A.A. And The Media
From 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.
The 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 newcomers.
John 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.
A 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.
The 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.
After 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.
Bill 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.
At 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.
Always 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
A 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 advice columns.
As 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:
The A.A: “Big Book”: A Continuing “Best Seller”
“Why A.A. Works”: What The Twelve Traditions Mean
How A.A. Cot Its Start: Two Drunks Keep Each Other Dry
A.A. and Money: Refuses All Outside Donations
A.A. Arrests Alcoholism Early On
Alcoholics Anonymous Around The World
A.A. Works Behind Prison Walls
As 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.
Television 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 impaired.
As 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.
Perhaps 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.
The 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.
The 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 of anonymity.
Magazines 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.
Several 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.
The 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.
Nationwide 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.
One 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.”