“Our Age of Anxiety’ is, in great part, a result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools – with yesterday’s concepts.
“AII I know is what I read in the papers.” This old joke is grossly underestimated. Lines between tabloid journalism. hard news and entertainment are so vague these days there’s a remark able opportunity to influence perception. Publicity is free advertising worth it’s weight in gold. When people look at an advertisement they know there’s an attempt to “sell” them. But, when they read an article or listen to an interview on radio or television their guard is down and they soak it right up as valid information-regardless of whether they regard it as truth or fiction. Even in today’s information overload the saturation level has yet to be reached but Hollywood press agents coined the phrase “any publicity is good publicity” long before today’s media glut. Americans today are also more opinionated than ever before with way too many problems and causes to care for any they can’t personally relate to.
This is why I say God Bless individuals like Ellen Stohl. Ellen opened a media door and walked confidently through before there was even a window as the first disabled woman to pose nude in Playboy and follow with a sex video for the Playboy channel. Though our tastes differ and I would have walked through that door differently, I enthusiastically applaud her accomplishments, I was, however, disappointed by her interview with Howard Stern last year.
“Scary” that “people don’t talk about sex and disability,” she says? So talk! “The stereotypes are the reason I came on here…” she told Howard when he wanted to dish about sex. When people look beyond the stereotype and find stereotypical whining about stereotypes, they’re not likely to look again. When Howard interrupted Ellen’s speech with: “All right, let me get back in the bedroom…” I would have loved to hear something more along the lines of a playful: “Why bother with the bedroom Howard? I can reduce you to a whimper with the best you ever had right here in the studio.” Give the shock jock a taste of his own medicine. That’s what Stern’s listeners tune in for. Meet them on their own turf and hit them where they live by speaking their language. Share their passion and they will be far more likely to share yours.
But Ellen persisted with her stereotype speech until Howard finally interrupted, “OK, we got the message, sometimes you beat people over the head.” Ellen replied,, “People don’t hear it.” Both are absolutely right. They don’t hear it precisely because they’re being beat over the head. The problem with being right is that it makes others. wrong, and nobody likes to be made. wrong; they would much rather dis cover that for themselves. Making others wrong only makes them. defensive, so the very wall we’re trying to break down is reinforced.
Howard Stern makes a living exploiting stereotypes. Why should Ellen Stohl be any different? Ellen has done a wonderful job of establishing a universal common denominator: sex. That’s what got her on the show and provided her with an invaluable opportunity to enlighten people.
The old adage, “Show Don’t Tell,” is even more valuable in breaking stereotypes than it is in advertising, publicity or any other influential venture. The most effective way to break stereo-types is to offer as many different types as examples to as many people as possible. As a publicist I’ve learned those the most successful publicists are those who think like journalists. This is especially important for these of us trying to educate the public to remember, Know your audience!
The vast difference between the interests and receptivity of a lecture audience and media consumers can not be overestimated Our purpose should not be to educate people about stereotypes but to break them. Talking about stereotypes is not breaking them. Help people to feel comfortable enough to expand their perceptions by spotlighting the solution of overlooked similarities, not the problem of obvious differences This is not denial. This is compassion: shared passion. Every precious second counts in the media, so why waste time? You’re there-Show Time! Forget stereotypes and move on to Phase II-Be the Change
Jim McCawley, head talent coordinator and co-producer of “The Tonight Show for 15 years remembers, “One of the most successful new comedians that came on “The Tonight Show” was Brett Leake. whose disability was immediately apparent to the audience. He opened with: I want to tell you a little bit about myself. I have a disability I’m terrible at math. Huge roar of laugh ter. The rest of his jokes were terrifically clever, insightful, funny, had nothing to do with his physical condition and a career was launched That kind of approach is the most exciting because an audience wants to feel that physical differences are unimportant.” McCawley adds, “There have been a number of comedians who have auditioned for me over the years that I wasn’t able to use because they tended to dwell on what I call wheelchair jokes, and u little of that goes a very long way I simply isn’t a broad enough point of sig to be won six minutes of national television air time. You must forget that. It’s like the body is this car we drive around. If you’ve got a car with two missing tires but still gets you there, you get there, you get out of the car and you’re as interesting or as uninteresting as you would be with or without the car.”
