Thursday, April 29, 2004

That sometimes nutty conservative gay blogger superstar Andrew Sullivan is also demanding the New York Times report the good HIV/AIDS news out of San Francisco. Good for him. He writes:

NYT DISTORTIONS II: The New York Times' medical correspondent still hasn't backed away from front-page story in July 2000, predicting a "sub-Saharan" explosion in AIDS and HIV cases in San Francisco.

I questioned his methodology at the time, spurred by the vigilance of Michael Petrelis, an HIV activist. Anyway, the latest data from San Francisco is now in on new AIDS cases in the first quarter of 2004.

Petrelis compares them to previous first quarter results from 1999 onwards. Bottom line:

1999 = 62
2000 = 49
2001 = 56
2002 = 40
2003 = 14
2004 = 8

Now, of course, AIDS cases do not correlate with new HIV cases.

Nevertheless, in five years, numbers of new AIDS cases in San Francisco in the first quarter have dropped from 62 to 8.

Until the New York Times runs this astonishingly good data on its front page, its medical reporter, Lawrence K. Altman, has some 'splaining to do.

Dear Friends:

Today's snail mail brought the San Francisco Department of Public Health's first quarterly report for 2004, full of tables and charts showing the decline of full-blown cases continues.

To me, the most crucial table in the report is always number five because it's for AIDS cases by year and transmission route.

The current report shows in the first three months this year, only eight new AIDS diagnoses were reported. [1]

The number of new AIDS cases for America's AIDS model city, in the first quarter of 2004, has dropped into the single digits.

During this period, there were six gay male cases and 2 gay men who contracted AIDS through IV drug use.

Let's examine just the totals in table five from the past six year's worth of first quarter reports:

2004 = 8

2003 = 14

2002 = 40

2001 = 56

2000 = 49

1999 = 62

[2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

Dare I ask, what will next year's first quarterly surveillance report show? Less than eight? Certainly hope so, and that the same quarterly report for 2006 documents a further drop. Damn, it would be such a great thing for me to live to see the day when zero new AIDS cases are reported in even a single first quarter report for San Francisco.

But I digress.

So San Francisco has not turned into a sub-Saharan village decimated by HIV and AIDS, as widely predicted by the health department and the Centers for Disease Control in 2000, right before the launch of that year's global AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.

In a July 1, 2000, front-page, above the fold story in the New York Times, Lawrence K. Altman, M.D., reporting from Manhattan's W. 43rd Street, informed readers of the following:

"A small but sharp rise in new infections with the virus that causes AIDS has been detected among gay men in San Francisco over the last three years, San Francisco health officials said yesterday.

"The estimated number of new infections in San Francisco nearly doubled to 900 last year from about 500 three years ago after having stabilized following aggressive prevention campaigns.

"The rise is deeply troubling because it was seen in San Francisco, one of the principal centers of the AIDS epidemic that was first detected in 1981. Thus, the rise could signal a new wave of infections there and elsewhere, San Francisco health officials said. San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles were the three cities where AIDS was first recognized. An estimated 6,000 new infections with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, occurred in San Francisco at the peak of the epidemic there in 1982," the Times said. [7]

As if his editors require it, Altman turned to a researcher for analysis from the CDC, an agency with which Altman has a current relationship, and where he once worked as editor of Weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report.

Altman went to Dr. Ronald O. Valdiserri, an AIDS expert at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, who admitted his agency had not reviewed the San Francisco data.

"But, if confirmed, the findings 'are very serious and important,' Dr. Valdiserri said in an interview,'" with the Times.

Why let something as trivial as actually having read the findings deter the Times from giving the CDC one more chance sound an alarm?

The article was just one more example of how Altman skews the news to only include the opinions of CDC researchers, and omits any voices that differ from federal health officials.

If only for argument's sake, I'll assume the dire predictions back in 2000 from CDC for San Francisco, and the entire country, were true.

That means CDC-funded HIV prevention groups, using CDC-designed methodologies and research, in San Francisco and elsewhere were failing to stop HIV and new full-blown AIDS cases.

I'd think if only for the journalistic requirement of providing balance to a story, the Times would insist on voices critical of CDC efforts at HIV prevention.

Since federal health authorities were not meeting the agency's promised goal of reducing HIV transmissions and AIDS diagnoses, including the views of citizens and researchers skeptical of CDC and its local partners in the Times story, would have made for well-rounded journalism.

