Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Desperate Apologies

WHEN Terri Hatcher’s character in “Desperate Housewives” flippantly inferred in the September 30 episode of the hit TV show that all physicians who receive their diplomas from “some med school in the Philippines” are quacks, it exposed not just the anti-Filipino bigotry of the producers, scriptwriters and cast of that ABC show but the total absence of the Filipino community’s clout in Hollywood.

Certain groups in Hollywood have clout. If the “Desperate” writer had used Israel instead of the Philippines, he would have been immediately denounced as anti-Semitic and his offending script dumped in the garbage along with him. If the script attacked the integrity of African-Americans, the writer would have received the Don Imus “nappy-headed hos” award and would disappear in a New York minute.

If the script had denigrated someone’s sexual orientation, the writer would get the Isaiah Washington treatment named for the actor who used the “F” word in a confrontation with fellow actor T.R. Knight in “Grey’s Anatomy”. The producers of the ABC hit show compelled Washington to publicly apologize for the homophobic slur and to take anger management classes. After complying with all that was asked of him, Washington was fired from the show by ABC.

The offending "med school" script of “Desperate Housewives” was probably written about 10 months ago after which it went through a vetting process with the writers, producers and the director of the show, as well as the cast, working on the final script before shooting of the episode was completed around April or May. After editing, it was then shown to the ABC executives who approved it and readied it for showing on September 30.

Throughout this whole 10-month process, not one person in the ABC chain said “Wait a minute, folks, this isn’t right. We’re maligning every Philippine-educated physician in the US. What are we saying here? That they’re all quacks who can’t be trusted to make a proper medical diagnosis about menopause?”

Not one of them even sought to show the script to Alec Mapa, a Filipino-American actor who has a recurring role in the series, to get his reaction. If they did, he would have said, as he did after it aired: "It's unfortunate that the Philippines was used as a punch line. My family is filled with doctors and medical professionals. I know first hand from them, that the medical schools in the Philippines are top notch.”

After the offending episode was shown, ABC was besieged with angry phone calls, e-mails and letters from Filipino-American viewers throughout the US. An online petition drafted by Kevin Nadal drew 30,000 signatures in 48 hours (130,000 in five days). Philippine government elected and appointed officials went ballistic in expressing outrage.

In response, ABC's publicity department issued a boilerplate apology: "The producers of `Desperate Housewives' and ABC Studios offer our sincere apologies for any offense caused by the brief reference in the season premiere. There was no intent to disparage the integrity of any aspect of the medical community in the Philippines," the ABC statement said.

The PR person’s apology showed incredible ignorance of the issue. It wasn't the integrity of the “medical community in the Philippines” that was disparaged (Filipino patients don't care that their physicians were educated there), it was the Filipino “medical community in the US” that was defamed by the “brief reference” to their quack credentials.

Manila-based columnist Conrado de Quiros explained the significance of the offense: “It doesn’t just cast aspersion on—or worse doubts, which affect employment opportunities of—Filipino doctors, it does so on Filipino professionals generally. What applies to the diplomas of Filipino doctors applies as well to the diplomas of Filipino engineers, accountants and lawyers. Left unprotested, a single line like that in a hugely popular TV series can do more harm by the incalculable power of suggestion than whole reams or airtime of diatribe in a newspaper or talk show.”

What kind of harm can this show that is watched by more than 125 million viewers in more than 75 countries do?

One US-based physician, Dr. Arsenio Martin, a pulmonary and critical care specialist who has a diploma from “some med school in the Philippines”, wrote to say that he regularly sees terminal patients and knows that family members try to get the best specialist they could find to treat his patients.

“If that patient dies because of his or her terminal illness, the family members will either accept it or second guess themselves… If you try to inject negative things in their minds, like what Terry Hatcher did, then they will forever torture themselves wishing they had called another physician or, worst case scenario, they will file suit against that Filipino doctor.”

When ABC’s anemic apology failed to mollify the Filipino community, ABC dispatched Robert Mendez, its Senior Vice President for Diversity, to “reach out” to the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA). According to NaFFAA’s Jon Melegrito, Mendez wanted “to assure the Filipino American community that ABC takes our concerns seriously and is taking the necessary steps to make amends.”

After just one telephone conversation with Mendez, Melegrito was ready to assure the Filipino community that “ABC is making a good faith effort to seriously make amends, and that Mr. Mendez is sincere in wanting to open a dialogue with us.”

But others were not so quick to accept ABC’s "good faith effort" as they recalled a similar promise made by ABC in the past over an episode of Frasier where Filipino women were referred to as “mail order brides from the Philippines.” Filipino community protests resulted in a similar public apology by ABC and a similar promise to remove the offending dialogue from the episode. ABC reneged on the promise and the offensive episode has remained intact in the DVDs and in the syndicated reruns of Frasier.

Over the past week, pickets by Filipino-American groups in Burbank, California and in New York and Washington DC caused Mendez to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Filipino community leaders in New York on October 5. In that meeting, Rico Foz, a spokesperson for the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (Nafcon), asked ABC to broadcast its public apology during the show’s next episode. “It will be tough,” Mendez said (“In your dreams” is what he meant).

Foz also demanded that Mendez arrange a meeting with Marc Cherry, the producer of “Desperate Housewives”, to discuss their concerns and to obtain an explanation on how the bigoted remarks in the episode got past everyone. He wanted ABC to initiate cultural sensitivity training for its network writers and producers and for ABC to produce shows that depict Filipinos and other minority groups as "prominent, positive role models." Mendez promised to discuss these demands with the network management.

To ensure that ABC follows through on its promises, continuous pressure by the Filipino community must be applied. Pickets of ABC offices and a boycott of Disney products will ensure that ABC will live up to its promises. We will not be naively fooled again.

Please send letters of protest to Mr.. Mark Pedowitz, President; ABC Television Network; 500 S. Buena Vista Street Burbank, CA 91521-4551; email: or sign the online petition ( Attend the Filipino community meeting at the Philippine Consulate Social Hall in San Francisco on Tuesday, October 9, at 6 PM.

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