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And The Media
the earliest days of Alcoholics Anonymous, publicity in
the media played an absolutely essential, indispensable
role in its survival and spread. Morris Markey's article,
"Alcoholics and God", in the September 1939 Liberty magazine
and the Jack Alexander article in the March 1941 Saturday
Evening Post were milestones. Although the conservatives
among the first 40 members, especially in Akron, eschewed
publicity—it proved the key to A.A.'s growth in those
critical early days and in all the decades since. The reason
is simple: publicity reaches the still suffering alcoholics
who are out there in the general public.
chapters in this book on how A.A. began and how it grew
in every part of the U.S. and Canada and the rest of the
world reveal the innumerable instances in which A.A. either
started or took a giant step forward as a result of the
Saturday Evening Post piece. The amazing surge of membership
in Cleveland following the 1939 series of features in the
Plain Dealer literally reshaped A.A. It demonstrated that
"wholesale recovery was possible," and that the Big Book
was a powerful tool for carrying the message; and it introduced
the concept of personal sponsorship by people who were themselves
D. Rockefeller, Jr. 's dinner for Alcoholics Anonymous in
1940 may not have produced the millions of dollars the pioneer
members envisioned, but the prominence of the Rockefeller
name produced a flood of newspaper stories all over the
country that gave the fledgling Fellowship a shot in the
arm. And in many parts of the U.S., old-timers credit favorable
stories about their A.A. group in the local press with a
boost when they needed it most.
1946 article on A.A. in foreign editions of the Reader's
Digest spawned A.A. other countries as distant as South
Africa and New Zealand. Australian A.A. (the first outside
North America) owes its birth to an article by Dr. Harry
Tiebout in a psychiatric journal and to publicity during
a tour by actress (and A.A. member) Lillian Roth. (See Chap.
XX) Joseph Kessel's series of reports on A.A. in France
Soir in 1960 became the book The Road Back which was translated
into many languages and was responsible for the spread of
A.A. in Europe.
publication of Charles Jackson's gritty, semi-autobiographical
novel, The Lost Weekend, and the tremendous success of the
motion picture in 1945, launched a new national awareness
of alcoholism. Although A.A. was not mentioned, Ray Milland's
stark Oscar-winning portrayal of a desperate alcoholic turned
the spotlight on Alcoholics Anonymous. Several overtures
were made to Bill W. by Hollywood (See Chap. 2) and negotiations
over possible films of his life story and the founding of
Alcoholics Anonymous continued over several years. The idea
had been revived time and again—the most recent being
a proposal for a feature film for television dramatizing
Bill W.'s life - but none has come to fruition.
The Lost Weekend, however, the taboo was lifted. The March
of Time in 1948 devoted one of its highly acclaimed films
entirely to A.A. And A.A. played a major part in a number
of smash hit movies. Come Back. Little Sheba was released
in 1952. Three years later Lillian Roth's book about her
drinking problem I'll Cry Tomorrow, became a dramatic film
which showed her reaching A.A. A.A. was consulted to ensure
authenticity in the filming of one of the most popular and
effective dramas, Days of Wine and Roses. It appeared first
in 1958 as a "Playhouse 90" production on CBS-TV. Five years
later; it was made into a Warner Bros. motion picture classic
starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick which was credited with
bringing large numbers of alcoholics to the program.
W. was always aware of the value to A.A. of good public
relations and for the first twenty years, he handled press
contacts at the national level himself. Then, after he had
symbolically stepped down from the leadership and was, in
fact less available at the office - the General Service
Board formed the Trustees' Public Information Committee.
The P.I. Committee has also always included as non-trustee
members or consultants some A.A. professionals in communications
or the media. A G.S.O. staff member serves (on a rotating
basis) in the P.I. assignment and as secretary of the committee-as
well as of the corresponding Conference P.I. Committee.
Their function is to do what the individual group cannot
do; namely, to handle national public information for A.A.
as a whole.
the local level, of course, the early founders of A.A. groups,
and later the groups themselves, sought newspaper stories
in their towns to let the drunks know they were there. Today,
local newspaper stories about group anniversary celebrations
and A.A. conferences and conventions serve to attract prospects
to the Fellowship. Well before the Trustees' and Conference
Committees were created, local P.I. committees were dealing
with local newspapers and radio stations. As Intergroups
and Central Offices were formed, they usually handled this
function in behalf of their groups. Later, Conference Area
Committees and now many Districts have their own P.I. committees.