But that's asking just too much of Altman, the CDC's de facto mouthpiece at the paper of record.

My suggestion to the Times about the data in six years of first quarter AIDS surveillance reports is that it's worth looking at, especially in terms of updating the July 1, 2000, article. Almost four years after that gloomy piece ran, what's happened to the messages from CDC targeting gay men? Is CDC HIV and STD prevention effective and worth supporting? The Times should assign a reporter to answer these and other questions.

And if the science editors decide it's time to look critically at HIV and AIDS statistics from San Francisco's health department for a story, I ask that the story is not assigned to Altman and that the writer reports from here.

That's not asking too much.

1. First quarter, 2004
2. First quarter, 2003
3. First quarter, 2002
4. First quarter, 2001
5. First quarter, 2000
6. First quarter, 1999
7. NY Times; July 1, 2000

Sunday, April 25, 2004

April 25, 2004

Ms. Catherine Mathis
VP for Corporate Communication
The New York Times
New York, NY

Dear Ms. Mathis:

I'm sure you're aware that one of your reporters, Mr. Denny Lee, once worked for the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, a gay civil rights organization. At both groups, Mr. Lee worked as a spokesperson, frequently quoted in the press as such. [1, 2, 3]

However, I write to you because of an April 22 story by Mr. Lee about an automobile magazine targeting the hip-hop generation, which prodded me to question why the Times employs a former spokesperson for the ACLU and Lambda Legal. [4]

Could it be that like the Times' chief medical correspondent Dr. Lawrence K. Altman, who has a special arrangement with his editor to cover one of his former employers, the federal Centers for Disease Control, Mr. Lee has a similar special arrangement with his editor that allows his reporting to appear in the paper, even though he once promoted the agendas of two nonprofit advocacy groups?

Today I performed a search on Google for Mr. Lee and learned that in an October 14, 2001, story about partners of gay victims killed in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, he quoted a lawyer with Lambda Legal, but didn't disclose he used to work for the organization. [5]

In my opinion, this is journalistically akin to how Dr. Altman quotes researchers from the CDC, without revealing his past employment with the federal agency.

It was quite surprising to see on Google how many news releases were issued by either the ACLU or Lambda Legal, listing Mr. Lee as the spokesperson and contact for the respective group.

As a shareholder in the New York Times Company, I'd like to know about Mr. Lee's apparent special arrangement with the paper and if it's equal to the arrangement Dr. Altman has, which permits him to cover a former employer, and not disclose the fact to readers.

What exactly is the Times' policy on revealing to readers past employment opportunities, be it for a federal agency or civil rights advocacy groups?

I look forward to prompt reply.


Michael Petrelis
San Francisco, CA
Ph: 415-621-6267

1. ACLU Archives
2. Lambda Legal release
3. Time magazine article
4. New York Times article
5. NYT article by Mr. Lee quoting a Lambda Legal lawyer

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Village Voice
New York, NY
April 18, 2004

To the editor:

Sharon Lerner made a minor mistake in her April 14 article, Syphilis Relapse.

She wrote that it was in 1998 when the Centers for Disease Control declared syphilis at an all-time low and the federal agency launched a five-year plan to eliminate the age-old scourge from the U.S.

The year was 1999, not 1998. [1]

The CDC, endowed with $287 million in federal and state funds, promised that 2004 would be the year when syphilis no longer afflicted the country. [2]

But despite the agency's expertise and large pot of money, this sexually transmitted infection is flourishing.

For the last three years national numbers have climbed, but there's been virtually no analysis by public health advocates or the press about what went wrong.

More importantly, Congress has held no hearings into the CDC's syphilis elimination debacle and who at the federal health agency is responsible for this.

The CDC owes the people who contracted syphilis, and taxpayers, answers about why the elimination strategy failed.


Michael Petrelis
San Francisco, CA
Ph: 415-621-6267



The Village Voice
April 14, 2004

Syphilis Relapse
by Sharon Lerner

In 1998, syphilis rates were so low the Centers for Disease Control announced a plan to completely eliminate the disease. The agency began an all-out prevention campaign, stepping up syphilis surveillance in New York City and the few counties across the country where it still existed. By 2000, the sexually transmitted infection was at its lowest point since 1941. Soon, the country's top doctors predicted, the dread illness that afflicted Henry VIII, Ivan the Terrible, and even a pope would be nothing more than an unpleasant memory, gone the way of smallpox and other eradicated diseases.

