Do You Believe in Magic?

February 01, 1992  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  The American Spectator  ·  Aids

One man's announcement has given new impetus to the AIDS establishment's relentless campaign of distortion.

In 1985, the cover of Life warned, "Now, No One Is Safe From AIDS."

In 1987, U.S. News & World Report told us, "The disease of them is suddenly the disease of us . . . finding fertile growth among heterosexuals."

In 1988, the media jumped on a study of infections on U.S. college campuses as "proof" of the long-awaited heterosexual breakout. 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, and that of the thirty infections found, twenty-eight were in men.)

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

Could there have been any doubt as to how the media would react when, on November 9, Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers announced he was HIV-positive? Each year, the press finds something on which to hang its heterosexual AIDS message, to demonstrate that this year the wolf really has appeared. Each year it finds a way to use AIDS to sell magazines, newspapers, and shows, and to sell us on the idea that AIDS is a democratic disease that doesn’t single out homosexuals and needs an even greater infusion of federal research funds.

This is not the first time the media have attempted to use a single AIDS victim to convince us that we’re all at risk. Three years ago it was New Yorker Alison Gertz, who after claiming infection by a bisexual saw her face splashed across TV screens, magazine covers, and the pages of the New York Times. The problem, however, was that nobody had ever heard of her. Why fuss over one girl if in fact heterosexual transmission is so very common? Needed was somebody already well known.

Someone like John Holmes, the porn king who died of AIDS. Upon his demise, Holmes’s wife told reporters that he got AIDS filming a scene for one of his heterosexual movies. Holmes was immediately heralded as the first victim in the long-predicted wave of pestilence that would sweep through the blue-movie business. But it soon came to light not only that Holmes was a drug abuser and a bisexual but that he’d even had sex on screen with a man who later died of AIDS. While there have been many deaths among actors in the homosexual porn industry, Holmes appears to be the only maker of heterosexual porn films to have died of AIDS.

With Magic Johnson, the media and the AIDS activists scored a long-awaited coup. CNN jumped on the Johnson story to proclaim that now "anyone can get AIDS." How curious to be told that, if a man who apparently had thousands of sex partners can get AIDS, we are all at risk. Marilyn Chase, the AIDS crusader at the Wall Street Journal, favorably quoted Johnson’s remark on the Arsenio Hall show that "to heterosexuals AIDS is coming fast." One L.A. TV station ran five straight nights of specials on the alleged heterosexual AIDS epidemic.

In the wake of his revelation, Johnson found himself in a position that few people, aside from Tom Sawyer or Ernest Hemingway, ever will: he heard his own eulogy, not once but dozens of times. For instance, in the Chicago Tribune: "In Magic Johnson, the war against AIDS has a new volunteer, a superb spokesperson, a fresh hope, a peerless teacher, an almost mystic symbol." ("Oy vey!" as my mother would say.)

One AIDS activist gave Johnson credit for saving thousands of lives; a caller on Howard Stern’s nationwide radio show said Johnson had probably saved millions of lives. To hear the media tell it, Johnson’s announcement has replaced JFK’s assassination as the event people will recall thirty years from now. Johnson’s own contribution was to become a modern Nathan Hale, regretting that he has but one immune system to give for his country. "Sure, I was convinced that I would never catch the AIDS virus," he told Sports Illustrated, "but if it was going to happen to someone, I’m actually glad it happened to me. I think I can spread the message concerning AIDS better than almost anyone."

Even as some AIDS testing clinics were reporting a tenfold increase in customers, the media opened the AIDS disinformation spigot wider than it’s been opened in years. Thus, the New York Times on November 18 led its correspondence page with a letter from an AIDS activist headlined: "Women Become Top U.S. AIDS Risk Group." USA Today reported a Yale psychologist’s finding that "women are 12 times more likely to get AIDS . . ." USA Today didn’t say what it was doing quoting a psychologist on a question of epidemiology, nor did it say twelve times greater than what; presumably it meant men. One would never know from the New York Times or USA Today that new male cases of AIDS outnumber female ones by eight to one.

A month before the Johnson press conference, PBS broadcast a show on teens and AIDS full of the usual nonsense that AIDS is exploding among teenagers. (Not only do teenagers have an extremely low rate of diagnosed AIDS cases, but military testing shows they also have a low rate of HIV infection.) The show advised that a single condom can save "hundreds of lives." That would be a hell of a condom, though perhaps I should also mention that one of the show’s underwriters was Carter-Wallace, manufacturer of several lines of prophylactics.