Leake has returned to “The Tonight Show” three times since McCawley discovered him, he per forms on the road 275 days a year. and has opened for such top comedians as: Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Paula Poundstone. Rita Rudner and Kevin Meaney. Jerry Seinfeld said of Leake on “Entertainment Tonight”, “He’s funny. There’s a great common denominator in the comedy industry. Funny is funny and that’s it.” And, perhaps the most unwittingly profound statement on Leake’s contribution to public perception of disability came from the Orange County Register, “As with Seinfeld, the weight of what he does isn’t in the subject, but in the process applied to it.”
A fresh new example of this more progressive process is Maria Serrao who has just returned from publicizing her exercise videos Everyone Can Exercise and Cardio Challenge. “My goal is to get beyond the disability, not dwell on it. My wheelchair is the first thing people see and it’s the first thing they forget.” Maria’s recent all expenses paid publicity tour included People magazine, “Good Morning America,” “Alive And Wellness,” “Susan Powter,” “Mike and Maty,” “Entertainment Tonight,” “Extra, “Tom Snyder,” CNN, CNBC and over 15 Canadian radio and television outlets. “Everyone has problems and limitations of one form or other, but who cares? Sure, there’s a stigma attached to being in a wheel chair, but I’m out there to promote products.”
Offering an even more broad based, international appeal is self contained actor, Mitch Longley, dis covered by chic photographer Bruce Weber in 1991. “When Ralph Lauren chose my picture over thousands of others to use in the Polo ad he didn’t even know I was in a wheelchair so when he was asked to receive awards, which would have included publicity for hiring the handicapped. Ralph and I agreed it made a more powerful statement by not blowing it out of proportion.” The longevity of Mitch’s success confirms the integrity and cool sophistication of his less is more approach. After the full page Polo ad was released in Vanity Fair. Gentlemen’s Quarterly, Esquire, Elle and other print outlets worldwide Mitch landed a decidedly unstereotypical role as the tennis-playing attorney in over 40 episodes of NBC soap opera “Another World, and found himself reluctantly fielding publicity offers from all over the world. He intelligently chose to do tasteful features in People, Elle and TV Guide magazines, he did a second Ralph Lauren shoot and his acting career still flourishes with a guest star ring role on the syndicated television series “Vanishing Son.” Not only was Longley’s “Vanishing Si” role not written for a disabled actor, but he’s referred to in the script not as having a disability but as “that white boy.” Longley also authored an article published with photographs in Men’s Fitness magazine which gained exposure for Sowoho (Spirit of the Wounded Horse), his non-profit organization which benefits Native Americans with disabilities.
Jean Driscol five time consecutive Boston Marathon winner whose photo recently graced the cover of the Boston Globe. sports section has seen improvement; “Coverage has gotten better. So has the nature of the stories. For the most part, they’re very sports-oriented, not dis ability-oriented.” But Jean still relates to the problem of interviewers wanting to focus on her disability. “I’ve given plenty of interviews where all the writer picks up on is ‘she was born with spinal bifida, and isn’t it wonderful what she’s doing now. I hate that stuff!” Thankfully, when Jean appeared on “Tom Snyder” her: athletic accomplishments were the sole content of the interview. This is a welcome departure from coverage of the disabled to coverage of an athlete with a disability.
Seemingly annoying questions, however, are opportunities to clarify common misconceptions. Curiosity must be satisfied to clear the air and avoid distraction but it’s equally important not to be steamrolled by a journalist’s preconceived notions of what they assume a story should be. Tragedy adds to people’s fears and discomfort, not to mention guilt. Guilt is always followed by separation, if not resentment, on some level.
Actor/athlete Jim Knaub, a top ranked pole vaulting competitor before his injury who has been in the media since 1978. prefers his recent mainstream media coverage to the considerable attention he’s received as an elite wheelchair athlete; “I’m much more proud of my tiny little article in the back of Street Rodder magazine than I am of all the Sports ‘N Spokes covers. I’m there because of my vintage car restoration, not because of the wheelchair.” Of his recent profile for NBC’s “Dateline” Jim reports. “They kept trying to pull things out of me they assumed to be true, but weren’t-the tearfully distraught broken athlete and all that.” But Jim cleverly points out; “There has to be a balance, I get media attention because of my disability, so to downplay it wouldn’t be right. You have to kind of throw ’em some appetizers so they’ll savor the main course.” On the other side of tragedy is hero worship, which is just as much a separation from the mainstream. Andy Houghton, a Los Angeles based medical research representative has received a lot of unexpected media attention for his sports camp. “One guy from ABC picked up my story from the AP and said he wanted to ‘show everyone what heroes you guys are so I set him straight; “You’re not a hero because you play tennis or ride a bike. We’re just enjoying life like everyone else.” This is simply what the media, along with everyone else, is accustomed to seeing. People learn by association and the power of association is very strong. Better to enlighten with compassion than point an accusatory finger.
