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Moe: Journalist's project on Parkinson's is personal

Wednesday December 17, 2008

Doug Moe

Wisconsin State Journal - Dave Iverson, the longtime Wisconsin Public Television journalist now based in San Francisco, has a new documentary set to air nationally on PBS in early February.

There's nothing particularly unusual in that, given that Iverson has been involved in more than 25 documentaries that were broadcast nationwide.

But the fact is the new film, airing Feb. 3, is unusual for Iverson. For someone in public life, he has always been a private person.

The new documentary is personal.

"It's very personal," Iverson was saying this week. "It's very much a first-person story. It's very different for me."

The hourlong documentary, which will air on PBS's celebrated "Frontline" series, is titled "My Father, My Brother and Me," and it traces the Iverson family's battle with Parkinson's Disease.

Dave's late father had the disease, as does Dave's brother, Peter, a professor at Arizona State University.

Dave was diagnosed in 2002.

"That summer," he said, "I noticed some symptoms. Or what I thought might be symptoms."

Parkinson's is a degenerative neurological condition characterized by motor difficulties such as tremors.

"Ninety-nine percent of people wouldn't have thought twice about it," Iverson said, of his early warning signs in 2002.

But Dave was all too familiar with the disease. "My antenna was up," he said. His father had been diagnosed in 1971.

On being diagnosed himself six years ago, Iverson said, "I remember feeling shook up about it." He had seen the toll it taken on his father, particularly the last five or 10 years of his life. But Dave also knew the progression of Parkinson's is usually slow.

"I wasn't beside myself," he said. "It's not a death sentence. There are much worse diagnoses."

As a journalist, Iverson's natural inclination was to supplement what he already knew about Parkinson's with additional information. As he learned more, he began to think that what he was finding out might be a tale worth telling to a larger audience.

"It's sort of an occupational hazard," Iverson said. "You see things, and you think: that's an interesting story."

Iverson, 60, told his stories for more than two decades on Wisconsin Public Television, arriving in 1979 -- he grew up in the San Francisco area -- and hosting WPT's popular and acclaimed live weekly news show, "WeekEnd," for nine years beginning in 1991.

He left "WeekEnd" in 2000 to become executive director of Best Practices in Journalism, a nationwide project that Iverson initiated in Madison and continued when he relocated to San Francisco and its public broadcasting outlet, KQED, in 2004. In 2006 he hosted the PBS special, "Kids and Divorce: For Better or Worse," and he continues to do work for KQED.

The new film, as mentioned, is a departure. There came a time in his Parkinson's research when Iverson, convinced that he had the material for a good documentary, had to decide whether to anchor it with his own personal story.

"I thought about it a lot," he said. "It does add a personal element to it. It can make a story more powerful. Yet you don't want to be self-indulgent or self-absorbed. Everyone has challenges."

To ensure a broader perspective, Iverson brought in a co-producer, Michael Schwarz, but he also resolved that getting personal would help the film.

Iverson interviewed his mother, who at 96 told of how she and Dave's father were determined to keep doing things -- going to Stanford basketball games, and concerts -- even as her husband's Parkinson's progressed.

The film discusses the medical advances in the fight against the disease, and an interview with UW-Madison neuro-scientist Clive Svendsen is included. In November, Iverson came to Madison and both he and Svendsen spoke at a Fluno Center event during which clips of the film were shown.

Iverson also interviewed Parkinson's patient Michael J. Fox. He found Fox "a remarkable person, quite inspirational, hopeful, optimistic." The actor noted how "this has asked so much of me that I never would have asked of myself." It asked Dave Iverson to make a film, and he delivered.