But just six years after the bold elimination plan, syphilis is back. Nationally, cases in gay men shot up more than 15 percent in 2001. In New York City, the number of people with symptoms of syphilis has gone up even further, increasing a total of more than 500 percent between 1998 and 2003, from 82 to 531 people, according to preliminary health department data. As of last week, there were an additional 953 people infected with syphilis but without apparent symptoms, according to the health department. Many more cases of syphilis likely go unreported.


Saturday, April 17, 2004

Dear Friends:

I've been informed by Sr. Mary Elizabeth that in my ten-point proposal to the Times I gave the wrong web address for her incredible site. It is Based on the misinformation from me, Gay City News gives the wrong address for Sister's site, so I will be in touch with the paper and ask them to run a correction.


Gay City News

New York, NY

April 15, 2004

NY Times Confronted on Ethics Policy

by Andy Humm

San Francisco AIDS activist Michael Petrelis, a shareholder of stock in the New York Times, attended the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting April 13 to challenge the paper’s conflicts of interest policy. Petrelis was motivated by the Times’ firing of stringer Jay Blotcher earlier this year after Times editors discovered Blotcher had been a spokesperson for ACT UP fifteen years ago. Petrelis has documented numerous conflicts by Times writers and executives in terms of outside activities and political contributions.

Petrelis especially focused on Dr. Lawrence K. Altman, the paper’s chief medical writer, who writes about the Centers for Disease Control and other health agencies but is also affiliated with the CDC, the Institute of Medicine, and NYU Medical Center among other such groups. The Times says that Altman’s work with these groups was cleared with his editors, but Petrelis says that’s not good enough. “His readers need to know about his associations,” he said. He also criticized Altman for often failing to quote critics of the CDC and its methods in his stories.

Petrelis formally proposed a Reporter’s Disclosure Page for the Times’ website as part of a ten-point reform program, especially as it relates to HIV/AIDS reporting. He also requested that the paper allow its AIDS stories to be archived at, The AIDS Education Global Information System. The Times requires fees for Internet recovery of stories more than seven days old. The Wall Street Journal and many other publications waive these fees for AEGIS.

Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. acknowledged getting Petrelis’s demands and promised to get back to him, but did not respond publicly to the proposals.

Gay City News asked Sulzberger what guidance he would give to young people about what affiliations they had better avoid if they aspire to write for the Times someday, given the fate of Blotcher. He started by relating the “misery” the Times went through after the Jason Blair scandal, then, reading from notes, insisted that Blotcher was not fired because he was a member of ACT UP, but because he was a spokesperson for it. He said the same policy would apply to someone who had been a spokesperson for AARP.

When told that all ACT UP members are considered spokespersons for the egalitarian group, Sulzberger said, “Perhaps you ought to consider changing that policy.”

Petrelis said, “I imagine the Times will reject my proposals,” but felt it was important to raise them because the paper “has so much influence.”

Monday, April 12, 2004

To: Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
Publisher, The New York Times

From: Michael Petrelis
New York Times Shareholder

Date: April 13, 2004

Re: List of Particulars for the New York Times

Dear Mr. Sulzberger:

Here is my list of 10 particulars regarding changes I would like to see instituted at the New York Times. In your capacities as publisher and Chairman of the New York Times Company, please consider my suggestions and proposals.

1. A Reporter's Disclosure Page section added to the Times web site informing readers of outside activities on the part of editorial staff that may influence their reporting.

2. Dr. Lawrence K. Altman’s Reporter’s Disclosure Page will mention his outside associations with the Centers for Disease Control, the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Science, the University of California, the New York University Medical Center, the New York Academy of Sciences, the Josiah Macy Foundation, and the Merck Manual.

3. Every past Altman CDC and HIV related story on the Times’ web site shall carry a disclosure that he formerly worked for the CDC. Any future Altman CDC and HIV related reporting makes the same disclosure – in print and perpetuity on the Times site.

4. Opinions of activists critical of the CDC included in stories, for balance of voices the Times currently lacks.

5. Stories critical of CDC’s taxpayer-funded HIV prevention and surveillance programs will be developed and appear in print.

