Activists Challenge CBS' Erasure of
The strange case of the disappearing slur -- "Now you see it, now you don't" on CBS Sunday Morning.
Contact: Harriet McBryde Johnson
171 Church St, Suite 160
Charleston SC 29401
For immediate release: 8/28/01--
In a May 20 CBS interview, MDA telethon host Jerry Lewis was asked about those who consider him "patronizing," Lewis told correspondent Martha Teichner, "I'm telling about a child in trouble. If it's pity, we'll get some money. You don't want to be pitied for being a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house."
People could hardly believe their ears. Those who checked the CBS website found a sanitized version of the quote, the last two sentences omitted. But Laura Hershey, a longtime leader of the telethon opposition in Denver, got a video tape and within 48 hours had an audio clip of the quote readily available on her web site, www.cripcommentary.com/LewisVsDisabilityRights.html .
Many took advantage of links on Hershey's website to comment to MDA and to CBS. Ten days after the show aired, MDA and Lewis issued an apology -- their first ever. Reports on the apology emphasized the word "cripple," but Hershey and others objected most vehemently to the notion that people with disabilities have to put up with pity or stay in the house.
Another protest organizer, Harriet Johnson of Charleston, SC, had a note hand-delivered to Teichner, who was in town for the Spoleto festival. "I was distressed that Teichner, whose work I respect, glossed over the bigotry in Lewis' comments, to glide into the stats on how much money he has raised, as though that justifies it. If an interview elicited a comment like that about African Americans or women, I can't imagine CBS Sunday Morning or Teichner handling it that way." Teichner called Johnson and explained that the piece was about "Jerry Lewis, what makes him tick." She said the telethon is part of his life and the quote helped reveal his character. Johnson agreed, but objected to the way the quote was presented. She emphasized that any coverage of the apology should get the disability rights point of view straight. At Teichner's suggestion, she sent a Fax to Rand Morrison, the show's producer. The criticism was was eventually noted -- and dismissed -- in the show's "mail" segment.
Over the summer, organizers planned Labor Day protests in cities all over the US, many using the theme, "We're not staying in our houses." By confirming that pity is how the telethon works and reviving the image of disabled people as being shut in and shut out, the comment proved an effective organizing tool. MDA was reduced to issuing a press release focusing on Lewis' failing health. "MDA's PR machine is expert at mobilizing and exploiting pity," says Johnson. "Now it seems they want to use it to extricate themselves from a sticky situation."
On August 26, one week before the 2001 telethon was scheduled to begin, the CBS profile was reaired. The shocking quote was gone. Its place was a new quote, "You know who criticizes me...? People that never gave a nickel..." The next day, Johnson telephoned CBS Sunday Morning. A staff person who refused to give her last name or title said the change had been made because the segment was about the "hard-working comedian," not the telethon. Gone was the revealing quote that Teichner said was important because it helped show "what makes him tick."
Says Johnson, "If CBS Sunday Morning deliberately set out to undercut the protest, they could hardly have done a better job. We have already announced events for Labor Day, centered on the Teichner interview. Those who saw the re-run will think we're lying, that Lewis said no such thing. Maybe this is a clumsy effort to avoid controversy, but it's also possible that CBS has taken sides with Lewis and MDA and against those of us who are trying to fight disability bigotry."
Despite the public anmesia the re-run may induce, protests will go forward in over a dozen cities. The original quote remains available at Hershey's web site. Accurate transcripts of both versions are also posted at the web site, or are available through Burrelle's Information Services, on LEXIS.
Compare CBS' two different versions of Lewis' remarks
Email CBS Sunday Morning to question/challenge their decision to leave Lewis' insulting comments out of their second broadcast
Return to the main "Lewis Vs. Disability Rights" web page