Media, AIDS, and Truth:
Misleading News Reporting about the AIDS Epidemic among Heterosexuals and the Abuse of Truth in Journalism

By Michael Fumento

National Review, June 21, 1993
Copyright 1993 National Review Inc.

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The Los Angeles Times’s media critic, David Shaw, began the second of a recent two-part series on public distrust of the media: "By almost any reasonable measure, the mainstream news media in this country are more responsible and more ethical today than at any time in their history." And yet, he declared a paragraph later, "public confidence in the news media is in steady decline."

He just doesn’t get it — that the public doesn’t share his glowing appraisal of the media’s performance. He also didn’t get it three years ago when, in an otherwise generally favorable review of my book The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, he noted scornfully that, "Time and again, Fumento suggests the press deliberately misled the public about the likelihood of a heterosexual AIDS epidemic."

For no issue shows so clearly the depths to which the American media have sunk. At the turn of the century, William Randolph Hearst is said to have boasted, "You supply the pictures and I’ll supply the war." The modern yellow press has in effect told the government and AIDS activists: You supply the false material, and we’ll supply the war on AlDS.

At least since 1986, the government has been misleading the public on the extent of the AIDS epidemic. That was when the federal Centers for Disease Control decided to move all AIDS sufferers of African or Haitian origin into the category of heterosexual AIDS cases. A man from Zaire who had had sex with a dozen other men, shared needles, and had a blood transfusion would, upon diagnosis, automatically be put into the heterosexual category because of his origin.

The result of shifting all these cases into the heterosexual category was a doubling of that category from 2 to 4 per cent of the total. Rather than cry foul, however, our media watchdogs jumped on this statistical artifact to launch their first wave of AIDS terror.

Newsweek proclaimed: "The nation’s heterosexual, drug-free majority cannot possibly take reassurance from the fact that homosexuals and drug addicts still account for most cases for AIDS ... is not ’their’ disease but ours."

U.S. News & World Report declared: "The disease of them is suddenly the disease of us." Time warned: "The proportion of heterosexual cases ... is increasing at a worrisome rate ... The numbers as yet are small, but AIDS is a growing threat to the heterosexual population."

The cover story of the Atlantic was: "Heterosexuals and AIDS: The Second Stage of the Epidemic." Many of these featured covers with white, middie-class-looking men and women.

USA Today declared, "Cases Rising Fastest Among Heterosexuals," with the more stately Washington Post asserting, "Data Shows A/DS Risk Widening; Increase in Cases Among Heterosexuals Is Causing Concern."

Indeed, there is nothing that the media can’t turn into a story on how the AIDS epidemic is exploding into heterosexual ranks at last. In 1988, they jumped on a study of infections on U.S. college campuses as "proof’ of the long-awaited heterosexual breakout.

Barbara Walters on ABC’s 20/20 stated flatly that these were heterosexual infections. Few reporters pointed out that the percentage of infections was half the rate estimated for the U.S. population as a whole, or that of the total of 30 infections found, 28 were in men, even though most of those tested were women.

Then, in 1990, Cable News Network informed its viewers, "A new report from CDC indicates that AIDS is on the rise on college campuses."AP ran a similar story. The idea was that the results of this study were an increase from the 1988 study. In fact, this was the 1988 study — it just took a medical journal two years to print an article on it, and it was on this that CNN and AP built their stories. Only with AIDS can an old study be declared an alarming increase over itself.

The teenage AIDS epidemic hit the headlines again last year, when the House subcommittee chaired by Pat Schroeder (D., Colo.) released a report declaring that every day the AIDS epidemic "gains ground and threatens the loss of another generation." The media went crazy, with headlines like "AIDS Runs Wild Among Teenagers."

Newsweek devoted a cover to the subject and U.S. News & World Report said "AIDS and HIV infection are rising fastest among teens and collegeage kids." Yet, AIDS cases among adolescents had significantly dropped from the year before.

Most teen AIDS cases don’t come from sex at all but from exposure to tainted blood products. Nobody in the mainstream media pointed this out. A Nexis search revealed only three articles that did, two written by myself for political magazines and one written by a colleague of mine for an actuarial magazine.

And then there is the exploding increase of AIDS among women — at least, according to the front page of the August 16, 1992, New York Times there is. Accompanying the article was a large chart showing that AIDS cases in women in the last year had increased 37 per cent, along with seven photos of women afflicted with AIDS or HIV, of whom all were white.

In fact, AIDS cases among women had increased only 17 per cent the year before, down from 34 per cent the year before that. Despite the photos, whites account for less than a fourth of American female AIDS cases. Were these innocent mistakes?

Contrast all this with the British media. While some British papers have been just as irresponsible as their American counterparts, other papers have run articles with titles like "Normal Sex is Safe Row," "The Truth about AIDS: Of 2,372 Confirmed Cases Only One Person Caught Disease in a Normal Relationship," and "Don’t Believe the Hype."

The Sunday Times, when it discovered that British publishers were refusing to distribute my book, excerpted it not once but twice. The result is that Britain’s government essentially gave up its heterosexual scare campaign, while the U.S. Government’s campaign rages on.

Likewise, the media will portray a single case as an epidemic. Consider Alison Gertz, who claimed to have been infected by a bisexual man. Miss Gertz’s face was splashed across TV screens (including a movie starring Molly Ringwald), magazine covers, and the pages of the New York Times.

Then it was Magic Johnson, a man about whom rumors of homosexuality had spun for years and who, if those rumors were true, had every reason to lie about his sexual activities. CNN jumped on the Johnson story to tell us that now "anyone can get AIDS."

Marilyn Chase, the AIDS crusader at the Wall Street Journal, used the Johnson incident to illustrate what she called the "growing reality" of heterosexual AIDS transmission. One L.A. TV station ran five straight nights of special broadcasts about the alleged heterosexual AIDS epidemic. Yet even this was not enough, so the media had to destroy Arthur Ashe’s privacy to anoint yet another non-homosexual celebrity AIDS victim.

When I called the sports-page assignment editor at the Los Angeles Times, Paul Kupper, he confirmed that there had long been rumors of Johnson engaging in homosexual activity but said that he had no plans to investigate whether Johnson was telling the truth. After all, he said, "Heterosexuals do get AIDS. I think that’s more important than how he got it."

Funny thing — when it was assumed that Johnson got it through heterosexual intercourse, it was frightfully important to the media and the AIDS activists that he got it that way; when it was pointed out that he might not have got it that way, it was not important how he got it.

In the mind of the media, the cause of democratizing AIDS is so just and so great that none of the ethical rules apply. In late 1991, PBS broadcast its self-produced AIDS: In the Shadow of Love, in which it depicted HIV as being practically more widespread than acne among teenagers. The show, which was broadcast the next day on ABC and subsequently was nominated for an Emmy, told viewers that a single condom can save "hundreds of lives."

By amazing coincidence, the show was underwritten by Carter-Wallace, the manufacturer of several lines of prophylactics. The Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and every major wire service heaped praise on the show; only the Los Angeles Times mentioned the Carter-Wallace connection and then only in passing.

USA Today would never think of quoting a hockey coach on the Yankees’ prospects for taking the pennant or asking the Secretary of Transportation about the war in Bosnia, but it did not hesitate to tell its readers: "Women are 12 times more likely to get AIDS," quoting a Yale psychologist. The media have anointed orthopedic surgeons, back doctors, virologists, and, yes, even psychologists as experts on the spread of AIDS because the real experts, epidemiologists, refuse to say the scary things reporters and editors seek. AIDS activists are always treated as experts on the spread of AIDS, as if they had no conflict of interest.

When ACT-UP founder Larry Kramer says there’s an AIDS death every five minutes, the reporter just writes it up without bothering to punch the figures up on a pocket calculator to see that Kramer is exaggerating by a factor of six.

Donna Shalala

Similarly, States News Service didn’t flinch at reporting that HHS Secretary Donna Shalala told Congress in February, "We could spend our energy on research and immunization and education and still not have any Americans left unless we’re prepared to confront the crisis of AIDS." Not any? That’s a scary statement coming from the nation’s top health official.

Don’t readers deserve to know that there are experts who do not accept her assessment? States News Services didn’t think so. They let her statement stand alone.

Just as the media fancy themselves the government’s watchdog, they also portray themselves as the nation’s chief guardian of free speech. But as I was to find, with AIDS that doesn’t apply, either. After ACT-UP picketed Forbes magazine to get it to disavow a profile it ran of me, the author of the piece, Joe Queenan, said his colleagues in the media had nothing but condemnation for his having dared allow the presentation of an alternative viewpoint on AIDS.

After the release of my book, when stores across the country — including the entire Waldenbooks chain — refused to stock it and my own publishing company’s distributors refused to distribute it, I tried desperately to get someone in the media to write about it.

But the same folks who blasted B. Dalton for putting Satanic Verses behind the counter in response to death threats, the same people who cry foul every time a Christian group tries to get a book pulled off a mandatory school reading list, wanted nothing to do with this story. When I called Kim Painter, who was at the time preparing an article on me for USA Today, she replied bluntly, "I don’t believe in conspiracy theories." She then proceeded with her article, in which she managed to find nobody with anything good to say about the book, including an epidemiologist who later told me she thought I was right in my assessment.

Even the Wall Street Journal refused to print an op-ed on the suppression of Myth. The editor who rejected it told me, "I imagine you won’t agree, but I think your views and the response to them have already received a great deal of attention."

No, I didn’t agree that no attention to the book’s plight constituted "a great deal." Even in the wake of an expose on the suppression of Myth in the February Washington Monthly, its untouchable status has not been fully revoked.

New Yorker reporter Peter Bayer — having heard about the story from a friend who was the subject of a homosexual barrage after he let me review two AIDS books for his newspaper — called me to say how horrified he was that such things could happen in a free country. He said he wanted to do a follow-up. I faxed him the Washington Monthly article and never heard from him again.

To a great extent, the media’s AIDS campaign has been successful. AIDS continues to receive about twenty times as many federal research and education dollars per death as cancer. Ironically, the same day the L.A. Times carried a front-page story about Magic Johnson being used for AIDS fund-raising, it carried several stories describing promising advances in cancer therapy that have been held up for lack of funds. In real terms, cancer spending in 1991 was well below the level it had reached in 1980, and that includes the fourth of the cancer budget that actually goes to AIDS research.

Just as people are dying of cancer because of the massive fund shift to AIDS, so the media campaign targeting the people who are least at risk of AIDS has de-emphasized the sectors of the population where the epidemic is really occurring. It has also squeezed out messages that might really accomplish some good.

A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that anti-drug-abuse TV advertisements are being shown less and less because more and more AIDS ads are taking up the air time.

The media’s AIDS disinformation campaign will one day be a major area of study for students in journalism school. But today, the question is far from academic. People are dying to hear the truth.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on the media and on AIDS.