In fact, G.S.O/New York in 1985 was in communication with
some 800 local Public Information Committees and contacts
throughout the U.S. and Canada -potentially the most comprehensive
and effective network of its kind in existence.
mindful that" our public relations policy is based on attraction
rather than promotion", The Trustees P.I. Committee has
been chary about issuing news releases. In the other hand,
when an event is genuinely significant and newsworthy, it
is a service to both the press and to the Fellowship to
make the press aware of it. Over the years, news releases
have been issued on such occasions as, for example:
World Service Meetings
Findings of surveys of A.A. (triennially)
One millionth and two millionth copies of Big Book
Changes in Chairman of General Service Board
Dr. Norris's round-the-world trip
perusal of the beautifully mounted and carefully preserved
clippings in the Archives scrapbooks reveals that newspapers
hay been more than generous in their coverage of Alcoholics
Anonymous for nearly fifty years. Beginning about 1939,
feature stories appeared about this new phenomenon, some
of them very large with banner headlines and illustrations
featuring booze bottles and passed-out drunks. Anonymity
was preserved in some early photos by the members' wearing
black masks! During Bill's travels, his arrival in town
was the occasion for a news story.
Later, reporters attended group meetings or conventions
and wrote first-hand impressions of what they found - usually
enthusiastic and moving. Newspapers and wire services covered
an International Congress on Alcoholism in Washington, D.C.
in 1968 at which Dr. Norris delivered a paper reporting
the first survey of A.A. members and held a news conference
afterward at the request of the Congress. Excellent news
stories from coast to coast resulted. Personal stories of
drinking and recovery appeared as human-interest features.
Ann Landers and "Dear Abby" were unfailingly supportive
of A.A. in their nationally syndicated and extremely popular
certain subjects were repeatedly covered in articles about
A.A. in newspapers, a kind of library of press stories was
developed in the 1970's primarily for use by local P.I.
committees and contacts. They gave the stories to papers
to keep on file for reference or to print as they wished.
Eventually the library of press stories included:
A.A: "Big Book": A Continuing "Best Seller"
A.A. Works": What The Twelve Traditions Mean
A.A. Cot Its Start: Two Drunks Keep Each Other Dry
and Money: Refuses All Outside Donations
Arrests Alcoholism Early On
Anonymous Around The World
Works Behind Prison Walls
related in A.A. Comes of Age, a national network radio program
was used by Bill W. and Hank P. in 1939 to publicize Alcoholics
Anonymous and to try to drum up sales of the newly published
Big Book. The program was "We the People," with the famous
radio personality, Gabriel Heatter. And as A.A. spread,
regularly scheduled broadcasts of simulated A.A. meetings,
with anonymity protected, were carried in the District of
Columbia, Florida, Michigan, Kansas and many other locations.
However, the use of radio as a regular part of the P.I.
Committee's work began with recognition that radio stations
were obligated to run public service announcements (PSA's)
as a condition of their license by the FCC. So, beginning
in the 1960's, one-minute PSA's—very brief personal
stories narrated by actual A.A. members—were recorded
and distributed to radio stations, usually through local
P.I. committees. New versions were done from time to time
to reflect the changing constituency of A.A. - young people,
blacks hispanics, etc.
stations have the same public service requirements as radio
stations, so in 1970 a series of PSA's for TV were made
and distributed, consisting of four testimonials by A.A.
members filmed with their faces in shadow and two by nonalcoholics
(Dr. Jack Norris and Rev. Lee Belford) filmed face - on.
Again distributed primarily through local P.I. Committees,
the PSA's were also seen occasionally on national networks,
usually late at night. They were well received, but after
a period of time they became too familiar and the TV program
directors tended to select newer PSA's for showing. So,
at regular intervals - usually every two to five years -
a new series of TV spots were produced and distributed.
