Remember last month’s story about how Baby Einstein videos were bad for babies? Well it turns out, I missed the boat on the follow-up. One week after the news media had a ball with a University of Washington study that showed videos such as Baby Einstein can inhibit language acquisition in young children, The Walt Disney Company (owners of Baby Einstein Inc.) wrote a pissy letter to the president of UW demanding a retraction of its news release.
The letter was penned by Disney CEO Robert Igar to UW president Mark Emmert.
Dear Dr. Emmert:
On behalf of The Walt Disney Company, and our subsidiary The Baby Einstein Company LLC, I write to demand the immediate retraction and clarification of a misleading, irresponsible and derogatory press statement issued by the University of Washington on Monday, August 6, and thereafter posted on the University’s website, regarding the publication of a study by three University researchers entitled “Associations Between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children Under Age 2 Years.”
This should be fun.
At the outset, let me make clear that we have no quarrel with the notion of conducting research into how infants respond to media products in general or “Baby Einstein” videos in particular. We welcome well conceived and well executed research of all kinds, particularly involving media products and children. We are always seeking to improve our products as we continue The Walt Disney Company’s proud tradition of providing wholesome and enriching experiences to children and families.
Well isn’t that grand. He goes on to say the study’s “methodology is doubtful, its data seem anomalous and the inferences it posits unreliable.” Here’s one thing to consider. The study was published in the highly prestigious journal Pediatrics. That means it was peer-reviewed and that issues such as its methodology and the reliability of its findings were assessed by people who don’t have a billion dollar stake in the findings.
Then there’s a long blah, blah, blah section which I’ll spare you here in which he tries to prove that the study is poor and that the press release issued by the university overstated the results.
Whether your University is comfortable associating its name with analysis of this quality is, of course, your decision. And I would not be reaching out to you if all that was at stake was a poorly done academic study. But the actions of the University have caused much more to be at stake. Wholly apart from the merits of the study, the press release issued by your University blatantly misrepresented what the study was about, distorted the actual findings and conclusions that the study purported to make, and ignored the study’s own explicit acknowledgment of its limitations and shortcomings. And even worse, the University issued the release and triggered the fully foreseeable press cycle before the study itself could be analyzed. In short, the University’s press release was grossly unfair, extremely damaging, and, to be blunt, just plain wrong in every conceivable sense.
That Walt Disney guy must be hanging around too many kids. He sounds like he’s having a temper tantrum.
Following the letter, the two spoke on the phone, according to this article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The conversation was reported to be “cordial and amicable” and Iger did not threaten to sue.
After discussing the matter with the study’s authors and reviewing the disupted press release, Emmert replied in a letter to Igar.
The paper set out to “test the association [italics added] of media exposure with language development in children under age 2 years.” It did not purport to establish a causal relationship, as the authors explicitly state in the article. The authors found a large and statistically significant reduction in vocabulary among infants age 8 to 16 months who viewed baby DVDs or videos, compared to those who did not view them. They also concluded that more research is needed to determine the reasons for this statistical association.
The authors of the study and I believe the news release reflects the essential points made in the research publication. The news release clearly is not intended to substitute for a reading of the research paper, which was made available to all the reporters who contacted our news office. The news release briefly summarizes the methodology of the study and includes the researchers’ interpretations of the findings, something in which most news media are interested and one of the reasons for issuing the release. The researchers find no inconsistencies between the content of the news release and their paper. They believe the release accurately reflects the paper’s conclusions and their commentary. For these reasons, the University of Washington will not retract its news release.
I guess all that heavy-handed bullying didn’t really get Disney anywhere. Except that now all of us parents know that Disney really doesn’t care if Baby Einstein videos might make our children stupider instead of smarter. I think this is an interesting view behind the curtain. Giant corporations act like they can just roll over academic institutions and government regulators. But in the end, what matters is whether or not consumers believe in their image. And after seeing this letter, Disney isn’t quite as wholesome anymore.