Did Disney Threaten a Children’s Mental-Health Center? Read Between the Lines.

I tend to think the Baby Einstein enterprise isn’t directly harmful to children if the videos are used in moderation, but in yesterday’s New York Times there was a chilling article about how Baby Einstein’s corporate parent—the Walt Disney Co.—may be indirectly harming some very vulnerable kids. According to the article, Disney seems to have pressured a children’s mental-health center into evicting the advocacy group that has most publicly (and successfully) fought Baby Einstein’s claims of being educationally enriching.

For a few days last fall, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood celebrated a big victory: the tiny advocacy group had successfully pushed the Walt Disney Company to offer full refunds to everyone who had bought the company’s popular Baby Einstein videos from June 2004 to September 2009. But it did not take long for trouble to follow. Campaign staffers say they were forced out [of their home at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston] after Disney made contact with health-center officials. Campaign officials said they were contacted by Judge Baker officials expressing unhappiness with the group’s activities. Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, the psychiatrist who directs the Media Center at the Judge Baker center and oversaw the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), and Susan Linn, the campaign’s director, said center officials had told them that Disney contacted them three times.

Let me just state my conflict of interest here: I have great affection for the Judge Baker center, which provides many valuable services unrelated to the CCFC’s anti-corporate advocacy. A few years ago, I profiled a child who’d been diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder. Max Blake was a student at Judge Baker’s school for kids with mental illnesses, and by all appearances the place was doing wonders for him. He had developed remarkable social skills during his time at the school. His teachers knew him well (the student-teacher ratio was eight to three) and were acutely sensitive to his needs. Clearly, Judge Baker cared about kids.

The center also really cared about the CCFC, even though the campaign was only a small part of its operations. (The center had 191 employees and a $14.7 million budget; only two employees and $305,000 of that went to the CCFC.) My story about Max had nothing to do with the CCFC. But the Judge Baker PR people mentioned Susan Linn’s work to me repeatedly with great pride. They sent me her newest book, describing her as an expert with “a wealth of experience and advice," and set up an interview with her. She was clearly not someone they were looking to fire. Neither was Poussaint—the center had been planning to honor him at an $80,000 gala this weekend. (Obviously, it’s been canceled.)

In short, the people at Judge Baker are not bad guys or corporate stooges, and until now they’ve been hugely supportive of the CCFC. So what happened here? I spoke with Karen Schwartzman, who’s handling the PR on this for Judge Baker. She said she couldn’t say much directly about the conflict between CCFC and Disney because as part of the settlement over the Baby Einstein refund, “there was an agreement to which the parties were required to not comment.”

But she did explain why Judge Baker decided the CCFC needed to move out, and—well, I'll just let her say it: “The issue was that the campaign was targeting specific corporations that have seemingly endless resources, very deep pockets, and all the ability in the world to initiate litigation in retaliation for activity that they feel is targeting them. ... The board of the Judge Baker center did not know about the Disney activity until 18 months after it began. All of a sudden they found themselves in this position where members of their staff were heavily involved in a matter targeting a particular corporation, helping to organize plaintiffs and identify legal counsel, all without oversight by the board. As soon as they understood how involved the program staff was in legal activity targeting a major corporation and the risks that would ensue to the entire Judge Baker center, they immediately began to have conversations about the importance of separating the campaign from the center—because there’s no isolating the Baker center from any litigation or legal action. There was a need to protect the entire institution.”

In other words, if Disney were to threaten the CCFC with a costly lawsuit, the rest of the services the Baker Center provides would also be in jeopardy.

The center has dropped similar hints before. In February, it sent out a letter to donors expressing its “profound regret” at finding itself in “this difficult position.” You can read between the lines of the letter pretty easily:

We believe the CCFC has been very effective in slowing the pace at which some corporations have pursued advertising campaigns that prey on the vulnerabilities of children. It is the methods used by CCFC, some of which have the potential to utilize litigation to achieve this success—in tandem with the shifting focus of the Judge Baker Children’s Center—that has led to the current difference of views … As CCFC has continued to expand the scope of its aggressive advocacy, the costs and risks associated with this activity are no longer costs and risks that the Baker is in a position to assume, especially given that this type of advocacy is not at the heart of its work.

If you’re a hardline activist against Disney, maybe you can view this as weak: the Baker Center ought to stand up to the big bad corporation! That’s essentially what Patti Hartigan, a well-known Boston writer, is saying about the kerfuffle: “Advocates for early childhood are fuming about this report in today’s Times ... It is bizarre that a center that prides itself in research and treatment for children’s mental health issues would capitulate to pressure from Hollywood ... I have a feeling the phones are ringing off the hook at the Judge Baker Center, and many people are withdrawing their support.”

But I cannot imagine a worse thing for children’s advocates to do than to punish the Baker Center and its constituents like this. If the center did capitulate to “pressure from Hollywood,” it did so because it wanted to protect the kids it directly serves. People who withdraw their support are hurting those same kids—and they're not affecting Disney at all.