The 1980 PSA's, produced by Crommie & Crommie, utilized
film footage from the documentary film, "A.A. - An Inside
View" (See chap. XX). By that time, PSA's were also being
made in French and Spanish and with subtitles for the hearing
the stigma of alcoholism slowly lessened and concern over
alcoholism became more open, alcoholism and Alcoholics Anonymous
were frequently the focus of television programs. Often
these were documentaries or panel discussions. PBS stations
in. 1967 carried "The Invisible Alcoholic," on which nonalcoholic
trustee Austin Maccormick appeared. The next year, NBC had
a documentary. Dick Cavett devoted two of his shows largely
to A.A. in 1973, with Nell Wing as his guest. TV coverage
in 1974 included CBS News with Walter Cronkite; the "Today"
show on NBC with Barbara Walters; a CBS show, "Good Times,"
emphasizing teenage drinking; and an ABC Eyewitness News
interview with three women members of A.A. And coverage
at this level has continued until the present.
even more effective in reaching the still-suffering alcoholic
was the frequent and gratuitous inclusion of A.A. in the
plots of popular TV series—the daytime and nighttime
"soap operas"—with their huge audiences. Sometimes
the producers approached the G.S.O. in advance to review
the script or otherwise make sure the portrayal of A.A.
was authentic—and G.S.0. was glad to cooperate. In
other instances, the scriptwriters, actors or others involved
in the production were A.A. members themselves and did not
need help. Among the shows noted by the Trustees' P.I. Committee
were "General Hospital" ('68) and "Search for Tomorrow"
('75), but during the decade that followed it became so
commonplace it was not specifically reported.
appearance of A.A. members on television presented special
anonymity problems, noted in Conference actions in 1955
and 1967 The 1968 Conference had to make clear that "the
showing of the full face of an A.A. member at the level
of press, TV and films a violation of our tradition of anonymity,
even though the name withheld." And the '74 Conference reaffirmed
this action. Even in A.A.'s infancy an occasional sports
figure, broadcast personality, or movie star joined A.A.
and had their anonymity broken -but they were few and far
between. In the '70 ' s and '80's these kinds of celebrities
appeared in droves joined by political figures, wives of
political figures, singers, rock stars, star athletes, and
national heroes. Even if these household names were careful
about guarding their anonymity—and more often than
not, they were -their A.A. membership often became a part
of their biography in the newspaper "morgues" and was included
in printed stories. The problem was exacerbated by a major
thrust by the National Council on Alcoholism to reduce the
stigma of the disease by encouraging prominent people to
disclose their alcoholism publicly. The climax of this campaign,
known as "Operation Understanding", was a dinner held during
an NCA Forum in Washington, D.C. in 1976 at which 52 famous
Americans rose and admitted their alcoholism. As at least
two-thirds were known members of Alcoholics Anonymous, the
well-covered media event caused an understandable furor
amongst A.A. members even though none of the participants
had technically broken his or her anonymity.
more routine anonymity breaks, which average between six
and 14 per month according to the clippings received at
G. S. 0., were at first handled by a letter from G.S.O.
to the member involved, and to the publication as well.
Later the Conference directed that the appropriate delegate
be first informed of the break and have the option of handling
it himself, or of asking G.S.O. to do so. And as a matter
of policy, the media was not to be held responsible for
protecting the anonymity of an A.A. member; that was the
responsibility of the member. However, beginning in 1961,
an annual "anonymity letter" has been sent to all, media
in the U.S./Canada, as well as distributed through local
P.I. committees, simply reminding the press of A.A.'s tradition
have carried copious articles about alcoholism in which
A.A. was mentioned as well as articles about A.A. itself.
Particularly as society has become more open in its recognition
of alcoholism, such pieces have appeared with increasing
frequency. Reader's Digest has probably led all magazines
in the number of articles on A.A. it has published over
the years, in keeping with its upbeat, inspirational appeal
and its emphasis on self-improvement. Look, Coronet, Fortune,
Dun's Review and Business Week, among others, have focused
on alcohol problems in business and industry, referring
to A.A. as a resource. Women alcoholics have been the subject
in women's magazines including Good Housekeeping, Women's
Home Companion, McCall's, Woman's Day, Family Circle and
others. Teenage drinking was addressed in both youth and
woman's publications. When Lou R. from Philadelphia became
the first black delegate in 1967, stories about him appeared
in Ebony and other magazines directed to blacks. News magazines
– Newsweek, Time, U.S. News – and general interest
periodicals featured pieces of broader interest. Specialized
publications for churches, hospitals, nurses, doctors, etc.
