To commemorate the 36th anniversary of public health officials’ discovery of the AIDS pandemic, CBS Sunday Morning gave viewers more of the same narrative they’ve been hearing for nearly four decades. The segment, “36 Years and Counting: AIDS in America,” reported by Rita Braver, painted the epidemic’s heroes as white gay men, and its problem as the rest of us, particularly gay men of color, whose irresponsible behavior has blocked progress in ending the epidemic here in the United States.
By repeating these same tropes and myths about the AIDS crisis as an epidemic fueled by irresponsible people, the media has once again failed to explain larger systemic failures. Further, this story missed an opportunity to showcase some of the more exciting developments centered in New York City, where it was reported from. Given the threats currently underway by the Trump administration to further cut AIDS research and HIV prevention and to gut the Affordable Care Act (ACA), we can’t afford to continue perpetuating these myths. Journalists need to do a far better job of reporting why HIV is still with us, and what opportunities we have to truly end the epidemic.
The segment opens with a discussion about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)—a new tool gay men can use to help prevent HIV transmission. A 31-year old white gay man explains that his taking PrEP means that he doesn’t have to wonder about any sexual partners’ HIV serostatus, and that the advent of PrEP has helped change what we mean by safe sex—expanding the definition beyond simply condom use to this new biomedical breakthrough.
He’s positioned as knowledgeable and responsible; I have no problem with his story. What I take issue with is how this position is pitted against other men of color in the story, and used to blame young people for the continuance of new infections.
Braver moves on to discuss the history of the epidemic, and interviews Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH, and Larry Kramer, the writer and activist whose life and work with ACT UP, among other efforts, continues to be exalted in a series of documentaries and in HBO’s recent televised production of his play, The Normal Heart. He’s continually treated as the singular most important voice in the AIDS movement, despite how contentious and controversial his role was, and is now. Kramer here, as per usual, berates and demeans other gay men whom he sees as a continuing problem.
“I’m not grateful that gay people are still leading—many of us—lives that got us into the same kind of mess that we got into in ’81,” Kramer said, after the story noted advancements in medication that extend the lives of people living with HIV and a reduction in new cases, “from some 130,000 new cases per year in 1985, to about 40,000 in 2015.”
Gay men are “relaxing their sense of responsibility and having unsafe sex. And because of this PrEP stuff, which is certainly helpful, people are using it as an excuse to go back and have the crazy sex lives we had in the disco days, and we mustn’t do that,” Kramer added.
But the problem isn’t just Kramer here. Braver and the producers of this segment chose to use these quotes from Kramer’s interview and offer no counterpoint or different take on whether young people are indeed “relaxing their sense of responsibility.” Instead, they move on to reinforce Kramer’s position.
The next voiceover from Braver mentions that the “rate of new HIV cases tends to be higher in the African-American and Latino communities,” putting a finer (and racially specific) point on Kramer’s words about who the real culprits continue to be. The next image we see—and the next and final part of the segment—is a young Latino gay man: Pedro Rios, 22, newly diagnosed with HIV.
Instead of using Rios’ intelligence, self-assurance, and positive outlook as an example of someone whose HIV diagnosis was not a death sentence or a cause for debilitating shame and self-stigma, CBS uses him seemingly as evidence to support Kramer’s claim of a new generation of irresponsibles. Furthermore, this segment doesn’t at all mention the numerous scientific discoveries showing that a person on treatment poses little to no risk of transmitting the virus to others, even if they have sex without a condom.
And Braver doesn’t present any explanation as to how the young man was diagnosed and started treatment so quickly—even when she mentions that not everyone has access to treatment. Given the national dialogue on health care happening at this very moment, Braver could have explored whether Rios has insurance through the ACA Medicaid expansion or the private market exchanges. She could have talked about what happens to his care, as someone with a pre-existing condition, if the GOP’s American Health Care Act is passed in the Senate? Or, she could have asked what innovations in HIV public health and care helped make his transition from negative to positive a relatively easy one.
These questions are not explored, and instead Braver asks the young man why he wasn’t worried about contracting HIV when he was having condom-less sex.
It is true that Black and Latino gay and bisexual men, along with transgender women (who aren’t mentioned at all), are the most vulnerable to new infections. But research does not support the idea that acting irresponsibly—vis-à-vis higher rates of drug use or higher numbers of sexual partners—is to blame for disparate rates of new HIV infections among Black and Latino gay and bisexual men.
Further, while the segment seems mostly centered on New York City, there’s no mention of any of the truly groundbreaking work happening here, such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “End AIDS 2020” plan, which was adopted after a statewide effort of mobilizing of community leadership; the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s’ innovation in reframing safe sex with its “Status Neutral” and “Play Sure” campaigns; or the work to make the dreadful STD clinic more user-friendly and full-service (addressing a range of sexual and reproductive health needs for all New Yorkers). Outside New York, there are communities all over the country that are now shifting their models from responding to an epidemic to actively trying to end it.
Without a doubt CBS Sunday Morning sees its audience as older white people (though, yes, I’m a 42-year-old Black gay man who’s been a viewer nearly all of my life), for whom they could produce a lazy and shallow narrative. While I wish Larry Kramer would stop pretending to speak for the lives of gay men he knows nothing about, I’m equally sick of news editors and reporters for deferring to him as the source who knows what it is to be a young to middle-aged gay man living with the specter of HIV (whether one is positive or negative).
The producers at CBS Sunday Morning could have done a basic Google search to look at what work is actually happening now and the second- and third-generation of Black and brown activists who are helping to shape new strategies to address HIV as an issue of racial, gender, and economic justice, and in some cases, working closely with first-generation AIDS activists who aren’t Larry Kramer.
If they recognized that we bear the brunt of the epidemic, why was Rios the only one in the story? Despite his strength and intelligence, by coming after the white gay “responsible” PrEP user, and then Kramer’s defaming statements, Rios came across as naive, and emblematic of oversexed gay Latino youth who are why we still have an epidemic. This is totally shameful storytelling.
We spent the previous decade with the media focused on down-low Black men as virtually the only HIV stories to get any national press, and it was a story that proved to be just as blaming, racist, and stigmatizing as this CBS Sunday Morning segment. We can’t afford, in all the historicizing of the epidemic that’s been happening the last several years, to continue to have journalism point to white “responsible” gay men, while treating people who continue to live with HIV or contract the virus as irresponsible, exemplifying the opposite virtues of the likes of Larry Kramer. Real work is happening, and it doesn’t take much effort to uncover it.
All you have to do is care to.