As I discuss at length in the December issue of Commentary, AIDS is no more running rampant among heterosexuals today than it was when the media first cranked the klaxon in 1985. In fact, since 1989 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has lowered both its prediction of new cases over the next few years and its estimate of current infections. While most of the media insist on using the old figure of one to 1.5 million current infections, the actual CDC number is one million. Since this figure includes all infections since the beginning of the epidemic, which has seen more than 100,000 Americans die of AIDS, the actual current infection figure is less than 900,000. Infection data collected from military applicants and blood donors continue to show that infections from heterosexual transmission remain extremely low.

The reason there is no heterosexual epidemic and never will be is shown by the so-called partner studies. These are studies of couples in which one member is HIV-positive and the other originally is not, and they reveal that, over a period of years, about 20 percent of all women sleeping with HIV-positive men eventually become positive themselves. The only study of partners in which the woman was already infected indicates that of sixty-one infected women and their seventy-one originally uninfected male partners, only one male ever became infected — in what can only be termed a wild relationship, with over a hundred bouts of penile and vaginal bleeding between them.

Every HIV infection is a personal tragedy, but our concern here is epidemic spread. For an epidemic to spread, each case — be it of influenza, measles, bubonic plague, or HIV — must generate at least one new case. Otherwise, the epidemic will slowly die off with its individual victims. Where it takes five old cases to equal one new case, as in male-to-female transmission of HIV, you don’t have epidemic spread. Where it requires about fifty old cases to equal one new case, as in female-to-male transmission of HIV, you don’t have epidemic spread. Occasional heterosexual cases will make news for the same reason that planes that crash make news while planes that land safely do not. But you can no more get an epidemic out of such low transmission rates than you can get a squirrel on a treadmill to provide New York City’s power needs. Any epidemiologist can tell you this, which is why the media circumspectly avoid talking to epidemiologists, preferring instead to rely on AIDS activists. (There are a few exceptions, such as the New York Times’s Gina Kolata, who for her troubles has been bitterly attacked by AIDS interest groups, and the Washington Post’s Malcolm Gladwell.)

As for the few cases of heterosexually transmitted AIDS that the CDC does list, all that a case in this category means is that the person diagnosed with AIDS claims to have contracted it that way. Those carriers who are not heterosexual at all may lie about their risk factors. Nobody claims to be homosexual or a drug abuser who is not, but many who are in these groups are eager not to be identified as such. In short, the number of reported heterosexual cases is not only small to begin with, but probably grossly inflated. A recent CDC re-evaluation of "heterosexual" cases in Florida supports this hypothesis: at least 30 percent belonged in other categories and most of the remaining 70 percent were Haitian, leaving almost no room for native-born heterosexuals.

In their fury to democratize AIDS, activists and the media insist that heterosexual transmission is now the fastest growing category. In fact, all categories of AIDS transmission are seeing slower growth curves, and some have gone completely flat — with no increase. Because the heterosexual portion of the epidemic lags by a few years, it’s always been a few years behind the other categories in flattening out. Heterosexual transmission has always been the fastest growing portion of the epidemic, but it’s a distinction with no meaning. What is meaningful is that new heterosexual diagnoses, like those in the other categories, come in at slower and slower rates each year.

Yet AIDS the disease (as opposed to AIDS the political entity) makes distinctions based not only on sexual habits but also on race. Just as making AIDS politically correct demands that heterosexuals be put in the same risk category as homosexuals, it also demands that such distinctions be ignored. As I have argued since 1987, to the extent that AIDS is a heterosexual disease it is one not so much of whites, in particular the freshly scrubbed, middle-class whites that the media always depict as the typical AIDS victim, but rather of inner-city blacks and to a lesser extent Hispanics, especially Puerto Ricans. Going by CDC figures of those classified as having contracted the disease through heterosexual intercourse, and assuming black men to be no more or less likely to lie about their risk factors than whites, black men have fifty times the chance of getting AIDS as whites.

At the time of Magic Johnson’s announcement, the CDC had already listed 3,146 black males as having contracted the disease heterosexually. Black and Hispanic women comprise less than 20 percent of the U.S. female population but comprise three-fourths of female heterosexual transmission cases, thanks to a greater frequency of needle-sharing and sexually transmitted diseases among inner-city blacks and Hispanics. (Diseases such as syphilis and chancroid greatly facilitate transmission of HIV from both men to women and women to men.)

