The Media Edge Dept.
An editorial board meeting
at The Washington Post.
by Jennifer Burnett.
Jennifer Burnett, training director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, volunteers as part of ADAPT's national media team.
Which one of you is the indefatigable Mrs. Kemp?" asked Stephen Rosenfeld, Senior Editor of The Washington Post.
It hadn't been easy getting into the editorial conference room of this imposing newspaper. Janine Bertram Kemp had written and made dozens of calls to get us here.
Now that we were seated at the table watching the Post editors in their three-piece suits find their places across from us, I began to wonder: Why had ADAPT set up this meeting, anyway?
The catalyst was the successful May 12th rally in support of the ADA integration mandate, which had been spearheaded by ADAPT. The crowd had been estimated by the U. S. Park Service at 4,000. People with disabilities from across the nation had gathered at the U.S. Capitol's Upper Senate Park to demonstrate their desire for integration. Following the rally, thousands marched several blocks to the Supreme Court to send a message that the Olmstead v. L.C. & E.W. case before them was vital to people with disabilities.
Despite many calls to The Post that morning from ADAPT's media team, Washington's newspaper of record didn't show. Neither did the New York Times, or any of the national media to whom we pitched the story.
It's true that ADAPT does not have a professional publicist. There's no PR firm flipping through a rolodex, calling their private media contacts, saying "You can't afford to miss this."
We who call ourselves "ADAPT's media team" are simply hard workers, pitching our story. That story, first and foremost, is "Real Choice." Our pitch comes from deep down inside us. There's no fluff to this story.
We realize they want the story in a nutshell. But just how does one package "the institutional bias"? Reporters want to know "where" and "when." We gave out the information as to "where" and "when" the rally would be, weeks before the event, and the morning of the rally as well. That day there were five of us calling the media, pitching the story.
The Supreme Court had heard oral arguments in the Olmstead lawsuit just three weeks earlier. That was our "news hook": We knew every reporter we were talking to had heard of the Olmstead case. We called reporters who'd covered the Olmstead story; we called reporters who'd covered ADAPT before. We contacted the newswires, the networks, and newsweeklies. Capitol Area ADAPT called DC local TV and radio stations.
With The Washington Post, we pulled out all the stops: We contacted over a dozen reporters; we contacted assignment editors, the Metro Editor and the editor responsible for coverage of Capitol Hill.
The rally did get local coverage; it was on the six o'clock news. Cable news picked it up as well. Several reporters from cities where ADAPT chapters had contacted press prior to leaving for D.C. covered the rally; people in Salt Lake City watched the rally that evening on their local newscasts.
But it was an opportunity missed entirely by national media, and the ADAPT media team recognized we had to take action.
Our strategy for improving national coverage started with The New York Times and The Washington Post.
We decided to contact editorial boards. I would concentrate on the Times; Janine Bertram-Kemp would take on the Post. Janine was the best choice for this job for several reasons. She lives in D.C., is gaining recognition as Capitol Area ADAPT's press contact, and she is the widow of Evan Kemp, Jr., who had for decades worked with The Post to improve their coverage of disability rights.
Janine wrote a powerful letter to Rosenfeld, comparing the disability rights movement to other civil rights movements. She followed up the letter with calls to Rosenfeld's appointment secretary, keeping the letter at the forefront of the inquiries.
A meeting was scheduled. We were told that three representatives of an organization are invited to meetings with The Post's editorial board. ADAPT sent four of us: Mike Auberger and Linda Anthony, both national organizers; Janine, who arranged the meeting and represents the local ADAPT chapter; and me, representing the national media team.
We were already seated at the table when editors began arriving. As they were seated, we all shook hands.
Except for Rosenfeld -- who would not take Mike's hand, opting instead to "air-shake" hand with him, as if quadriplegia were a communicable disease. Rosenfeld seemed terrified of us.
We took advantage of that.
Mike took control of the meeting. We wanted The Post to recognize disability issues not as health care issues, or human-interest stories, he said, but as civil rights issues.
"Why are disability issues civil rights issues, not health care issues?" the editors wanted to know.
"I went to college and earned a degree in accounting. I did well in a good school," Mike told them. "I was ready to work; I had credentials. I also had a disability. It took 211 job interviews to land me a job with the IRS." He made his point, and moved on. "I have gone into restaurants and been refused a table because of my disability. Literally been told, 'we don't serve your kind.' I can't even get in the front door of a majority of restaurants."
"They really refuse to serve you?" one of the editors asked in disbelief. Both Mike and Linda nodded.
"I thought there were laws like the ADA to prevent that kind of discrimination," said the doubting editor.
Mike then explained ADA enforcement, and talked some more about the disability experience. How long after the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed was it until the Post began to take notice of discrimination against racial minorities, Mike asked them. They stared at the table in silence.
We'd made our point. A few of them seemed to "get it." Those few will hear from us again.
The editorial board deals only with the editorial pages. It's entirely separate from the news reporting side of the paper -- almost as if a firewall existed between the editorial and the news side. Editorial writers don't tell reporters what to cover; news editors don't tell editorial writers what to write.
The Post editorial board could provide no guidance regarding the question of coverage of ADAPT actions. We concentrated on broad editorial policy and avoided specific issues, except when making a point.
These editors are now in our rolodex, and we are in theirs. It's one little chip in the granite, with many more to go.
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