Monday, November 12, 2007

What Happens in Vegas

All roads led to Las Vegas on November 10 for Filipino medical professionals and community leaders seeking a common strategy to pressure ABC-Disney to rectify the Desperate Housewives’ anti-Filipino slur that appeared in its season premier episode on September 30.

Dubbed the “Summit Meeting of Fil-Am Leaders”, the conference at the Caesar’s Palace hosted by the UST Medical Alumni Association of America (USTMAAA) and organized by a core group composed of Dr. Stella Evangelista, Dr. Eustaquio Abay, Dr. Joe Evangelista, Dr. Primo Andres and Dr. Dante Gapultos, drew 98 delegates representing at least 12 medical associations and community groups who presented their position statements.

Although ABC issued a public apology after more than 100,000 people signed an online petition demanding it, the delegates believed the apology to be insincere as it did not admit that a grievous mistake had been committed and that steps would be undertaken to correct the mistake. As Dr. Nelson Bocar from Oklahoma City explained, “Without a meaningful apology and the correction of a slur, what ABC is offering still reeks not so much of ignorance now but of arrogance still.”

In her greetings to the delegates, Los Angeles Philippine Consul-General Mary Jo Aragon acknowledged that “many Filipino-American associations remain unconvinced and unsatisfied with the steps taken by ABC/Walt Disney Co. to rectify the situation.”

Rozita Lee, the Vice-Chair of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), expressed the NaFFAA view that “ABC acted in good faith by issuing the network’s apology immediately and promptly deleting the offensive remark” and by committing “to building a relationship with the Filipino American community that will open doors to Filipino talent.”

In a position statement entitled “Engaging Corporate Media” which was distributed to all the delegates, NaFFAA spokesman Jon Melegrito described his meetings with ABC including the last one on November 6 in Burbank, California with Steve MacPherson, ABC President of Prime Time Entertainment, who admitted that the joke was “a terrible mistake” and who assured NaFFAA that “such jokes would not happen again.”

Despite the fact that no commitment was extracted nor offered by ABC about any on air apology, which Melegrito believes to be an unrealistic goal, he nonetheless urged the Filipino community to “see the big picture” and accept what ABC has offered.

But the delegates would not be easily placated. Dr. Lee Llacer from the Philippine Medical Association in Washington DC reported that he attended a meeting of NaFFAA officers with ABC Vice President for Diversity Robert Mendez on October 9 to discuss ABC’s initiatives. “I went to that meeting to talk about ABC kicking the dog,” Dr. Llacer said, “and I felt that everybody left the meeting getting what they wanted except the dog.”

What the delegates felt was that a poisonous idea was disseminated to 25 million viewers that Philippine educated physicians are inferior. What ABC agreed to do was delete the scene to stop this poison from being spread to future viewers of the episode. But what should be done to undo the subliminal damage caused by the airing of the “joke”? And how do we get ABC to do what's right?

The position statement of the host organization presented 4 proposals to ABC-Disney: air a sincere, genuine apology as soon as possible; involve ABC personnel in sensitivity training and cultural awareness; present TV medical shows that depict a true representation of the medical personnel in most hospitals; and recognize and acknowledge the positive impact and huge contributions of Filipino medical practitioners in the US.

The delegates then heard strategies about how to pressure ABC/Disney to accept their proposals.
Robert Gnaizda, general counsel of the Greenlining Institute and lead counsel in over 100 class action court and administrative cases focusing on minority economic empowerment and civil rights, proposed that the group (“on behalf of 3.5 million Filipino Americans and 110 million minorities who are stereotyped and disparaged by the TV networks”) send letters to the CEOs of all the TV sponsors of “Desperate Housewives” to arrange personal meetings with them to discuss their sponsorships of Desperate Housewives.

The Filipino Anti-Defamation Coalition (FADC) called for a national boycott of all Disney Stores, asking our community, especially the 22,000 Filipino physicians in the US, to boycott the Disney Stores during the upcoming holiday season and to encourage their patients to do the same. The targeting of one company can be more effective that a generalized boycott of all Disney companies, and all the Desperate Housewives’ sponsors. [When asked why the Disney Stores, the answer should be that “it’s because ABC issued a Mickey Mouse apology.”]

The National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON) and the Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC), jointly represented by Atty. Arnedo Valera, joined the call for a boycott denouncing ABC-Disney for giving “encouragement to the racial profiling of Filipinos.” Valera also called for the Council to take the lead in the campaign as it is a "defining moment for Filipino American empowerment".

Two attorneys, Roman Mosqueda from Los Angeles, and Ted Laguatan from San Francisco, presented the case for filing a class action lawsuit against ABC. Both had mailed “retractory” letters to ABC within the 20 days required by statute in order to be able to obtain punitive damages in the event of litigation. Although both acknowledged the legal minefield (anti-Slapp and Blatty) that will face any actual lawsuit against ABC, they nonetheless urged the group to keep the legal option on the table as added pressure on ABC.

Mel Avanzado, a NaFFAA adviser and noted FilAm Entertainment Law specialist, said that litigation against ABC would be useless and counterproductive. But he also berated NaFFAA for being “unprepared” in its meeting with MacPherson. Accepting ABC’s offer to “develop an outreach brochure for ABC/Disney programs (funded by the company) specifically targeting the FilAm community, and to get the word out through NaFFAA about the Network’s various diversity programs” was not good enough. Had he been consulted by NaFFAA, Avanzado said he would have suggested a more productive strategy for the meeting.

Dr. Fred Quevedo, a representative of the Association of Practicing Physicians in America (APPA), disagreed with Avanzado's dour assessment and reported a more upbeat evaluation of the meeting with MacPherson which he attended at the invitation of NaFFAA.

In the Plenary Session/Open Forum that followed, various resolutions were adopted.

The group unanimously approved a motion by Dr. Philip Chua to form a new national organization called the Filipino American Leadership Council (FALC) and unanimously elected Dr. Primo Andres, a cardiologist from Terre Haute, Indiana and president of the USTMAA Foundation, as its national president, with the Summit attendees as charter members. Dr. Philip Chua was elected national vice-president and Dr. Stella Evangelista as Secretary.

The Council also voted to call for a national boycott of Disney Stores and to send letters to all the DH sponsors asking for a face-to-face meeting with them. The Council voted to table a motion on the litigation strategy and approved a resolution (by Faith Bautista of the Mabuhay Alliance) asking NaFFAA to defer to the Council in future negotiations with ABC.

Dr. Rena Nora from the Nevada Physicians Group and a vice-chair of NaFFAA for the Nevada Region captured the enthusiasm of the delegates when she said “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas except for what we resolved to do today.”

[At my request, the Summit adjourned the conference in the memory of Dulce Quitans-Saguisag, the sister of Alma Quitans-Kern, NaFFAA National Chair, who was killed in a roadside accident in the Philippines on November 6.]

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