Opinion
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Disney CEO Bob Iger Again Shows Moral Leadership With Roseanne Fiasco

Yale SOM’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld writes that CEO Bob Iger did the right thing by swiftly cancelling the highly rated show.


This commentary originally appeared in Chief Executive.

Disney CEO Bob Iger once again did the right thing and did not hesitate a moment in showing moral leadership this week. He cancelled a successful ABC TV sitcom (the show had risen to number one) when its star exploded with a cruel racial tirade.

In a bizarre, unambiguous racist rant on Twitter, actress Roseanne Barr posted an unprovoked and hostile tweet about President Obama’s former top advisor Valerie Jarrett, who is black. Barr stated that if (sic) “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.”

Later apologizing and saying it was just a joke, Barr deleted the post. Of course, Bob Iger moved swiftly just as he did last summer. Then, he was the very first CEO to stand behind Merck CEO Ken Frazier, who resigned from President Trump’s business advisory council when Trump failed to unequivocally condemn racial violence in Charlottesville, leading to the murder of a peaceful young woman protester.

Some will say Iger had no choice, given the corrosive impact on show’s audiences, advertisers, and cast. But there are some media figures who continue to get this wrong as we normalize racism and social divides.

There was no humor here from the beginning. Barr’s bigoted character on and off-screen should not be confused the social satire and self-mocking of Archie Bunker of the 1960s, with a sweet harmonious epilogue of learned tolerance. This was not the breakthrough of the film In the Heat of the Night, in which Sparta, Mississippi, police chief Bill Gillespie learned to overcome racial bigotry to accept Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs as a partner.

There is no acceptable commercially driven apology, which washes away such bigotry. Let’s hope Barr is not picked up by a rival. Her comebacks should come to an end. Perhaps she could entertain fellow fallen bigots like Don Sterling, Mel Gibson, Paula Deen, and Michael Richards, who have all left the public stage.

How cruel of Barr to write this on a day where the body of black 39-year-old Air Force veteran and National Guardsman Eddison Hermond was found in flood waters?  Leaving a party at an Ellicott City, Maryland, restaurant, he dropped everything to help people in distress, regardless of race. He was last seen whisked through the roaring waves in the streets toward a raging river.

There is quite a bit of irony that this Roseanne cancellation happened on the day Starbucks shut down to nurture racial sensitivity. This is a move that cost the company more than $12 million.

[Former Johnson & Johnson CEO] Jim Burke told me after he removed all Tylenol from the shelves because of a few poisoned tablets: “Institutional trust is the most powerful tool you can possibly have. It is real, palpable, and bankable.”

It did not matter that Barr’s show was a ratings hit for ABC. The network did not try to hide between the idea of saving cast jobs. As Bob Iger said himself clearly said: “There is no debate on the right moral position” in the world of Disney.

Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management