Jon Alpert’s Acceptance Speech – Part II

CAUTION: Jon Alpert’s powerful films contain images, including scenes of human suffering and death, that may be disturbing to some people. This material is not suitable for children. Viewer discretion is advised.

Jon Alpert: We were doing the same thing, but now with a bigger audience, still trying to deal with some of the problems that were affecting us. When I got sick, I had to go to the public hospital and I had to sit in the public hospital for hours and hours waiting for a really tired doctor to come and see me and I knew what healthcare was like for people who didn’t have any money. So, we set out to make a documentary called “Healthcare: Your Money or your Life.” This contrasted conditions in Kings County Hospital, the largest hospital in New York City, with the hospital right across the street, Downstate Medical Center. If you had no money and no insurance, you went to Kings County. If you had some means to pay, you went to Downstate. New York City was in the midst of a budget crisis and they began cutting the budget of the hospital. In the intensive care unit, for example, they used to have eight nurses. They went down to four. They decided that they would fire all the people that fixed the machines to save money. So, the machines weren’t maintained. When they broke, they were broken. They decided they didn’t need extras of anything. So, if you needed a catheter, you would only have one. If you needed an airbag, you only had one.

These were the conditions in Kings County Hospital when a gentleman named Mr. Spinnelli came into the intensive care unit. Those of you who were involved in journalism know that sometimes your little toe starts to tingle when you see something and you decide that you need to follow something even though you don’t know why. We decided to follow Mr. Spinnelli. One night we saw what happened because of these cutbacks. When they needed the staff, when they needed the machines, when they needed all the wires and they didn’t work. So, this is Mr. Spinnelli in the intensive care unit at Kings County Hospital.

[Video plays]: Healthcare 1977
- Okay, we are going to have the cardiologist here in a few minutes. How do you feel now? Are you still dizzy? What’s wrong with this machine? Let’s try the cables. Let’s get a new set of cables. It’s not working either. Well, this is what we have so far. Let me show you. Well, I’m trying to get your machines to work. These EKG machines aren’t—So far, no. We can’t get any leads… We are changing the cables and hopefully the cables are good. [Inaudible—intercom in background] This bag is no good. What now? All right, I need another connector on this. You’ve got another EKG like that? Give me a connector from that one. I don’t know if that will work on this one. I need another one like this right in the lab. Right on the cabinet in the lab, there is another EKG, another pacemaker like this. Okay? Find one of those and bring it because these connectors are no good for this one. Give him that [inaudible]. Any pulse? I thought we should be okay but [inaudible]. All leads are negative on it? Negative? All right, stop pumping for one second. Now, anything? Straight line? Straight line. All right, let’s call it. (Patient dies.)
- Just hard to loose somebody like that who sat awake and talking here for one minute and the next minute just like this, but a lot of it was related to cutbacks. Different types of equipment, new types of equipment. Did you notice at one point we were looking for a line to go into his subclavian and it took a long time to find a catheter and it should have been available right away and people die. Unfortunately, we have made human life a commodity. We tend to always sell it in some way or fashion and now we are selling healthcare and we are in fact selling people’s whole existence based on numbers. Let us sit down with a book and a ledger and decide who is going to be cut off. And maybe somebody is going to be hurt, but we are not going to look at it.

Jon Alpert: What really frightens me about this tape is that it was made in 1977 and we could play this today and it would be pretty accurate in describing some of the issues that we have with healthcare in America. When this tape was broadcast, every single service that was shown in this film was decertified by the certifying authorities. Then, they came in and they presented the hospital with the funds that they thought would be necessary to improve the services. So, we thought that we had once again accomplished something positive with one of our reports.

But unfortunately, the fiscal problems for New York City continued to get worse. And you know, the healthcare—the patient s are a very disorganized group and you don’t choose to be sick. So, you can’t really fight very well for your rights. So, when they were looking for things to cut in the city budget, this was during the time when New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy, they decided they would cut healthcare again. So, they went back in and just slashed the budget and just emaciated this hospital. They needed a scapegoat, so they decided that they would blame this on the public relations officer who let us get into the hospital and they fired her. And this tape got us blacklisted from public television. It is interesting. We did a documentary about Cuba. The Cuban exiles blew up two PBS stations as a result of our programs. We did the first documentary about Vietnam after the war with all sorts of controversy and it wasn’t what got us blacklisted. It was Big Pharma.

