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Acting Up     June 15, 2001

ROBERT SIEGEL: This is All Things Considered  from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

NOAH ADAMS: And I'm Noah Adams. We have an early father's day story. It begins in 1991 in New York City. The Gulf War is raging overseas, and the AIDS epidemic is raging here in the United States. It is 6:30 in the evening on the 22nd of January.

DAN RATHER: This is the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather reporting. Good Evening --

PROTESTERS: Fight AIDS not Arabs! Fight AIDS not Arabs!

RATHER: We're going to go to take a quick break for a commercial now.

NOAH ADAMS: Three AIDS activists had infiltrated the set of the CBS Evening News and interrupted the top of the broadcast.

News montage:

1st REPORTER: This is Channel 2 News at 11:00 . . .

2nd REPORTER Tonight some AIDS activists who oppose the war in the Persian Gulf tried to take their protest to a national audience by rushing . . .

3rd REPORTER: It was a surprising beginning for Dan Rather's coverage of the Persian Gulf War. As the CBS News started . . .

4th REPORTER: Just as the program was starting, three members of the AIDS activist group ACTUP disrupted . . .

5th REPORTER: where they were chanting "fight aids, not Arabs." The newscast went dark for a moment, the protesters were removed, at which time Rather came back and he apologized for the interruption . . .

6th REPORTER: This is not the first time the CBS Evening News has been disrupted by a protester. Once, when Walter Cronkite was anchoring, a studio guest streaked across camera. That incident prompted a clampdown in CBS security, which will no doubt follow at other stations across the city as a result of this ACTUP protest. In Manhattan, I'm Eric Shawn, FOX News, Channel 5.

7th REPORTER: Several members of ACTUP, an anti-AIDS activist group, were arrested. CBS believes they entered the studio by using fake CBS IDs. ACTUP has staged many protests for more government funding . . .


ROBERT SEIGEL: John Weir was one of the three men who interrupted the CBS news that night in 1991. In 1993, Weir talked with a program called AIDS Community Television in New York. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

WEIR: So my group had planned to take NBC news and CBS news and, let's see . . . I guess we never got into ABC and we never got into NBC, but we did get into the CBS Nightly News with Dan Rather. And the three of us went into the studios, way way west on 57th Street, the CBS studios. And we walked down the hall. It was in the middle of the war in the Gulf and there were all of these people around. It was quite a mad scene. And they didn't even notice us trying to look like television executives. And we strolled down the hall with our fake IDs and stood by the side and waited for the show to start. And as soon as Dan Rather said "Good evening," Dale and Daryl and I ran onto the set and in front of the camera. 

DAN RATHER: This is the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather reporting. Good Evening --

PROTESTERS: Fight AIDS not Arabs! Fight AIDS not Arabs!

RATHER: We're going to go to take a quick break for a commercial now.

WEIR: My face pops into the screen, into the lower left hand side of the screen for about three seconds. I saw it later on video, just John's head going "Eee!" Then the studio technicians came after us. There were like fifteen men, burly men from Queens in blue parkas and wallabees. And they ran at us and grabbed us and hauled us off the set and then they threw us in jail.

RATHER: I want to apologize to you for the way the broadcast came on the air tonight. There were some rude people here. They tried to stage a demonstration. They've been ejected from the studio but our apologies for the way we began our coverage of the Gulf War. We will continue after these messages.

(Music fades in.)

WEIR: I got home that night and there were a whole bunch of messages on my phone machine. All kinds of people saying "Congratulations, John you did a good job." "We saw you on Dan Rather. It was great." "That was your head. Go, Go!" And there were two messages from my mother and one from my father, and one from my brother. My mother said, "John, I can't believe you would do this to your father. I am very upset with you. You don't know what this means to your father." Click.  And my father, "John, this is your father. Call me tomorrow." Click. Then my brother. "Hey, John, what is it, you're turning into Larry Kramer or something?" And then my mother again, "John, I just, I mean, I just . . . I understand what you're trying to do but I just don't think . . ." Click.

