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In places like France and Miami, never is heard a discouraging word about Jerry Lewis, his prodigious body of work, and especially his favorite cause, the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Naysay Jerry's Kids? It simply isn't done. For the past 26 years, Labor Day Weekend has been synonymous with Lewis's TV telethon, a time to pull together, dig deep, and help fund the search for a cure for muscular dystrophy, to offer help and hope to the young victims of the terrible, and persistently incurable, disease. It's difficult to imagine how anyone could find anything negative to say about a cause so noble and necessary.
Well, maybe it's not so difficult. Calling themselves Jerry's Orphans, a handful of naysayers called for a boycott of this year's telethon. The recently formed national group, which is composed of adult sufferers of MD, claims to have about 60 members, including two former MDA poster children. They say the holiday event is degrading, not enough of the funds raised actually go to research, and "Jerry's Kids" are the worse for it. The boycott brigade was chronicled in a September 1 cover story in the national magazine Parade, as well as in a wire-service report in the September 2 Miami Herald.
A television program called E.D.J. also reported the call for a boycott. In "No Love Lost," a five-minute segment that aired nationwide on E.D.J. the Thursday before Labor Day, correspondent Bill Ritter reported that only one-third of the money raised by MDA goes directly to research, and that MDA spent more money than it took in last year, even though the 1990 telethon grossed $44 million. Ritter interviewed Bill Bolte, a disabled activist who opposes the telethon, and Jerry's Orphans founder Mike Ervin, an early-Sixties MDA poster boy who helped organize the protest from his Chicago home. Ervin, now 35 years old, stated that the Lewis extravaganza "tells us we have to go on the air and juggle, put on a minstrel show" to acquire funding for research.
Ritter also reported that compared to other large charity organizations, MDA has a low overhead. He aired comments from Los Angeles MDA president Jerald Friedman, and invited Lewis to respond to the Orphans' charges. Lewis declined to comment.
Now entering its second season, E.D.J. is produced and syndicated by 20th Television, a subsidiary of the Fox network. The name, which stands for Entertainment Daily Journal, was changed this past July from Personalities. The program is similar to, but less glitzy than, so-called tabloid shows such as Entertainment Tonight, A Current Affair, and Inside Edition; it airs on more than 130 stations around the nation, the majority of which are Fox affiliates. The Labor Day telethon is broadcast over what Lewis calls the Love Network to more than 200 stations. In Miami, NBC affiliate WTVJ-Channel 4 happens to air both E.D.J. (weekdays at 4:00 p.m. until this past Monday, when it was bumped to late-night) and the 21-hour, live MDA telethon, which began last Sunday and concluded at 6:30 p.m. Labor Day.
On the Thursday before Labor Day Weekend, E.D.J. did not air in its usual time slot on Channel 4. In fact, E.D.J. didn't air at all in Miami that day. A WTVJ spokesman says the station does not comment about "internal programming decisions," adding that programs are screened for content, to make sure that "everything is appropriate for one reason or another."
According to a spokesman for E.D.J., WTVJ was one of only two stations in the country that pre-empted the program containing the "No Love Lost" segment. The other one, in Lexington, Kentucky, also carried the Lewis telethon.