New Year ... Same 'Old' Prejudices?
Are people with disabilites better kept out of sight and out of mind? Anyone paying attention to the flurry of media attention devoted to Dick Clark's return to television for ABC's New Year's Eve celebration might think so. Clark missed last year's broadcast following a stroke in December 2004.
According to Clark, it had been a "long, hard fight" learning to walk and talk again, but he "wouldn't have missed this for the world."
The hubbub began even before the program aired. On December 31, the New York Times (requites registration) sensationalized reports that a promotional photograph of Clark with his New Year's Eve co-hosts, Ryan Seacrest and Hilary Duff, was digitally altered, with an image of Mr. Clark taken before his stroke inserted into the frame.
Other stories sought to prepare people who might find the change in Clark's demeanor disturbing by chanting the ever-popular "he's not really disabled" mantra.
Recent tabloid photographs showing Clark using a walker are "months old," stressed Clark's publicist Paul Shefrin. "He's doing fine. He's walking. He's talking. He'll keep doing some rehab stuff. He wants to get close to perfect."
Clark's heir apparent Ryan Seacrest unwittingly echoed Jerry Lewis's infamous half a person comment in interview with the Associated Press. "I don't think he is 100 percent, but he will not be in a wheelchair on the telecast."
Thank goodness. If ABC were to publicize Clark would be ushering in the New Year from a wheelchair then people might decide to watch Regis Philbin instead.
Clark's decision to decline media interviews prior to the program seemed to add to the media feeding frenzy. Shefrin insisted there was no attempt by Clark to hide from the public or the media. "He just wants the show to be the coming-out party."
Every teenager, even the world's oldest, should be so entitled. Still, the uproar got even more intense following the broadcast. Virginia Heffernan also at the New York Times wrote:
Mr. Clark seemed, in short, old. He missed words and, seated at a desk, kept atypically still. Sometimes his impaired speech seemed comical; mostly it was touching. The adolescence of America's Oldest Living Teenager -- Mr. Clark's hyper, chipper, fun-loving persona -- had, in his 76th year, finally abandoned him. In its place was another, more ambiguous holiday figure: the couchbound relative who, maudlin and exhausted, weeps at how lucky he is to be around his family one more year.
On the Today Show the next day, Katie Couric detailed how “difficult” it was to watch Clark:
... it was a welcome sight New Year's Eve, but it was really difficult to watch in some ways. Dick Clark made his first public appearance since suffering a stroke more than a year ago. We're going to be talking with a doctor about the prognosis for the popular staple of American television. I have to say, I think it was very brave of Dick Clark to do this.
As promised, NBC then hit the tragic/heroic/medical trifecta by featuring an interview with a neurologist -- who apparently has no connection to Clark -- to highlight the best means of stroke recovery and offered tips on how to best prevent them. Valuable advice, no doubt. But the message was all but lost in the presentation.
In a letter to NBC, Diane Coleman, President, Not Dead Yet, blasted the blatant attempt by NBC to objectify Clark in their coverage by pointing out the medical segment came across as more of the "please, please, help us all avoid Clark's terrible fate" kind of coverage we've seen countless times before.
What is the foe disabled people fight bravely against? Nondisabled people think we fight our impairments, and sometimes overcome our disabilities. The truth is we fight the attitudes of people who would obviously rather not have to look at us as we go about our business in the world. Only when we overcome the crushing burden of shame people like Couric pressure us to feel about our disabilities, can we take our rightful place as part of a diverse society. That’s what Dick Clark did on New Year’s Eve.
To date, Coleman has received no response.
Not to be outdone by its corporate brethren, the blogoshere was also abuzz with commentary about Clark's return to TV. Rather than restrict his bigotry to Clark's appearance, Joel Keller of the television blog TV Squad felt compelled to comment on Clark's voice as well:
As soon as I heard Dick's voice, a feeling of sadness came over me. His speech was badly slurred, and the slurring was more pronounced the faster he spoke. He was hoarse at times, and did not have the breath to complete some words...
What did you think of Dick's appearance? Should he just go behind the scenes now and do what he does best, which is produce shows and mint money? Let me know in the comments.
Not a bad idea.
But wait, there is more. Leopold Stotch's entry on the Outside The Beltway blog offered more of the same:
Whoever let him appear on camera is more concerned with Dick Clark than they are about this man as a human being. I have no idea about the state of his health, but he spoke slowly and sounded like a deaf person, and it was really embarrassing. Here's a tip: if Carson Daly's show is less annoying than yours, it's time to hang it up.
But perhaps it was Clark's decision to go on tonight, in which case is appearance is even more pathetic, and a perfect example of the infantile narcissism that drives far too many Americans.
We may never know if his agent is to blame or if Clark brought this on himself but as of this writing there were nearly 200 comments posted about that one. While you're at it, MediaCircusBlog readers might want to add a thought over there too.
Given the buzz it seems a shame to reserve our comments for NBC and a handful of bloggers. Could it be that a long overdue national discussion about being "out" with a disability is actually taking place? Perhaps our friends and coworkers at the water cooler, people on the bus and passers-by in the street could be served by a carefully timed comment as well.
Let 'em have it.
If the reaction to Clark's televised appearance on New Year's Eve is any indication, it may not be enough to be seen and heard as we work toward dismantling the myths that persist about our lives. Still, the opportunity has presented itself rather gloriously and we'd be foolish not to make the most of it.
Not a bad start to 2006 as I see it.
Welcome back, Dick ... and Happy New Year.
Posted by Lawrence Carter-Long
UPDATE: Following this posting, The San Jose Mercury News published a fairly favorable and balanced AP story on Clark's return at: