The AIDS story

By MARK JURKOWITZ  |  January 5, 2007

According to Larry Kessler, the executive director of the AIDS Action Committee in Boston, many men in the gay community were sadly lulled into a false and fatal sense of security by the media’s early depiction of the typical AIDS patient as a “34-year-old gay man who had 1000 sexual partners a year.”

“It stuck,” says Kessler, asserting that this profile of the super-promiscuous AIDS victim gave many gay men the tragically mistaken impression that they would be safe as long as they refrained from that frantic level of sexual activity. “It created this hierarchy that put more people at risk than it helped.”

While some gay men were initially fooled by this false prototype, new stories were surfacing that added more misinformation to the mix and triggered spasms of needles panic. In May 1983 an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association raised the specter of transmission through routine close contact (i.e., being constantly around someone with the disease), helping launch “AIDS coverage into a new and semi-hysterical orbit,” as Diamond wrote. During that same year, when it was learned that roughly two dozen cases of AIDS were linked to blood transfusions, another big scare broke, inducing Geraldo Rivera to tell 20/20 viewers about growing fears that the entire blood supply was poisoned by AIDS. In the short term, such stories created needless anxiety and hysteria, but their eventual debunking may have had an even more deleterious impact by triggering public skepticism about AIDS reporting in general and encouraging people to discount later warnings of the virus’s spreading tentacles.

When it became apparent that gay men who’d had far fewer than 1000 sexual partners a year were getting AIDS, the press began covering extensively the widespread suffering in the homosexual community, but it was not yet able to sound any loud warning bells for those outside the early high-risk groups. AIDS was still fundamentally a gay plague, and heterosexuals who didn’t shoot drugs were given little reason to be cautious or afraid.

From the onset of AIDS coverage until very recently, that was the point of much media coverage. In an October 1983 TV Guide story critical of poor AIDS reporting, Diamond blamed the media for imbuing the “general public” with the idea, “undeniably scary and patently false, that they were in danger of getting AIDS.” An August 8, 1983, Newsweek cover story reflected the prevailing sentiment of the day when it quoted one expert as saying: “The more time passes and the more information we gather about transmission, the more assured the general population can be that AIDS is not going to spread to them” And as recently as February 1986 Playboy ran a “viewpoint” that declared, “If you are a healthy heterosexual male and you don’t take intravenous drugs or have sex with prostitutes, there aren’t enough zeroes on your pocket calculator to indicate the chance of your catching AIDS.”

That was yesterday’s news. Today, the AIDS story is changing once again, mutating, much as the virus does, to enlarge the circle of risk. Now the message is that all sexually active people not involved in longstanding monogamous relationships should beware. Reporters who constantly work the AIDS beat tend to be among the most pessimistic. Newsweek’s Starr, who attended the international conference on AIDS held in Paris last June, says the prognosis there “was just bleak…. We’re talking about a disease that will kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans.”

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