Emmy and Peabody Award winning journalist John Hockenberry, who does more adventure journalism from his wheelchair than most reporters do in their wildest day dreams, has unique insight into both sides of the media game. In his highly acclaimed auto-biography Moving Violations Hockenberry writes: “The disability experience for the media is part Frank Capra, part Vincent Price, with nothing but the occasional Vietnam movie in between. The assumption that disability is a separate category independent of other news, or that disability right’s stories, by themselves, reveal anything of the people they claim to be about. are two equal and opposite fallacies. They would have us believe that the experiences of the disabled are not universal, and that people with dis abilities have little or no life outside their struggles and strangeness.”
Hockenberry’s own Moving Violations publicity tour included; “Good Morning America,” “Tom Snyder,” “CNBC,” CSPAN’s “Book Notes,” “The Charlie Rose Show,” “Fresh Air,” NPR’s “The Terry Gross Show,” “Weekend Edition” and interviews and book reviews in both “Los Angeles Times” and “New York Times”. When asked about the prospect of influencing perceptions through the media, Hockenberry agrees that the message is in the work, not in the speech. “Often I think that disabled people bring their triumph over adversity story to the table and it’s not just the media demanding that that be the case… you may get some notoriety, but because you end up reinforcing the prevailing stereotype you get lost. you don’t standout, you’re just sort of part of the whole triumph over adversity industry. It really helps if the work that you’ve done deliberately clashes with the prevailing stereotype. If that’s happening then I think it’s a story and people are going to respond.”
Still, none of these folks have been confronted with the likes of Howard Stern: the rude, crude shock-jock blurting out the reality of taciturn, indolent perceptions that lifestyle, sports or even hard news journalists wouldn’t dare broach. This is exactly what made Ellen Stohl’s opportunity to clarity mis conceptions in a jocular context so unique and that much more valuable. Ellen’s interview with Howard Stern reminds us that equal opportunity is not special privilege, nor should it be, and the confusion between the two only makes true equal opportunity that much more difficult to achieve. Hopefully, this more main stream approach is where more individuals with disabilities are headed so it will be increasingly important to focus on a newsworthy hook. aside from disability. This is what will break stereotypes and influence public perception.
Ellen broke new ground and stepped into the future on Howard Stern with no peers or role models. Unfortunately, she seems to have underestimated her own leap forward and lacked adequate preparation to most effectively utilize a unique and powerful tool.
When asked if given a second chance, she would handle the Stern interview differently Ellen respond ed: “I thought the Stern interview went incredibly well…. I felt it was important to educate people about where stereotypes come from. Once they realize why they think the way they do they’re more apt to change.” Maybe, maybe not. I still say out with the old, in with the new. Focus on the positive and let the negative die its own quiet death. Anyone open enough to care about where stereotypes come from will be easy to influence, but for the majority of the general population it’s important to honor their own process of self-discovery and not to interrupt it. Admonishment, however intelligent. too often adds to separation on some level. It’s easy to change minds during a verbal showdown, but the gut feelings one walks away with are something else entirely.
Another elegant example of the more powerful process of self-discovery is Bree Walker: Los Angeles based television news anchor woman and talk show host with a congenital hand deformity. Although Bree functions efficiently with her own hands, when she first began her career in television, she offered to wear prosthetic gloves on the air for esthetic purposes which rendered her own hands less useful but, in time, studio executives agreed to allow her to appear on the air without the gloves. Bree’s inner strength and gracious compassion allowed her to set an important precedent and created a fertile ground for the open minds of her employers and over one-half million viewers to redefine future perceived limitations.