As of October 31, the CDC listed a mere 2,391 white heterosexual transmission cases from a decade-long epidemic. Even on the unlikely assumption that every one of the individuals in question was being truthful about how he or she contracted the disease, that would still be fewer than the number of white heterosexuals who are diagnosed with cancer each day. Is it really fair to say that "AIDS is an equal opportunity destroyer" and "We’re all at risk" and "AIDS doesn’t discriminate"? Or is it more accurate to say that while AIDS should be the concern of all, in the same sense that breast cancer is, that it is nonetheless nonsense to maintain that we are all at equal risk of getting breast cancer?

Magic Johnson

If Magic Johnson had become one of the few hundred American males diagnosed with breast cancer each year, would the media have pretended that breast cancer is a terrible threat to males and patted themselves on the back as men of all ages rushed off to get mammograms? Yet more white males are diagnosed with breast cancer each year than the number who have been diagnosed with heterosexually transmitted AIDS during the entire epidemic. White women, too, have far less chance of getting AIDS through sex than men do of getting breast cancer. Why do the media, the AIDS establishment, and the Public Health Service try to terrify white heterosexuals over AIDS while ignoring male breast cancer?

As a black man, despite his social status and wealth, Johnson would certainly have had more opportunities to have intercourse with inner-city black women than would a promiscuous heterosexual white basketball player. But did Johnson get the disease through heterosexual intercourse? I’ve delayed raising that question, if only because it is secondary to the larger question of how heterosexuals are faring in the AIDS epidemic. But it is central to any discussion of the media’s latest disinformation campaign in the wake of Johnson’s disclosure.

For all the talk about the significance of Johnson’s having gotten the disease from a woman, few have pointed out that this version of events is based on only one thing: Johnson’s word. Nothing else. Many in the media noted that the Lakers’ team physician, Michael Mellman, backed Johnson’s claim, saying: "This is a heterosexual individual who was infected through heterosexual activity." But the physician was no less at Johnson’s mercy than we are — this wasn’t a broken ankle he was describing. The only way he or the legions of reporters or anyone else could possibly know how Johnson got the disease would have been to follow Johnson from bed to bed for roughly the last ten years.

One Santa Monica newspaper, the Outlook, even quoted the president of the Phoenix Suns as saying that the NBA had told him that Johnson hadn’t contracted the disease from a blood transfusion or homosexual activity and "that leaves only one way — heterosexual activity." Well! If you can’t trust official pronouncements of the NBA, who can you trust?


As noted, not telling the truth about risk factors is common among men diagnosed with AIDS. The entertainer Liberace, aware of the tremendous difference between an open secret and just plain being open, denied both his homosexuality and his sickness until he died of AIDS. Dr. Joyce Wallace of the Foundation for Research on Sexually Transmitted Disease in New York once had to interview an HIV-positive man four times before he finally admitted to engaging in receptive anal intercourse. Says Wallace, "In my experience, many men will say they’ve had sex with a dog before they’ll admit to sex with another man."

The New York City Department of Health has noted that the majority of men it interviews who have AIDS and who originally claim prostitute contact as their only risk later admit to homosexuality or drug abuse. Because the department takes lying into account and knows how truly difficult it is for a man to catch this disease from a woman, it has listed only twelve out of the more than 30,000 AIDS cases diagnosed in New York City as verified cases of AIDS passing from female to male through intercourse.

Johnson has greater incentives to lie than other men. He’d be under tremendous pressure from his corporate employers, the Los Angeles Lakers and the image-obsessed National Basketball Association. His endorsement contracts, he says, are worth $12 million a year. He is apparently to receive about $5 million for a second autobiography. If HIV is going to kill Johnson, then Johnson is also going to make a killing off HIV. It’s all very understandable. But for him to admit to either homosexuality or drug abuse would wipe out any chance he’ll have at being "a spokesman for the HIV virus" (to use his curious locution), destroy the groundswell of sympathy he’s received, jeopardize his endorsement contracts and book deal, and shatter his dream of ever owning an NBA team.

While no one doubts Johnson’s word that he has slept with many people, there have been rumors for years that he, as Woody Allen would put it, has twice the chance of having a date on Saturday night. The prevalence of the rumor is such that residents of Florida’s homosexual enclave on Key West have been spotted wearing T-shirts saying, "I love basketball; I had a Magic Johnson."

