Chapek’s Purge & The WaPo Aftermath

Bob Chapek
Disney CEO Bob Chapek. Photo: Jeff Gritchen/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
June 10, 2022

On Thursday, minutes after news broke that Disney entertainment chief Peter Rice had been abruptly and unceremoniously fired, setting off an earthquake across Hollywood and igniting rampant speculation about the mysterious and irregular circumstances of his ouster, Disney C.E.O. Bob Chapek summoned Rice’s direct reports onto a phone call. When the headlines first hit the wire, most Disney executives had no idea what had just happened, or why. Many of them had been in meetings with Chapek and Rice in recent days, and had no reason to believe that anything was amiss. And indeed, as they would later learn, even Rice was shocked when he was invited to Chapek’s office earlier this week and told, in a meeting that lasted less than ten minutes, that he was being forced out of a company that some believed he might one day run.

Chapek was direct and unsentimental on Thursday’s call, sources who participated in the meeting said. He told Rice’s direct reports: “I’ve made a decision, and Peter is leaving the company.” Rice’s unit, Disney General Entertainment, needed “a more collaborative leader,” Chapek said, and someone who could better align the division with the rest of the organization. That leader would now be Dana Walden, Rice’s deputy and the chair of entertainment at Disney Television. The executives on the call, still shocked and perplexed by the news, did not ask any follow-up questions.

And yet, more than 24 hours after Rice’s dramatic defenestration, questions persist: Most notably, what was it about Rice—a widely respected and accomplished executive—that did not align with Chapek’s vision? Yes, Rice had been brought up under the wing of Rupert Murdoch at Fox, where the culture was a little more cutthroat, and sharp-elbowed. And yes, he was notably reserved and ran D.G.E. as a fiefdom. But he was also a fantastic performer, who had racked up several wins across Disney’s myriad television properties, and got along well enough with his fellow executives. And if he was really so uncooperative, why had Chapek re-signed him to a three-year contract last summer?

In their meeting, Chapek told Rice that he didn’t fit with Disney’s culture, sources familiar with the matter said. Rice asked his boss to explain further, but the Disney C.E.O. refused to elaborate, saying: “Now is not the time.” If ever there is a time for Chapek to explain his decision, perhaps we will learn more. But until then, matters of corporate culture aside, the best available evidence suggests that Rice did not fit in with Chapek—and that Chapek, an already embattled C.E.O. with a tenuous grip on power in the wake of multiple controversies, viewed Rice as disloyal, as a potential threat to his control of the company, and, ultimately, as an unnecessary layer on the org chart.

There are at least two specific things, beyond Rice’s autonomous leadership style, that particularly rankled Chapek, I’m told. The first is that he met with Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav, and at one point interviewed for a top content job at W.B.D., as first reported by CNBC’s Alex Sherman and confirmed to me by sources familiar with their discussions. The talks never went far, in part because Zaslav, with his well-known aversion to corporate layers, had no desire to give Rice the sort of Kilar-esque job he would have actually wanted, partly because Zaz wanted to manage those division heads, himself. The second transgression was Rice’s thinly veiled frustration with the corporate restructuring that stripped him of his P&L and put the power of the purse in the hands of content distribution chief Kareem Daniel, now the second most powerful person at Disney.

Still, Chapek’s motivation for firing Rice goes well beyond mere annoyance over his ambitions. As my Puck colleague Matt Belloni noted this week, Chapek is operating from a position of immense insecurity. He inherited his job from Bob Iger, one of the most illustrious media executives of the modern era, and was then beset by slowing Disney+ growth, a brutal stock market, and several scandals and controversies largely of his own making—including the ScarJo blowup and the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” debacle. In the wake of Rice’s firing, Disney’s board chair Susan Arnold was quick to announce, unsolicited, that Chapek had “the support and confidence of the Board,” a statement that of course had the opposite of the intended effect. As Belloni also noted, the board could have simply announced that it was renewing Chapek’s contract, which as of now expires in eight months.

Fairly or unfairly, an insecure Chapek had come to believe that Rice was actively working to undermine him. For all the respect that Rice commands inside Disney and across Hollywood, it’s also true that many of his colleagues see him as something of a cipher, and in some cases suspect him of using reporters and agents and talent to maneuver his own ambitions. Chapek apparently shared that paranoia, and may have even thought he’d seen Rice’s hand in many of the “Will Chapek Survive?” stories that followed Florida. Rice, surely, would dispute that characterization. Belloni writes that if Rice ever called a journalist who didn’t work for him, it was to try to keep his name out of a story, not to get himself credit.

