Electric Youth

But the truth was, there was no evidence that Baby Einstein had any educational value. The CCFC made that point in a complaint it filed with the FTC in 2006, accusing Baby Einstein of deceptive advertising. The next year, Disney ceased making the educational claims, and the FTC therefore decided not to make a determination on the merits of the CCFC complaint. While Linn was thrilled that Disney was no longer calling Baby Einstein educational, she believed that the FTC’s decision to simply drop her complaint essentially told corporations that it was okay to lie to parents until you got caught.

With that in mind, Linn contacted lawyers, who sent Disney a letter of intent to sue on behalf of consumers who’d bought the videos during the specific time frame when they were being marketed as educational. (Disney wound up settling, but the terms of that settlement remain confidential.) In September 2009 Disney agreed to offer a full refund to anyone who’d purchased a Baby Einstein video between June 5, 2004, and September 5, 2009. But Linn says the company buried the offer on the Baby Einstein website, and included no explanation as to why the refund was being given in the first place. Linn wanted the public to know why Disney was offering the refund, so she called a reporter at the  New York Times. The paper ran a front-page story in late October 2009, reporting on the refund policy and calling it a “tacit admission that they did not increase infant intellect.” Baby Einstein posted a notice on its website denying any such admission; characterizing the refund as nothing more than business as usual for its customer-satisfaction department; and accusing Linn of waging a “smear campaign” against the company in order to gain publicity and donations.

What Linn never expected, however, was that the critics of her Baby Einstein work would include her own employers. Days after the Times article and the flood of coverage that followed, Linn happened to be in Seattle when she got a frantic phone call from Poussaint. He told her that the Judge Baker center board was furious with both of them. Apparently, he says today, Disney had contacted the center several times to complain.

According to Linn and Poussaint, the board wanted them to stop talking to the press and to tone down their campaigns against corporations. From the perspective of Linn and Poussaint, then, the board was telling the CCFC to quit doing the very thing it existed to do. When they refused, they say, the board told them they were evaluating the future of the CCFC. Poussaint assumed the whole thing would blow over, especially since Judge Baker was gearing up to honor him with its 2010 World of Children Award at a lavish gala scheduled for March. Linn, though, was convinced she was going to lose her job.

Over the course of the next month, as the CCFC waited for its fate to be determined, anything the group wanted to post on its website had to be cleared by Judge Baker, says CCFC associate director Josh Golin. The CCFC was also prevented from giving out its annual award for the worst children’s toy. Finally, in January 2010, Linn was informed that Judge Baker was shutting down her project, and that the group had a month to get out. That was bad enough, but there was even more at stake than just Linn’s and Golin’s jobs. Judge Baker owned the CCFC’s name, materials, and contact list. The very existence of the group was at risk. 

Speculation began to grow in the national media as to why the board acted this way with a project the Judge Baker staff used to brag about to reporters and spotlight in its annual report. Had Disney threatened to sue? Was the Judge Baker board, which features many executives from prominent law and financial firms, simply uncomfortable with the CCFC’s campaigns against big companies? Was Judge Baker concerned that such campaigns could have a chilling effect on corporate donations? All of those questions remain unanswered. Disney didn’t respond to requests for an interview, and all Judge Baker would say in an e-mail was that “its own mission, staff, and infrastructure were not well suited to provide appropriate context for an advocacy program of this nature.”