As a matter of fact my father works for television. My father works for NBC TV, which is a rival network. I was on CBS. My father's job on NBC TV -- he's retired now, but for 35 years his job was basically to take care of -- he was basically the vice president of cut to black. When activists invade your studio he was in charge of technical foul ups and whenever anything went wrong they called my father. So essentially when I leaped in front of the TV camera it was basically John leaping into Dad's TV studio and Dad pulling the plug. So he took it personally. And my mother's father ran a radio station in Denver and he was a manager of a radio station in Denver during the war. My brother is a video editor. He edits for NBC Nightly News. He did at the time and he edited the Olympics in Barcelona and in Seoul, in Korea, and he's won Emmy awards. So it was basically as if I had violated the family temple by running into this TV studio and they were all very flipped out and they had this family meeting where I was summoned. It happened to be my 31st birthday in fact. And we met -- they didn't take me anywhere fancy. They took me to this little diner in the bottom of the RCA building where my father works, this cheesy diner and they sprang for a tuna fish sandwich. And the three of them sat there looking very grim.

My father had all of his identification around his neck, very thick, not his usual identification. I said "What's all that?" And he said, "This is because of you." I said, "Oh." "This is the honorary John Weir identification badge now." And my mother said, "John, I know that this is important. You have to do what you feel, but I don't understand why you -- you spit in the face of your entire family heritage!" And my brother was glum and grim. And that was pretty much the last of our family encounter. Everyone went on their way.

And then about a week later my father summoned me to his office in the RCA building. He works on the 26th floor and I went there feeling like a pariah, because I grew up around TV studios and I knew exactly how I had offended him by invading his sanctuary. So I expected the guards to throw me out as soon as they saw me. But everyone was friendly and said hi. I went up to his office and I sat down at his desk. And my father's sort of an imposing man, bald, about 40 pounds overweight. He has a very low resonant voice, which he dropped an octave to talk to me.

He's reading the New York Times. And there was some article in the New York Times about -- as many people had died of AIDS as had died during the Vietnam War. He's reading this and he says, "Did your people plant this?" And I said, "My people?" And then he showed me the article and I said, "No, no, no." And he said, "Hmmm." And he said, "Do you realize that Saddam Hussein probably saw that broadcast?" Because this was still in the middle of the war. And I said, "Uh huh." And he said, "Hmmm." And then he said, "You're a terrorist? Do you know that?" And I said, "No, I guess I didn't really know that." And he lectured some more and I don't have much of a rapport with my father -- we don't ever really talk very much -- but it was clear that I had finally reached him for once in my life because he looked at me like, this is my son, he must have had a reason to do this. I'd communicated with him in a way that he understood. I was on TV and he'd get that. And he got it and we had a little discussion about the article in the Times and how it's true that more people had died of AIDS then had died in Vietnam. We talked for about half an hour. More conversation then I'd ever had with my father probably in the last ten years.

And he finally got up from behind his desk and he said, "Well, you know you're my son don't you?" And I said, "Yes." And then he embraced me.  And I thought -- hmm, he gets it. A lot of the time I think . . . I had been an intermittent AIDS activist. I haven't done a lot of work recently, I mean I have various kinds of despair about it and I wonder what good that particular action did, but I did have the sense in the moment he spoke to me that he understood. That it was the first time he had said to himself, "Oh, he must have a reason for doing this. 50,000 people are dead. Hmmm, this must be a problem." And I guess I felt like that was the best that I could hope for. I thought, well if I could just reach one person, and that person happens to be my father, then it's been worth it.

(Music fades out.)

Producer: David Isay / Production Assistance: Jamison York / Music: William Ackerman / Funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Special thanks to James Wentzy, Amy Goodman, and Democracy Now. Dedicated to Richard Isay.

Acting Up  premiered June 15, 2001 on All Things Considered.



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