6. Whenever percentages are used in an AIDS story, particularly one about HIV infection rates, hard numbers are contained along with any percent figure.

7. An update on the Times’ July 1, 2000, front-page article about an alleged HIV increase in San Francisco.

8. The New York Times posts all Federal Election Commission records of editorial staff on the paper’s web site.

9. Make the New York Times AIDS stories available for free, as do myriad other news outlets, to Sister Mary Elizabeth of

10. The New York Times' Neediest Cases Fund and the New York Times Foundation post their six most recent IRS 990 tax returns on their respective sites.

I eagerly await a reply from you.


Michael Petrelis
2215-R Market Street #413
San Francisco, CA 94114
Telephone: (415) 621-6267

Thursday, April 08, 2004

For Immediate Release
April 8, 2004
Contact: Michael Petrelis
(In New York April 11 – 15) 212-929-1023
(In San Francisco thereafter) 415-621-6267


AIDS patient travels to New York for annual shareholders meeting

New York, NY – Michael Petrelis, a gay New York Times shareholder, will hold a press conference on Tuesday, April 13 at 9:30 AM in front of the New Amsterdam Theater, 214 W. 42nd Street, before the start of the annual New York Times shareholders meeting. Petrelis will release a list of particulars charging conflicts of interest by reporters and unfair, unbalanced and biased AIDS coverage.

Petrelis has conducted an in-depth study of federal records, revealing multiple political contributions by New York Times reporters, and will release them at the press conference. Petrelis has also performed an extensive analysis of AIDS reporting by Dr. Lawrence K. Altman and has discovered a pattern of bias in Altman’s stories blindly favorable to his former employer, the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Veteran gay advocate and AIDS patient Michael Petrelis, who lives in San Francisco, is traveling to New York to attend the New York Times’ annual shareholders meeting and present publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. with his concerns.

WHAT: Press conference by HIV-positive gay activist Michael Petrelis

WHEN: April 13, 2004, 9:30 AM

WHERE: New York Times annual shareholders meeting
New Amsterdam Theater
214 W. 42 Street

“Being both a gay man living with HIV and a shareholder in the New York Times, I have many vested interests in the paper, especially its AIDS reporting, which profoundly influences public policies that directly affect my life,” said Petrelis. “Through my blog,, and emails to the public editor, I’ve communicated my concerns to the paper, and have been rebuffed, so now is the time for me to deal with the publisher and his board of directors in person.”

This is the first time in New York Times history that a gay advocate will attend the shareholders meeting.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Dear Mr. Bovino,

I thought your department's job was to examine decisions and actions by
The New York Times. My point is that Ms. Mathis has not adequately
addressed Dr. Altman's conflicts and consistent lack of disclosure.

You asked me to supply you with specific recent examples of his work that raise questions. I believe I have done so and I must say I am surprised and somewhat appalled by
your curt reply.

Are you really satisfied that his work and his associations raise no
questions of conflict of interest? And that such associations don't warrant disclosure from the Times? Are you satisfied with his extreme one-sided
reporting? Don't you think his pieces lack essential other voices?

By the way, today's San Francisco Chronicle ran the following disclosure appended to a story from India about the country's AIDS epidemic, written by the paper's chief medical correspondent. [1]

"Sabin Russell is traveling in India on a grant from the Kaiser Family Foundation."

The Times might consider following the San Francisco Chronicle's example of routinely informing readers of reporters' associations outside of the paper.

I would appreciate a more detailed reply than your last one.

Michael Petrelis

1. San Francisco Chronicle


Forwarded Message:

Subj: Re: What's wrong with Dr. Altman's NYT stories?
Date: 4/1/2004 3:55:51 PM Central Standard Time
Sent from the Internet (Details)

Dear Mr. Petrelis,

As I understand it, Catherine Mathis has responded to your concerns regarding Mr. Altman's background.

I do not see what more I can add.

Arthur Bovino
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Forwarded Message:
Subj: Re: ACT UP visits Punch Sulzberger's 5th Avenue apartment
Date: 3/31/2004 3:57:00 PM Central Standard Time
Sent from the Internet (Details)

Dear Mr. Petrelis,

Thank you for your message.

If Mr. Altman's articles concern you, please cite current specific examples and we will look into them.