The hospital was on a fixed budget. They would order their pharmaceutical supplies at the beginning of the year. Price increase, price increase, price increase. And so by the time fall rolled around, the shelves were empty because they had used up their entire budget to buy the pharmaceutical supplies. The doctors would still prescribe and the patients would be lined up outside the room and into the street, but the shelves were bare. This is what we showed and this is what got us blacklisted.

[Video plays]:
- Man speaking: There is no merchandise on the shelves. At one time these shelves would have been packed right out to the rafters. They have stock companies. They have to show a profit. They have to show their stockholders a profit.
  [Person speaking Spanish.]
- Narrator: Alexi has histiocytosis, a rare cancer-like disease. [Baby crying loudly]. His parents can’t afford to buy the medicine he needs and, worse, the hospital almost never has it in stock.
  [Baby crying]
- Man on phone: Two weeks ago—Last week, I tried to get the same drug and they just didn’t have it in stock. So, they said just to keep trying. So, I’m trying again.
- Interviewer: Is this a good drug for the patient to have? Necessary? And sometimes they don’t have it? And can you afford to pay for his treatment?
- Female: No. My husband makes four dollars too much for Medicaid.
- Really? So, they might not give it to you?
- No.
- So, who is going to pay for his treatment?
- I don’t know.
- What happens if he doesn’t get his treatment?
- He is going to die. He’ll die on me.
Jon Alpert: (What I didn’t know is that) Five out of the top ten corporate contributors to the local public television station were the big pharmaceutical companies based in New Jersey and they didn’t like this report. So, that was the end of my career/our career at public television. They don’t tell you this. They just never have any money when you submit your proposal. We, because of our trips to Vietnam, had smelled that the Vietnamese and the Chinese were going to go to war and in those days it took six months to get a visa to get into Vietnam. We applied for the visa and it came the day the war started. Nobody else in the United States had a visa except us. So we thought, wow, this is really great follow-up to our documentary on Vietnam. Public television is going to really like this.

All of the news executives were at a convention in New Orleans: How to improve news and public affairs and public television. They didn’t want me to bother them during the convention, so I had to wait. So the war is going on and I’m sitting there in New York and I’ve got my visa. Finally, I called the head of public affairs here for PBS and he tells me he doesn’t have any money. Five minutes later I got a phone call from his secretary and she says, John, I overheard the conversation and I want you to know they have plenty of money. They just funded three projects this afternoon, but I have overheard them talk and you will not ever get another program on PBS. I’m really sorry to tell you this because I like your programs, but they won’t be broadcast here.

Luckily for me, one of the executives at Channel 13 used to work at NBC. He said, hey, I’ll make a phone call. Maybe somebody at NBC would be interested in this. So, I met one of the vice presidents of NBC in the hallway next to the elevators. He thought, wow, this is really neat. This young guy has got a visa and wants to go to Vietnam. He didn’t last very long at NBC, but he sent me and my wife off to Vietnam where we arrived. Now, I had been to places affected by war, but I had never been in an actual war situation.

It was me and my wife, [it was] one of the stupidest things we had ever done. I remember that we were walking through the countryside in the middle of the war zone. We were planning—If they start shooting what we’re going to do. She will do this with the camera and I’ll do this with the microphone. Well, when they started shooting, I dove right down to the ground and landed in a cow pie. There isn’t any more embarrassing introduction to war than that.

I’m going to wipe this off. We managed to get up to the areas of the battlefields and we documented just the most horrific aspects of war. The Chinese had come over the border and gassed the Vietnamese that were hiding in caves and killing them by the hundreds. They were carrying the bodies out and it was just something that nobody should ever have to see. We also discovered the last known American POW, Bobby Garwood. And we helped repatriate him to the United States. We also got into Cambodia and did the first reports about the killing fields in Cambodia, the horrors of Pol Pot and the impending famine that was probably going to claim another million Cambodian lives. I’d like to show you an excerpt from the reports in Cambodia. We documented the killing fields, but we also documented a worldwide effort to try to bring food to Cambodia during this time.

