Between the lines

The media wars

Richard Burnett
An editor of a national gay and lesbian magazine told me a couple years back that our communities don't generate enough news to justify a daily column in a big-city broadsheet. And, as queer life becomes increasingly assimilated into the mainstream, I can't really tell, at least not in the last few years, whether or not coverage of gay issues has increased or decreased. What I do know is that annual events have been deliberately created over the years to generate specific news coverage. Witness World AIDS Day, annual nationwide AIDS marches like Ca Marche and, of course, the mother of them all, the International AIDS Conference. It's like I told an audience member when he asked a panel of journalists I was on, at the Berdache commemorative conference at UQAM earlier this year, why there wasn't more coverage of AIDS issues outside the press-driven AIDS events : "The media isn't just treating you badly, we treat everybody equally badly, and that's only because we're bombarded with hundreds of press releases every single day." Literally hundreds of organizations, corporations, politicians, NGOs and lobby groups, I explained, want the media to cover their stories. That means creating media events like Breast Cancer Month, Gay History Month (which believe it or not, is held each October instead of — duh — the month of June), Black History Month, No Smoking Week and World AIDS Day.

So no one was surprised with the flurry of 'AIDS in Africa' news stories when the International AIDS Conference was held Durban, South Africa, this past summer (in fact, that's why it WAS held in Africa). Hell, in the week leading up to the conference, even I wrote up a Three Dollar Bill column interviewing Montrealer and International AIDS Society president Dr. Mark A. Wainberg, as well as my own experiences with AIDS while backpacking from Cairo to Harare a few years ago.

So it was with breath drawn that I read The Washington Post's awesome 15,000-word (equal to 60 novel-sized pages), three-part series on AIDS (July 5-7), each ominously headlined "Death Watch." The first, penned by Barton Gellman, about the global response to AIDS in Africa (or, rather, the lack thereof) was the most compelling, uncovering a 1991 CIA memo predicting the dangers of a worldwide AIDS epidemic.
"Interagency Intelligence Memorandum 91-10005, distributed in classified channels [in July 1991] foretold one of the deadliest calamities in human experience," Gellman writes. "Titled simply, 'The Global AIDS Disaster,' the report projected 45 million infections by 2000 - inexorably fatal, the great majority in Africa. The number beggared comparison. There were not that many combatants killed in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.

"Unlike the Black Death in 14th-century Europe, which took half as many lives, the means of controlling AIDS were known. Yet African and foreign governments, the report said, were making no more than a "modest level of effort." This would "have only a marginal effect." "The same might have been said for IIM 91-10005. The document landed near the top of the pile of incoming intelligence at the White House and Cabinet agencies. The reaction, said principal author Kenneth Brown, was "indifference — that's the right word." The authors prepared for the flurry of briefings that accompanies release of a major intelligence product. Save for then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and a Pentagon medical unit, no one asked."

But wait - it gets worse.

Gellman then writes, "Nine years later, a highly public awakening plays out in the Clinton administration, Congress, foreign capitals, the United Nations system and the offices of drug manufacturers. The premise of their new commitments on AIDS is that they are confronted for the first time with the magnitude of the disaster. "Yet for a decade, the world knew the dimensions of the coming catastrophe and the means available to slow it. Estimates ranged widely, but the World Health Organization in 1990 and 1991 projected a caseload, and eventual death toll, in the tens of millions by 2000. Individually and collectively, most of those in power decided not to act." That's just the beginning of an infuriating newspaper series as awesome as Rolling Stone magazine's award-winning "The Plague Years" series over a decade ago, and former Village Voice staff reporter Mark Schoofs 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning series on AIDS in Africa (Schoofs, bless him, has since moved to The Wall Street Journal).

"Death Watch" was published in July, but if you haven't read it, you absolutely must. The series is easily accessible on the website. Type "Death Watch" in the search engine.

Finally, I must say I'm quitepleased with OUT magazine's September issue redesign with fashion designers (and 19-year lovers) Domenico Dolce and Stephano Gabbana on the cover. Clearly OUT has decided to chart 'soft' territory, and putting the D&G media darlings on the cover is, well, honest. Both Dolce and Gabbana, however, delightfully speak their minds, perhaps the reason why the very gay and publicly closeted fashion industry likes to snipe at the couple whom people believe have it all.

"One of the prime challenges in life is to find someone with whom to watch that passing carnival," Dolce says. "Someone with whom you can do that happily for hours from a sidewalk cafe terrace is someone with whom you have formed a deep bond."

Gabbana then pipes in, "Gay men especially may not want to hear it, but it is not the hot guy that you glimpse from the cafe, whom you see later in the nightclub and maybe even go home with, who will probably be around next year; it's the one with whom you shared the sighting."

Dolce concludes, "Being part of a successful couple is much more about having fun, about giving each other permission to be ridiculous, than about monogamy, even though monogamy may be part of it. The ability to make another person laugh is one of the most extraordinary things in the world. When you find such a person and don't grab him or her, you're an absolute fool. Life will pass you by as you wait for something that may never materialize."

I couldn't have put it better myself. Especially in the age of AIDS.

Richard Burnett's nationally synbdicated queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill can be read locally in Hour magazine and The Ottawa X Press.