The heartwrenching images of Annette Funicello's illness

The Canadian TV network CTV has an in-depth news magazine program called "W5,"which has been on the air since 1966, two years longer than "60 Minutes." It deals with serious, sometimes sobering topics. But when the show told the story of Annette Funicello's two-and-a-half decade battle with a particularly nasty type of multiple sclerosis, the network found itself balancing heartbreaking story of a beach blanket beauty with serious questions about an experimental treatment that Funicello's husband believes needs public support.  And to tell the story, "W5" would have to show some images that would make even its veteran health reporter recoil.

Funicello in 1978 (AP Photo)

Annette Funicello, who died Monday, is one of a long line of celebrities and celebrity families who refuse to die quietly. Even in their most vulnerable state, they have realized that they something to contribute if they are willing to go public.

Funicello's husband, Glen Holt, heads a fund bearing her name. Roger Ebert appeared on "Oprah," missing his jaw, to demonstrate the remarkable computer program that allowed his wife to hear what he typed on his computer, in his own voice. Lance Armstrong's Livestrong Foundation raised a half-billion dollars  for cancer research. Since 1998, Michael J. Fox has pressed for research to find a cure for Parkinson's. Christopher Reeve became the voice of spinal injury research as the public watched him struggle to learn to walk again. A number of politicians in recent years have come forward to talk about their cancer or other conditions. There is even a website called "Celebrities With Your Disease" that lists diseases and links celebrities (via Wikipedia, so be careful) who have the conditions.

But these kinds of stories confront journalists with some tough decisions. How much information should journalists tell the public about the gritty existence of once-public people who now face a long disability or death? How carefully do you examine the motivations of a family member who gives you access to their disabled loved one to promote a cause? How closely should the journalist examine where any contributions might go if the public decides to help?

CTV health reporter Avis Favaro has been tracking the story of an Italian physician named Paolo Zamboni who believes MS is caused by blocked veins that prevent blood from draining from patients' brains and spinal cords. The condition is called chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency (CCSVI), and if Zamboni is right, MS patients like Funicello could benefit from doctors inserting a small balloon into their veins to open them.

"I knew she had MS and I knew she was chronic progressive," Favaro told me by phone. "I heard she and her reps were looking for new ways to tackle her illness."

Holt was willing to give CTV access to his bed-ridden wife in the hope the publicity would generate more interest in the CCSVI research that he thought would save her life. CTV was not interested in a "celebrity story" as much as it was interested in a story about questions over a possible treatment for MS -- and Funicello would make viewers take notice. CTV also had to avoid becoming a cheerleader for a controversial medical treatment.

The CTV story was masterfully constructed, especially at the start. We "older" journalists have to remember that icons like Funicello and Margaret Thatcher, who died on the same day, were famous decades ago. So CTV took time to show Funicello in her full youthful glory. For 4 minutes 26 seconds, Favaro tells the story of how Funicello slipped from public view 15 years ago after going public about her disease. The story shows Funicello in her last TV role and a picture of her in a motorized scooter.

"W5" Executive Producer Anton Koschany told me the story had to start out softly.  "There is no way we would have opened up with the shocking images (of her). You need to understand the story -- give an understanding of her illness," he said. "If you jump right to the images -- I don’t think the viewers could have taken it."

"I know about MS," Favaro a health reporter for 26 years, said. "I have to say as I walked into the front door -- I know fully well how beautiful she was, my first words I said to myself -- 'oh my."'

Just before you see the jarring images of Funicello being lifted from her bed to her wheelchair, Favaro stands in front of the Hollywood sign and reminds viewers that CTV had permission to do this story, that Holt wanted to bring attention to MS. That reminder just before the first images of a helpless and limp Funicello puts the viewer enough at ease to see both the difficult images and witness Holt's unswerving dedication. The story quickly becomes a medical story, a quest for a cure, rather than a shocking story about a dying celebrity.

"This is a very personal -- they kept her illness to themselves," Favaro said. "Glen felt he had been burned by the tabloids and it was the first time they allowed anybody in their home. He wanted her illness to be portrayed from a medical viewpoint," not as a celebrity condition to gawk at.

As you watch the video, pay attention to how "W5" does not linger on gratuitous close-up shots.  When the show does use hard-to-watch images, like Holt suctioning saliva from Funicello's mouth, the camera stays wide and the editor includes only minimal sound.

But as Favaro points out, conventional wisdom is that MS is an "autoimmune disease triggered by a defective immune system." She reports that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning saying "there is no reliable evidence" that angioplasty treatments like those in CCSVI are effective in treating MS.  Worse, the FDA said, the procedure "poses a risk to patients."

As much as viewers might want the treatment to help Funicello, and even though Holt gave CTV special access to his wife, Favaro gives no false hope.

Even while Holt seemed to think he was seeing Funicello improve week by week, CTV quotes Funicello's doctor as saying he saw no change after the angioplasty. But last month, in a followup to her story, Favaro says that doctor confirmed he'd seen what appears to be "blink response" -- that is, Funicello seemed to be able to "blink on command." CTV doesn't blare that glimmer of hope as a story lead, as so many would have been tempted to do.

CTV does one more thing worth noting. That video of a heartthrob turned helpless could have generated a lot of money if the network had been willing to sell images to others. "We had some requests from entertainment magazines," Koschany said. "We didn’t turn them over." "W5" does not allow its video to be used or sold as archived file tape to run hour upon hour on without end on cable networks. "It is not in keeping with the reasons we did the story," Koschany said. "It would not have been respectful to her."

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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