Friday, July 09, 2004

Israel and Media Moguls

While Israel is Missing in Action in Fahrenheit 9/11, I know that Michael Moore has a gut instinct that makes him support the Palestinians in their struggle for liberation, so one day he may want to make a film about either Israel and the Palestinians or the relation among Israel, predominantly Arab states (including especially Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt), and the multinational empire of the United States (and the evolving roles of Britain and France in it in the Middle East). The question is who would finance and distribute such a film. Would any US media mogul? Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, the chief backer of the production of Fahrenheit 9/11, is a liberal mogul who doesn't appear to be much of a player in American political support for Israel, but even he is said to be a benefactor of the rabidly pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League:
In the brouhaha over the Anti-Defamation League's decision to honor Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at a dinner last week, hardly anyone commented on the surprisingly prominent presence of film mogul Harvey Weinstein on the dais.

While Weinstein, the co-chairman of Miramax Films, is a famously large personality —- a staple at all the glitzy film and theater openings in New York —- he has not been a player on Jewish communal or Israel-related issues.

"I haven't seen him being very active in organized Jewish life," said Donna Bojarsky, a political consultant in Los Angeles and New York who advises other celebrities on their involvement with Jewish philanthropies. "He is both philanthropic and very active politically, but he has stuck to the sidelines with Jewish issues."

A dinner honoring Berlusconi, one of Europe's most right-wing leaders, particularly one honoring him for his support of President Bush's Iraq policy, might seem a particularly strange place for Weinstein, a prominent Democratic donor, to debut as a Jewish communal macher —- especially just weeks after the Italian leader made comments sympathetic toward World War II fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. The Miramax founder has played a leading role in several Democratic campaigns in New York, including Hillary Clinton's race for the Senate and Mark Green's failed bid to become mayor two years ago; on the West Coast, Weinstein has put his muscle behind California liberals like Senator Barbara Boxer and gubernatorial candidate Arianna Huffington.

ADL spokeswoman Myrna Shinbaum attributed Weinstein's involvement to his past commitment to the organization. "He's been generally a supporter of the ADL," Shinbaum said. "He's spoken out on what the ADL has done."

But a web of connections —- particularly Weinstein's business ties to the Italian premier —- suggests a different perspective on why the Miramax founder might have chosen the ADL event to make a prominent appearance. Berlusconi owns Medusa Films, Italy's largest movie production and distribution company, a division of his media conglomerate Mediaset.

In his talk at the ADL dinner, Weinstein joked about shooting the Miramax film "Gangs of New York" at the famous Italian studio Cinecitta. Though he did not mention it, Medusa has purchased a number of Miramax films for distribution in Italy and has helped with the financing of Miramax Italian productions such as "Malena."

According to David Rooney of Variety magazine, who wrote from Italy for 12 years, Medusa is far from the only distributor of Miramax films in Italy. But, he said, "it makes good sense to have a good relationship with a good distributor, and in Italy Medusa is the most powerful. They lead the market by a wide margin in terms of production and distribution. They are also one of the leaders of the exhibition sector."

Weinstein did not return calls seeking comment.

Berlusconi's vast business holdings have generated serious questions about conflicts of interest that may arise when a country's main politician is also its main media provider. Through Medusa, a company headed up by Berlusconi's daughter Marina, the Italian leader controls about 25% of the country's film market.

Critics point to the relationship of Medusa and Berlusconi to Italian movie star Roberto Benigni — also a Miramax star — to illustrate what they say is the troubling way in which the Italian leader's business interests appear to serve his political fortunes. Benigni was formerly a leading voice of leftist dissent to Berlusconi. After Medusa recently bought the distribution rights to Benigni's film "Pinocchio," however, the movie star suddenly disappeared from the political scene and went on record commending Berlusconi as an "extraordinary businessman." (Nathaniel Popper, "Movie Mogul Makes Debut as a Macher," The Forward, October 3, 2003)
Imagine what the ADL would say if Moore were to make a potentially popular film critical of Israel, especially with the same cavalier attitudes to empirical facts and logical arguments that he displays in Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore got it easy this time, because Fahrenheit 9/11 -- primarily an anti-Bush film -- got released after the majority of the nation had already turned against George W. Bush: for instance, the Zogby America poll of July 6-7 has Bush (45%) trailing John Kerry (47%) by 2% even when Ralph Nader (whose supporters are 2% of the respondents) gets factored in ("White House 2004: General Election,", July 9. 2004).

The same people who are lionizing Moore today won't be doing so if he makes a similar film about Washington and Tel Aviv. Front groups of the Democratic Party like MoveOn certainly won't be calling on folks to make the film "a huge hit," much less organize house parties featuring a Q&A conference call with Moore.

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