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The Not Ready for Prime Time Plaintiffs : When Rebecca and Clifford Robinson Decided to Sue UC Irvine's Fertility Clinic, They Thought Just Telling Their Story of Loss and Betrayal Would Be Enough. Their Lawyer Did Not. Facts Only Go So Far--What the Robinson's Needed Was a Media Coach.

November 19, 1995|Mark Ehrman | Mark Ehrman is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles. His last piece for the magazine was about sex educator Susie Bright.

Rebecca Robinson has gone rigid with fright. She sits bolt upright, pinned to her chair as the camera zooms in and the microphone swings her way. A well-modulated voice fires questions from off-screen: "Who do you blame?" "What is it that you hope to accomplish?" "Was this your only option?" Her husband, Cliff, is with her, but he rarely jumps in. Rebecca stumbles through a few answers, then falters and, finally, gives up. "Sorry," she says. "My mind just went blank."

OK, cut.

This electronic inquisition takes place on a "living room" talk-show set that resembles other talk-show sets more than it does anybody's living room. There's a potted palm, a videogenic basket of red onions on the circular glass table and a serpentine, plastic film strip hanging on the back wall. Only this isn't a talk show. Pull back past the electronic recording equipment, satellite feed earpieces and other telejournalism equipment and find that this "set" is scrunched against the far end of a commercial loft.

We are at Ready For Media. It's like "Meet the Press" on training wheels, where the uninitiated can rehearse for their baptism in the spotlight. "Our goal is to basically help them tell their story in a way that will communicate via the media," says Anne Ready of the Robinsons. Ready abandoned a journalism career 15 years ago to start the company.

Typically, the clients who dole out hundreds--even thousands--of dollars for the type of "communications consulting" that Ready and her peers provide are business types in public relations crises, authors on their first television tour or other representatives of big money or special interests who need some quick tips before the cameras roll and the questions fly. But the Robinsons are regular folks. Rebecca, 36, works for the Stater Bros. supermarket chain as a receiving clerk. Cliff, 38, is a framing foreman for B.L. construction. They are admittedly low-key and don't covet the glare of publicity. But they are plaintiffs in a highly publicized and complicated lawsuit.

In 1989, they entered a fertility clinic affiliated with UC Irvine and embarked on an excruciating and arduous attempt to conceive. Two years and three failed in vitro fertilizations later, they quit. Their efforts to collect the what Rebecca estimates are the "11 embryos plus multitudes of eggs" that were harvested and never used were stonewalled. Then, last May, they picked up a newspaper and discovered that they were not alone: Although the doctors have continued to deny any wrongdoing, UC Irvine has since substantiated that not only eggs but also embryos (fertilized eggs) had been taken from some patients and given to others without either party's knowledge or consent. An avalanche of lawsuits and investigations ensued.

Horrified, the Robinsons contacted Newport Beach medical malpractice attorney Theodore S. Wentworth, who, according to the story they read, had filed suit on behalf of John and Debbie Challender, another couple whose embryos and eggs were missing. The Robinsons joined the growing list of plaintiffs.

Soon, thanks to Wentorth, millions of people will know their personal and tragic story. After Ready for Media, the Robinsons go on TV for real.

Theodore Wentworth believes in media. "There is an elegant way to treat a high-profile client and 'No comment' is not the way," he says. "You have to teach the high-profile client how to defend himself against totally proper inquiries from the media."

The UCI case is the first major litigation to hit the fertility frontier. The hearings have barely begun, but the media's demand for plaintiffs is intense.

"It's just been a constant stream," says Wentworth. "So I've helped the media to acquire their stories when they come beating on my door--and that's how it works, you understand--they come beating on the door."

Wentworth first answered the media's call with the Challenders. After the Ready for Media treatment, the Corona couple appeared on all local and national TV news programs, including the "Today" show and Tom Snyder. They were featured in People and Redbook and in newspapers around the world.

"The Challenders just have a fabulous personality for going forward," Wentworth says. Wentworth had another couple, Budge and Diane Porter, flown in from Nebraska and, via Ready for Media, into their own media blitz.

Wentworth answered my request for a media-bound plaintiff with the Robinsons. He booked them on "Leeza"--a daytime talk show hosted by former "Entertainment Tonight" reporter/anchor Leeza Gibbons.

" 'Leeza' is a wonderful show," Wentworth says. "It's a very valid forum for discussion of this." He leans in earnestly. "Wouldn't it be disrespectful of me to tell the 'Leeza' show 'no comment?' "

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