[Video plays]: Cambodia 1977
- Under Pol Pot’s fanatical government, every Cambodian city was empty. Every day, hundreds of people die from starvation. Because of malnutrition, mothers cannot produce milk. Food and medicine are finally arriving. The Cambodians are trying hard, even using wagon trains to reach the people before they starve. Everywhere we went, we saw food being handed out. (End of clip)
Jon Alpert: [Every country in the world that had food to send was sending it except the United States.] I got a phone call from Ambassador Donald McHenry who was the assistant ambassador to the United Nations who explained to me what the situation was. The Vietnamese had gone into Cambodia and basically had conquered that country and had driven Pol Pot up into the northern part up into the mountains and were trying to get at him basically to put an end to Pol Pot.

Through the strange bedfellows of the Cold War, the United States was actually an ally of Pol Pot because we were still angry at the Vietnamese because we didn’t win the war. When the Vietnamese had to send their scarce food over to Cambodia, the people, some folks, I know some nice people here who work at the Pentagon, but some of the not nice people in the Pentagon saw this as an opportunity for destabilizing Vietnam and were hoping for an insurrection and an opportunity to sort of re-fight the Vietnam War. So, everybody was sending food in except us and the excuse the United States was using was—“Can’t get the food in.” Well, you could get the food in. We had it on tape and Ambassador McHenry was a really decent man and he said, “I don’t care about all of this military stuff. If we have food and people need it, we should send it. Can I bring your tape to the White House because we’re having a fight tonight and we are trying to determine what our policy is going to be and I’d like to show your tape”

So, he took my tape and he said “I’ll call you at seven o’clock.” He called me at seven o’clock, okay, he was almost crying. He says “We lost. We’re not going to send any food and have no idea how many thousands of people are going to die, but I feel terrible.”

So, here I am going from taxicab driving to being in the middle of these types of worldwide situations where thousands and thousands of lives are at stake and the tapes that we make can influence what happens. In this case, unsuccessfully so.

But tapes like this were also perceived as somehow un-American. I know that this is a theme of what happened during I.F. Stone’s life and it’s certainly something that happened to me and affected our work. I’ll give you an example. It was a very reactionary editor at NBC who saw these reports as somehow offending what he thought Americans should be doing. Because of some very strange union rules, he had to have seven people actually sitting in the editing room to do our stories. If he went by and didn’t count seven, he’d shut the job down. They did all my stuff at two in the morning and there were never seven people around. So, we had just come back from El Salvador. We had a story of how the American pilots were flying the death squads around El Salvador and I couldn’t get it on TV because I couldn’t get it edited.

Steve Friedman was the head of the Today Show in those days. He was a really nice man and he said, “John, I’m sorry your career here at NBC is over.” Can’t figure out any way to get this edited. Then, he said wait a minute and he takes out this little red book. It was the union contract and he starts thumbing through the union contract and he found a clause that allowed NBC to acquire a finished program. It had to be done. It couldn’t be cut. It couldn’t be edited. It just had to be dropped into the show. He says “Bring me back a finished program and I’ll edit it. I’ll put it on TV.” So, I walk out and I say where in the world are we going to get editing equipment from?

In those days, any of you folks of a certain age remember what the editing equipment was like. There were these big piano-sized machines. Each one of them cost a couple hundred thousand dollars and a little community TV center from Chinatown didn’t have these machines. But what we did have is my old editor from the days before I was blacklisted at PBS had the keys to the editing suite at Channel 13. So, at two o’clock in the morning, we snuck in and we edited our program. To Steve Friedman’s absolute astonishment, I placed the edited tape on his desk.

Now this caused problems that we had to figure out. We couldn’t keep sneaking in. We had to eventually acquire our own editing equipment. We invented a way of using inexpensive machines to do the same thing that the big ones did. But what we also got, uniquely, in American television was complete editorial and artistic control. It happened by accident, but it was wonderful. Any time the bell rang, anywhere in the world, Steve Friedman would let me get on a plane and try to get there first. So, as you talked about when the Sandinistas rode into Managua, I was in the second car. Thomas [name], their sort of—, he said, “Who is this guy? What is a Gringo doing in the second car?” They thought that that was inappropriate, so they moved me to car number seven.

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