Will Johnson be "outed"? Eventually, probably yes, but quite possibly, like Malcolm Forbes, only posthumously. For one, while some homosexuals, such as tennis professional Martina Navratilova, are seething at the attention Johnson has received as a supposed heterosexual, and while it could be argued that it would be good for the cause of homosexual acceptance to establish that a beloved sports hero is "one of us," the better argument is that Johnson at present is far more useful in getting heterosexuals on the AIDS bandwagon. Any individual who tries to come forward is likely to be ignored by the media. The tabloids have already staked out their position that Johnson was incredibly promiscuous but strictly heterosexual, just as prior to Forbes’s death they had him ever on the verge of marriage to Liz Taylor.

But what of the mainstream media? After Congressman Stewart McKinney died of AIDS in 1987 and his office said it was from a blood transfusion, a Washington Post expose revealed that he actually frequented the capital’s gay bars. That same year, when a Texas minister died of AIDS and his family claimed it came from casual contact in his ministry to AIDS victims, a Texas stringer for the Washington Times went into the local gay bars and dug up the same story on the preacher.

Will we see the same done with Johnson? Again, not while he’s alive. Donald Drake, the medical reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, tried to begin a piece to the effect that, "If Magic Johnson got HIV through heterosexual sex, he either had to have had a lot of partners or was very unlucky, because it’s unlikely for heterosexuals to get AIDS that way." Inquirer editors ordered the line stricken, for fear it implied that Johnson might have contracted HIV through homosexual intercourse. Johnson’s hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, is the same paper that covered for Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda’s son when he contracted AIDS, failed to run the cause of death in his obituary, and printed a lengthy interview with Tommy Lasorda about his son in which the cause of death went unmentioned.

I contacted the sports-page assignment editor at the Los Angeles Times, Paul Kupper, who confirmed that there had long been rumors of Johnson engaging in homosexual activities. When I asked if the Times was going to investigate these rumors, he said he didn’t think so. "I don’t know what difference it makes. He has it [HIV] and that’s all there is to it. What does it matter?" What does it matter? It matters because the media have gone crazy ever since Johnson announced he contracted the disease through heterosexual transmission. Because there is a December 9 issue of Newsweek with a huge condom packet on the cover. Because HIV testing clinics are splitting at the seams with terrified heterosexuals. "Doesn’t the truth have an intrinsic value to it?" I asked Kupper.

"Yes," he answered thoughtfully, but didn’t see how that could be relevant to the Johnson story. After all, "heterosexuals do get AIDS, I think that’s more important than how he got it." Soon his answers simply shortened to "So what?"

"Aren’t you concerned that the national media might seem to think it frightfully important how Johnson got AIDS," I said.

"So what?"

In fairness to Kupper, of course, his position is no different from that of the national media and the AIDS establishment. It is terribly important that Johnson got AIDS from a woman. It is completely unimportant that he may have got it from a man. If Johnson didn’t contract AIDS the way he said he did, then he should have. And woe to the reporter who tries to take away this generation’s answer to Lou Gehrig — even if it could be proved that this Lou Gehrig was knowingly engaging in high risk activity and then callously having sex with countless unsuspecting women. As the sports editor might say, so what? He’s still a hero.

Indeed, how many times have we heard what a hero Magic Johnson was for simply announcing that he was infected? Even Vice President Dan Quayle called him a "true champion" for going public. Yet, by Johnson’s own admission in Sports Illustrated, his teammates were starting to catch on. People magazine lauded him as a hero, but noted that the media were on to the story. By holding his press conference, Johnson probably beat the news already in the pipeline by a day, maybe two.

Obviously the standards for being a hero have been lowered since the days when it required storming a machine-gun nest or saving a baby from a burning building. Johnson was made a hero simply for contracting the virus, being famous and beloved, and saying it came to him through heterosexual intercourse. For years, AIDS activists had been praying for a famous heterosexual to get AIDS. Many stated so openly. U.S. News & World Report said that the AIDS establishment "celebrated" Johnson’s announcement. And so it did. "This is a big breakthrough," stated one AIDS leader.

Why this need for a heterosexual poster boy? In part to destigmatize the disease. When Lambda Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Tom Stoddard appeared opposite me on Crossfire and co-host Pat Buchanan asked him about the role of anal sex in AIDS, Stoddard only replied that anal sex didn’t "define" homosexuality, that homosexuals are defined by the love and care they have for each other. But homosexuals don’t comprise the majority of AIDS cases because they love and care for each other, they do so because they engage in lots of anal sex with lots of people. The more one concentrates on heterosexual HIV transmission, the more the mind’s eye is pulled away from that unhappy fact.