Today, as an accomplished TV journalist using her own “unconventional” hands Bree notes that times have changed. “People are sick of being beat over the head with political correctness. I’ve softened my approach and that simply was a result of seeing that the other didn’t get me anywhere. The more strident you are the less likely you are to have a willing audience for the good that could be done.” But Bree remains a strong advocate for the use of affirming language in the media: “I think words like ‘cripple’ and ‘wheelchair bound’ devalue people and it’s important to use words that connote ability rather than limitation.”
Jim Lampley, Emmy Award winning NBC and HBO sports cast er married to Bree Walker agrees that individuals with disabilities might gain more positive portrayal in the media: “If professional publicists can take the time and effort to educate media types to greater awareness.” Lampley believes that sports are an opportunity to put a positive spin on disability because; “It’s easy for the world to identify with what a sporting pursuit is all about. It’s about doing something that’s physical, that challenges you in body, and to a certain degree, mind and spirit.” But, he cautions that; “Sports is a world of fantasy and vicarious thrill. Only the most idealistic among us, and the most high minded among us get a vicarious thrill out of athletes with disabilities. We have to have a certain empathy for that to happen. If the goal is to reach the converted, to deal with people who’s viewpoint is already enlightened that’s one thing, but if you don’t leave yourself open to that quality of inspiration it will slow down the process of interface. Newsrooms are places where people have to make very quick decisions by relying on the simple primal elements that they’re accustomed to dealing with, and that means stereotypes.”
Perhaps this is why Jim Knaub speaks with the downtrodden resignation of a worn-out veteran on the prospect of influencing perceptions through the media. “It will take 100 times longer for people with disabilities to make progress than it did for, say, African Americans. There’s no cohesive whole working toward a common goal.” I disagree. One’s circumstances can change tomorrow but one’s race cannot and people are much more readily able to relate to an individual. When people look at a group there’s a natural tendency to view the group in terms of what defines the group as a group, which is precisely what separates the average individual from the group. The same dynamic holds true, albeit to a lesser extent, with group spokes-per sons. This is how divisive “we/them” perceptions and stereo types are developed in the first place. Diversity is exactly what will work in favor of breaking stereo types. Individuals in the media presented as such will have a much greater potential to make a difference. One person in a wheelchair is a person in a wheelchair, two or more becomes “the handicapped.”
To those “in your face” advocates who might accuse the aforementioned media darlings of promoting images too “able-bodied” for their tastes, I ask them to remember that if someone is afraid of snakes you don’t hand over a boa constrictor then chastise the poor sap for fleeing in horror. Start with a garden snake and graduate up from there. Right, wrong or indifferent; until society has begun to embrace individuals more recognizable as not intrinsically dissimilar from themselves they’ll never be able to warm up to the abrasive types. This is compassion we would all do well to offer each other as human beings regardless of ability. After all, every issue comes back to choice between expansion or limitation.
Steven Ainsley, publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press and other New York Times Co. newspapers, also agrees there is opportunity for increased coverage of individuals with physical disabilities in the news media but discourages ideas individuals may have of any “special exclusionary status” as media outlets are “a reflection of the community. Those of us in the information business need to realistically portray the immunities we serve.” How might individuals with disabilities most effectively dispel old myths and mis conceptions through the media? Come to us with stories disengaged from disability. Give us the opportunity to show our readers that people with disabilities have lives like everyone else. We need help to see through disability and it’s time to start the process,”
Richard Licata, Senior Vice President of Publicity and Public Relations at Fox Broadcasting, well knows the power of the media when influencing public perception. “Any person who’s represented by or in the media for whatever reason achieves an almost instant icon status. This phenomenon is partially responsible for the public’s perception of a disabled person as being a message bearer or representative of disability rather than as an individual with a gift, talent or any other reason beyond the physical arena. When media exposure is not limited to the physical challenges of the individual but expands to focus on their accomplishments the media. will then have an expanding perception of all people.”
One thing is certain, change in public perception will not be implemented by a handful of individuals, but by many. This will never happen without effective communication, with, and through the media so I strongly encourage all media seekers to be yourselves but consciously know your audience, show don’t tell, and save the lectures for Sally Jessie Raphael or you will unwittingly close more doors than you open.
Patti Shanaberg has over ten years experience in the entertainment media relations industry and is President of Global Image Communications