also covered A.A.
magazine articles in the three year period 1961-64 were
negative about Alcoholics Anonymous. As recounted in Chapter
2 on the General Service Board, Arthur H. Cain's scathingly
critical "A.A.: cult or Cure'" in the February 1963 Harper's
caused the strongest reaction within the Fellowship. However,
there were three other articles in a muck-raking vein:—"Psychiatrists
on the Assembly Line" by Jerome E. in the February 11, 1963.
Saturday Evening Post "Will Success Spoil A.A.?" also by
Jerome E. in The Nation of March 1964; and a second denunciation
by Cain entitled "Alcoholics Can Be Cured - Despite A.A."
in the September 19, 1964 Saturday Evening Post. In every
case, instead of reacting in anger or righteous indignation
as many A.A. members did, Bill W. and the Board remained
calm and did not respond. Proof of the wisdom of this policy
is that the articles and their authors have all but faded
from memory, while A.A. has continued to grow and flourish.
50th anniversary of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous
- and the International Convention in Montreal which celebrated
that event—resulted in more media coverage than A.A.
had ever received before in its history. In preparation,
the Trustees' P.I. Committee prepared a Golden Anniversary
press kit. And as the June 10 date approached, Lyla B.,
the P.I. staff person, and Bob P., general manager, at G.S.O.
spent virtually their full time answering press queries
and giving interviews in person and by phone to reporters
and radio commentators - so many, in. the end, that they
gave up trying to keep a log. Outstanding among the anniversary
stories in newspapers were a front-page feature in USA Today,
the national daily; and a superb, full-page spread by Robert
H. Williams in the Washington Post, which was also syndicated
and copied in many major papers elsewhere. NBC's "Today"
program with Jane Pauley and Brian Gumbel devoted a segment
to A.A. with Bob P. and a young female member, Onyx S, as
guests, photographed in shadow And most effective of all,
the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brocaw devoted a five-minute
"Special Segment" to A.A. with film footage shot in Akron,
in. Europe and in Japan to show A.A.'s beginnings and present
scope, skillfully and tastefully edited for great impact.
Coverage was also given by other network news programs,
including cable TV, local TV and radio; wire services; and
local newspapers. Clippings, radio and TV transcriptions,
reports from local P.I. committees and delegates and other
records indicate that the country was nearly blanketed.
coverage of the Anniversary was followed by national and
international coverage of the Convention. More than 50 press
representatives registered with imperturbable Ed McD., in
charge of the press room. Wire service stories were filed
in English, French, German and Spanish. A15-minute documentary
film on the Montreal Convention was shown on national TV
in West Germany. The Boston Globe did a marvelous article,
typical of many. The New York Times assigned top reporter
Christopher S. Wren to go to Montreal and cover the celebration.
He confessed afterward that he was none too enthusiastic
about spending his July 4 weekend thus, but once there he
was caught up in the exuberance and friendliness of the
enormous crowd. As a result, the Times carried a five-column
story headlined "Birthday Party for Alcoholics Anonymous"
illustrated with a photo showing part the 50,000 people
in the Olympic Stadium. In response to a letter of thanks
from G.S.O., Christopher wren wrote back of his experience,
"I knew that I would find courage, but I had no idea it
would be so much fun."
Harking back to the Jack Alexander article, The Saturday
evening Post published a story of A.A.'s 50 years by Baz
Admeades a Canadian writer. Many papers carried not only
news stories or features but also editorials commenting
on A.A.'s remarkable record of success. The Vermont Legislature
passed a resolution expressing pride in the fact that both
of A.A.'s co-founders came from there. A statement of recognition
and praise was read into the U.S. Congressional Record by
Ohio Congressman John Seiberling, son of Henrietta Seiberling.
past trustee mused, "What pleases me most down deep inside
about all this fuss is to think about how Bill and Bob and
those early members starved and struggled to get even a
shred of recognition of A.A.—and how amazed and delighted
they must be today, from wherever they are watching."