Thus far, much of the press’s problem in teaching those in deepest danger has resulted from forces beyond its control. But the media’s one major error in judgment was an unfortunate squeamishness, or what one Washington Journalism Review headline writer called THE GREAT VERBAL COVERUP. Simply put, it was the decision to avoid the kind of explicit language that might have played poorly in Peoria but would have helped set the record straight on AIDS transmission. In a WJR article examining that issue, Edwin Diamond, the director of the News Study Group at New York University, reported that the CBS Evening News did not cite sexual activity as a major means of AIDS transmission until May 1983; that NBC finally brought itself to use the term “anal intercourse” in a November 1985 AIDS special; and that as late as July 1985 the Washington Post was still using sanitized terminology like “contact with needles, blood, or other bodily fluids” to describe methods of AIDS transmission. One of the frankest pieces, and one that was long overdue, was an article that ran in the Boston Globe this past November 3, STRAIGHT TALK ON ‘SAFE SEX’ AND AIDS, in which reporter Betsy Lehman advised people to “always use condoms for oral, vaginal, and anal sex” and listed very specific safe behaviors such as “mutual masturbation … where semen doesn’t touch cuts or mucous membranes, including eyes, of the partner.”
Lehman received no angry phone calls from morally outraged readers after this frank public discussion of private parts, vindicating those who argue that the press’s puritanical strategy vastly underestimated the public’s ability to accept candid information.
“I think we’ve been too cautious,” says Globe staffer Loretta McLaughlin, a battle-weary veteran of the AIDS beat who is deeply disturbed by the dramatic spread of the disease. “The public has the right to be treated as adults.”
Yet for too long, AIDS coverage was politely couched in meaningless and sterile jargon like “exchange of bodily fluids” and “intimate physical contact.” On the one hand, such vagueness encouraged counterproductive outbreaks of hysteria, frightening some into believing they could get AIDS by shaking hands or using public toilets. More tragically, the reluctance to describe high-risk behaviors explicitly may have resulted in a failure to warn adequately some of those who were fatally engaging in such behaviors.
The second fundamental dilemma confronting the press was how to treat the politics and polemics spawned by a disease that kills homosexuals, intravenous drug users, and the promiscuous. As the implications of the AIDS outbreak became clearer, both ends of the political spectrum moved quickly and noisily to protect their turf – creating an ideological sideshow that was distracting and probably deadly.
The predictable masters of right-wing rhetoric included William F. Buckley, who suggested tattooing AIDS patients (the gay newspaper New York Native branded that idea “Buckley’s Buchenwald”), and Patrick Buchanan, who was moved to conclude that homosexuals “have declared war on nature and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.” Joseph Sobran, writing on the politics of AIDS for the Nation Review, said that “to many, it [AIDS] seems a ghastly retribution for a repulsive vice.” And political parasite Lyndon LaRouche instantly seized on the issue, forcing onto the California ballot a proposal for a quarantine of AIDS patients – a measure that was handily defeated but not before generating tremendous publicity.