and licensed, an inventory sheet indicated one box had been marked, "Winnie the Pooh, legal problems."

Just months before the 2003 trial was scheduled to start, Disney made a stunning new claim: The Slesingers didn't have any claim on Pooh's honeypot at all -- the granddaughters of A.A. Milne and Pooh artist EH Shepard were suing to reclaim the rights to the characters. And by the way, the grandkids already had a deal with Disney signing over all merchandising rights.

This gambit was viewed as a cynical and desperate move by Disney, which wasn't a plaintiff in the case but was paying the granddaughters' legal fees. Never before had the company claimed that descendants of the original families had overriding rights (although over the years Disney had floated legally-contorted arguments that Pooh was actually public domain). Critics also suggested that Disney was exploiting the late Christopher Robin's severely disabled daughter ("[She] doesn't know the difference between £1,000 or £1,000,000. That's rather nice, don't you think?" her mother told the London Sunday Telegraph in 2001). And in a twist that raised conspiratorial eyebrows, the grandchildren's lawsuit based its legal claim on a provision in the 1998 copyright revisions which were already viewed as special interest legislation for Disney -- the law was derisively dubbed the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act" because it extended copyright of the famous rodent by another 20 years (see Wikipedia).

Even as the granddaughters' suit moved forward, the royalties trial still awaited, and Disney must have dreaded that public spectacle. Perry Mason couldn't have won the case for them; the court had earlier ruled that jurors would be told Disney suppressed evidence and that the Slesingers had been promised royalties on videocassette sales. Also, the exasperated Slesingers began openly talking about moving the Hundred Acre Woods to a competing entertainment megacorp once they won the inevitable victory. "Winnie the Pooh does not need Disney," said Slesinger's daughter and heir following one hearing. "Enough is enough. It's time we went our separate ways."

Then, the most surprising thing happened: in 2004, the new judge assigned to the case threw it out of court. After thirteen years, Disney suddenly won, without ever facing a jury -- and the Slesingers were ordered to pay at least $250,000 in Disney's court costs.

The reason for dismissal was rich in irony. During the mid-1990s -- while Disney in the middle of its epic evidence-destroying spree -- the Slesingers had hired a private investigator to go dumpster diving searching for papers, and juicy stuff was indeed found, including a 1997 Disney contract summary. The judge questioned the Slesingers' claim, however, that all documents came from publicly-available trash bins behind Disney's offices, and that the Slesingers didn't know that the papers were off-limits because they were privileged and confidential.

But all is not woe for the Slesingers. In mid-February, the court dismissed the copyright ownership claim of Shepard's granddaughter, which followed the Milne grandchild losing her case, including a Supreme Court appeal. The family's lawyer says they now plan to ask Disney to pay billions in compensatory and general damages. "It's not over," an attorney for the Slesingers told the LA Times. "There's more to come."   (March 28, 2007)

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