The other payoff is money. When Johnson uttered that magical denial of risk factors he became a cash cow for AIDS activists. Purses long held open to AIDS were quickly stretched even wider at fundraisers nationwide, and there was talk on the floor of Congress about a further increase in AIDS spending.

"Now everybody knows someone who is HIV-positive," says a spokesman for AIDS Project, Los Angeles, in a variation on activists’ longstanding warning that someday we’ll all know someone with AIDS. Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t know Magic Johnson. I never even saw him play ball. I do, however, know Mrs. M., the mother of a close friend. When Mrs. M. dies, there’ll be no publicity in the newspaper, though she is loved by all lucky enough to know her.

Two Christmases ago, as we sat around the dinner table, she informed us that she used to believe that she could not get AIDS but that, "Now I know anyone can get it, including me." The poor woman assuredly had been chaste for the last twenty years and she used needles only for sewing. But the AIDS establishment had succeeded in getting its message to her. Little did we know that while she sat worrying about AIDS, cancer was festering in her body. She is now fighting for her life, living, as she says, "day by day." If a cancer breakthrough comes along in the next year or so, she may live.

Readers won’t know Mrs. M., but have we already forgotten the recent death of actor and director Michael Landon, at the age of 54, of a form of cancer that is as relentlessly fatal as AIDS? In a matter of months, he went from apparent complete health to death. A few days later, the actress Lee Remick died of cancer at 55. Not long ago, the actress Jill Ireland died of breast cancer, of which more people will die this year than will be diagnosed with AIDS.

Ironically, the same day the Los Angeles Times carried a front-page story about Johnson being used for AIDS fund-raising, it carried several stories describing promising advances in cancer therapy that are being held up for lack of funds. In real terms, cancer spending in 1991 was well below the 1980 level, and that includes the quarter of the cancer budget that actually goes to AIDS research.

The disparity in treatment, however, goes well beyond federal funds for research and education. In the U.S., a person who doesn’t qualify for Medicare or Medicaid but can show that he’s too poor to afford AZT or DDI can receive them free. These drugs, at best, will delay death from AIDS by a year or two. Someone in the same economic position suffering from cancer or heart disease will not have access to drugs that could save his life. The same holds true for diabetics, victims of muscle diseases, you name it. (Other than AIDS victims, exception is made only for kidney patients requiring renal dialysis.) A few days after Johnson’s announcement, the state of California, in an apparent effort to placate a gay lobby furious at Governor Pete Wilson for vetoing a homosexual rights measure, made no less than eleven drugs available free of charge to qualified AIDS patients. The state offers no comparable services to victims of any other disease.

Even without Magic Johnson’s help, the deception practiced by the AIDS establishment would have continued. Indeed, it is on the verge of accomplishing its greatest feat: it has prevailed upon the CDC to expand the case definition of AIDS, for what will be the third time. The new definition would eliminate symptomatic criteria and rely instead on the number of T-helper cells (a type of white blood cell that HIV destroys) in the blood of an HIV-infected person. One problem is that the T-cell test is notoriously inaccurate, and thus a person with HIV can be declared as having AIDS on three days of the week and not having AIDS on the other four. Another is that AIDS will lose all its meaning as the end-stage of HIV disease, in that there will be people diagnosed with AIDS who have never shown a single sign of illness, and may not for years.

According to some epidemiologists, the new definition could increase new AIDS cases by 200 percent. All the data we have showing the epidemic leveling off will become worthless, and one can already imagine the media’s alarums over the "sudden, horrifying increase in AIDS cases," the sort we heard six years ago when the CDC yielded to lobbying pressure to expand the definition of "heterosexual transmission" to include all cases originating in Africa and the Caribbean, heterosexual or otherwise. This time, the victims of the deception are not just the taxpayers but those suffering from all other diseases, who must compete with AIDS for funds and researchers.

Finally, early diagnosis will also make it appear that people are living longer with AIDS, for which the medical sector of the AIDS industry will promptly take a deep bow. For these reasons, the Netherlands has already rejected the proposed definition and many top AIDS epidemiologists in that country have expressed horror at the thought of its implementation here.

Magic Johnson’s behavior, both prior to and since his revelation, may have been reprehensible. Normally, one man’s acting out of pure self-interest would be forgivable — if his behavior had no wider impact. And it is humbling to know that a great athlete has been sentenced to death by a horrible disease. But it is sadder still that the media and the broader AIDS establishment have turned him into a lethal weapon in their ongoing war against reality.