OUR MEDIA PROBLEMMore than Magoo
Few disability groups do what the National Federation of the Blind did his summer. They got the attention of major media with their early July convention statement protesting Disney's plan to make a new Mr. Magoo feature with the same "bumbling, unaware, helpless" characteristics Magoo's been famous for.
The Federation had tried to no avail to reason with Disney executives to drop the cartoon character when the company in 1995 acquired the rights to Magoo. Disney honchos wouldn't even respond to requests to discuss it.
Federation President Marc Maurer wrote in July to The Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner that, "Our lives will be affected by what you do. The jobs that we urgently want to perform will be harder to get. The interaction that we would hope to have within our communities will be more difficult to achieve. The matriculation of blind students in school will be bedeviled by the taunts and tricks engendered by the thought processes contained in your film."
The Federation's protest resolution, voted at the group's annual convention, was widely reported.
Yet few commentators seemed totally supportive of the Federation's beef.
The Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby, with his "So now even Mr. Magoo is politically incorrect,"seemed typical. The Federation should "lighten up"; they made too much of what was, after all, only a cartoon character. They didn't know how to take a joke: where was their sense of humor?
Besides sounding frustratingly like the kinds of stuff Federationists say they'd heard ever since they were kids, these commentaries shared another common trait: they just really couldn't seem to believe Magoo was really offensive.
"I'll bet most of us who have the blessing of sight never even thought about this until the Federation raised the issue," wrote The Baltimore Sun's Dan Rodricks. "Any baby boomer out there remember your parents snapping the TV off with an admonition that you not watch Mr. Magoo because he mocks the blind?" Jacoby added that the "sensitivity thought-police" should "learn to distinguish the trivial from the urgent."
Roderick's comment is a clue: even a pundit who's trying to be decent, as Roderick is, doesn't seem comfortable on this ground. It's new territory. New things to think about. No real history. A new idea.
It shouldn't be new. The Federation's been around for decades, and they've always hated the blindness images of incompetence. But despite their efforts, they haven't made the same dent in consciousness that women or blacks have.
So we get a different reaction to this incident than from , say, a protest over a racial or sexual stereotype. At least liberal critics profess to understand why racial and sexist jabs are wrong. But even liberals don't seem really sure how they're supposed to feel about stereotypes of blindness. Why are they wrong? A lot of people simply don't seem to know.
It's not just the Federation that faces this problem. The media doesn't seem familiar with virtually any disability perspective, at any time. Reporters always seem sort of taken aback, surprised, not sure of what to think, as The New York Times's Douglas Martin did in his June story on disability culture.
The late John Clogston had a theory about all this. Clogston, disabled himself, taught journalism and studied disabled people working in newsrooms. He found there weren't many of them -- and those that were there didn't identify as disabled. To him it wasn't surprising that there was very little disability consciousness among those who report or comment on the news. They just weren't exposed to it.
Blind activists, deaf activists, any kind of disability activist, are simply not familiar presences to the media;. reporters don't understand us because they rarely deal with us. Reporters and commentators don't personally know any disability activists as regular sources, haven't sat down and talked over issues, haven't read movement books and publications. It's a safe bet that people they know who do have a disability do not talk the activist talk of the Federation, ADAPT or ASL culturalists.
The Magoo protest caused the Wall Street Journal to take a front-page look at the cartoon's history.
"What a difference four decades can make!" wrote reporter Lisa Bannon; the Federation's "uproar" seemed evidence of our too-politically correct times. After all, wrote Bannon, Magoo's "nearsightedness was conceived as a satirical metaphor for mental myopia" by ' the "openly liberal studio that also turned out creative labor films for the United Auto Workers union," suggesting that the creators' hearts were in the right place.
And isn't that enough? commentators seemed to say this summer. Why get hot under the collar?
What's wrong with using nearsightedness as a "satirical metaphor for mental myopia"? But using blackness as a satirical metaphor for darkness of heart -- now reporters know that's wrong. Why one and not the other?
Reporters have no background or history to use in interpreting what they're hearing. There has been a disability rights movement for years; now a disability culture movement's forming as well. The Americans with Disabilities act has been around since 1990. But none of it's made a real dent in reporters' understanding of the issues. That seemed to be the case when the FDR-in-a-wheelchair issue was in the news, too.
Perhaps its because we haven't courted reporters over the long term the way activists in other movements have done. Thus our media problem does not get better over time.
It doesn't seem the organized deaf community issued any statement when news accounts this summer reported on deaf Mexican immigrants said to be "enslaved" in New York, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities peddling traditional deaf-beggar items. Perhaps they just wanted the whole incident to go away. But the lack of commentary from leaders when an issue with disability implications hits the news simply perpetuates the lack of interest by reporters when a story the movement does want reported comes along.
The recently-released film In the Company of Men is called by promoters "a psychological love triangle set within '90s corporate culture" Young execs Chad and Howard prey on Christine, "a young woman susceptible enough to be pulled into a situation ... , someone not used to this kind of attention" — the purpose to make Chad and Howard "feel better about themselves as men." Described as "only a means to an end, a pawn easily captured and tossed aside in a dark, wicked duel for corporate ascension," Christine is deaf. Deafness is important here. She can be more easily duped.
In Contact, the movie based on the bestsellling Carl Sagan book, blind Kent Cullers is treated as just another of the radio astronomers at the observatory; references to his blindness are handled with little stereotyping.
Two summer films with disabled characters -- and no commentary about disability in film anywhere. There should be some way to make disability seem significant to media pundits. We haven't found the way to do it yet.
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