Whatever Chapek’s vulnerabilities, however, it’s important to remember that Rice himself was just as vulnerable because Walden, one of the most beloved creative executives in the television business, with incredibly strong talent relationships and a litany of successes at Fox and then Disney, was working under him. In addition to suspecting Rice of foul play, Chapek may have also believed that Walden was responsible for much of D.G.E.’s success. In the end, Chapek may have concluded that Dana was the real star and talent in that division, and that Rice, in addition to being untrustworthy, wasn’t wholly necessary—especially in a world where Daniel managed the purse.

Whatever the case, Rice will be fine, and no doubt land elsewhere in a job of immense influence. Certainly, he knows his worth. In the wake of his ouster, Rice told some of his direct reports that he was the one who insisted that the media headlines note he had been fired—not stepping down, not going off to pursue other opportunities, but fired. Certainly Rice, unlike Chapek, seems anything but insecure.

The Lorenz Fallout

Meanwhile, back in the nation’s capital, The Washington Post has finally decided to fire Felicia Sonmez, the polarizing reporter who had been relentlessly tweeting criticism of the paper’s leadership and her colleagues while advocating on behalf of sexual abuse victims and calling for greater fairness in the workplace. As I reported earlier this week, Sonmez’s Twitter activity had angered Post management and staff—most intensely, perhaps, publisher and C.E.O. Fred Ryan—who felt that her attacks on colleagues and public airing of grievances was damaging the paper’s reputation. For days, Ryan had been adamant that Sonmez be fired. Finally, on Thursday, the Post’s chief human resources officer informed Sonmez that she was being terminated “for misconduct that includes insubordination, maligning your co-workers online and violating The Post’s standards on workplace collegiality and inclusivity.” Sonmez did not respond to requests for an interview.

Sonmez’s termination will give the Post at least a temporary reprieve from internecine Twitter spats among staff, but other newsroom dramas continue to play out in public view. As I noted earlier this week, Post journalist Taylor Lorenz was involved in a controversy last week after one of her articles incorrectly stated that she had reached out to two YouTube influencers for comment. As Lorenz would explain in a subsequent tweet thread, the error was actually due to a miscommunication with her unnamed editor, who had mistakenly inserted the line without Lorenz’s knowledge. This explanation, while factually accurate and even approved by the Post’s P.R. department, led some of Lorenz’s own colleagues to conclude that she had thrown her editor under the bus. One among them was Post media critic Erik Wemple, who wrote an entire column about it titled, “Taylor Lorenz said an editor was to blame. Is that okay?”

It turns out the editor in question, now publicly identified as David Malitz, a widely beloved Post veteran, had earlier this month been tentatively offered a promotion to be editor of Post Style, sources familiar with the matter told me. That offer was rescinded this week in the wake of the Lorenz fracas, I’m told, after executive editor Sally Buzbee concluded that Malitz was not yet ready to take on that level of responsibility. In a call with Post features staff on Thursday, first reported by Wemple, Buzbee did not deny this but said that Malitz was in no way punished for his mistake. Nevertheless, the setback to Malitz’s career has inspired a fair amount of anger toward Lorenz—which is somewhat perplexing in light of the fact that, again, the Post knows the backstory and approved Lorenz’s tweets.

Whatever Post staffers think about the Lorenz drama—or the Sonmez drama, for that matter—it’s clear that the institution is suffering from an inability to manage controversy and keep itself out of the headlines. Surely that does not please Ryan, who, as I have reported, is incredibly preoccupied with figuring out how the Post can stop its own employees from damaging the company’s credibility. I imagine it is also fast becoming at least a minor annoyance for the paper’s owner, Jeff Bezos.

In my reporting earlier this week, I mentioned that Bezos and his partner Lauren Sanchez had voiced some frustrations with social media during a series of dinners last Spring with the finalists for the Post executive editor position. I’ve since been told about some other things Bezos discussed: First, that he was extremely interested in expanding the Post’s influence, domestically and globally; and second, that he hoped the Post could be a force for toning down partisan rhetoric, fostering greater tolerance for diverse political views, and moving America past the era of cancel culture. It is somewhat harder for the Post’s leadership to focus on either of those goals if it’s repeatedly being forced to put out fires in its own newsroom.