Arthur Bovino
Office of the Public Editor

Arthur Bovino
The New York Times
New York, NY

Dear Mr. Bovino,

You’re welcome and thank you for contacting me.

There are several recent articles by Dr. Altman that concern me.

In his March 9, 2004, story from the CDC’s annual STD conference he wrote, “early reports indicate that syphilis rates jumped in 2003 for the third consecutive year.

”The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had expected to eliminate syphilis in this country by 2005, but the agency has virtually abandoned this goal. At a news conference, Dr. John M. Douglas Jr., who directs a program at the centers to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, said, ‘We won't be there by then.’" [1]

What troubles me about this passage is that I believe Dr. Altman’s blind loyalty to the CDC interferes with his truly examining their failure to stop the rise of syphilis.

The CDC in October 1999, with great fanfare, announced an ambitious five-year plan to eliminate syphilis from the United States. [2]

This plan projected $186.8 million in federal funds for the effort, an additional $100.4 million from state and local health departments, for a total of $287.2 million dedicated to CDC’s syphilis elimination. [3]

CDC’s stated goal of wiping out syphilis is an abject failure, considering rates rose for three years running and no end to the rise in view, and with close to $300 million dollars apparently having had no impact on controlling this sexual infection.
I would expect an unbiased medical reporter to write a balanced story on the topic of syphilis, the CDC’s five-year plan coming to an end, an analysis of its results, and the voices of CDC critics, giving proper attention to assessing what went wrong with CDC syphilis prevention. Of course, this would require a reporter without a special arrangement with his editors because of his well-established connections to the federal disease centers, and that is not Altman.

Altman, who favorably tilts all CDC-related stories toward his former employer, excludes activists and researchers critical of the agency. And the Times didn’t disclose Altman’s links to CDC -- a fact of which Times readers should continually be reminded. [4]

A March 11 story by Altman about a new study from the San Francisco Department of Public Health on the use of crystal meth and Viagra by gay men and related rising HIV infection rates followed Altman’s pattern of only quoting the researchers and the federal funding agency, which in this case was the CDC. By the way, there are questions about those statistics. [5]

This story also didn’t mention that one of the San Francisco researchers, Dr. William Wong, currently employed by the city’s health department, is also a graduate of the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service. Other alumni of the EIS include Dr. Altman.

Altman’s February 28 article about better detection and prevention of infectious diseases for women and newborns is another example of how he sees just one side to a given story. The voices of CDC and UNAIDS leaders are contained in the story, and comments from people outside these institutions are excluded. [6]

Another Altman story in which only the views of CDC researchers and their collaborators merit attention was his February 17 article about improving HIV reporting to better reflect the scope of the epidemic. [7]

In this article Altman wrote that, “Dr. Denis Nash, formerly of the city health department and now with the New York Academy of Medicine, reported New York City data on new H.I.V. cases for 2001.”

Nothing wrong with that on the surface, however, Altman failed to disclose to readers he is a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine; an important fact that may have influenced his reportage. [8]

Let’s also look at Altman’s January 10 story about the deaths of 93 children from influenza. Another Altman news account in which just a CDC official, in this case the head of the agency Dr. Julie Gerberding, is quoted. [9]

And one critic has pointed out how truly crazy Altman’s angle on this story was. [10]

There is also his January 3 article about the avian flu spreading across Asia. Only the opinions of World Health Organization officials are included. No voices from outside this agency are quoted, showing again Altman’s predilection for getting a single side to a story. [11]

Furthermore, Altman reported that, “medical and veterinary schools need to cooperate more [to control the bird flu], said Dr. Frederick A. Murphy, dean emeritus of the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.”

What was left out was the fact that Altman is associated with this university. He serves without pay on the board of visitors of the medical school at the University of California’s Davis campus, which should have been revealed to readers. [12]

This is not Altman’s only association with the university. His book, “Who Goes First? The Story of Self-Experimentation in Medicine,” is published by the University of California Press, background that should have been brought to the attention of readers. [13]

I am particularly astonished by the Times’ lack of disclosure of Dr. Altman’s conflicts given how rigorous your standards seem to be:

“A restaurant review in the Dining section last Wednesday about Spice Market, on West 13th Street in Manhattan, awarded it three stars. The writer was Amanda Hesser, The Times's interim restaurant critic. Last May, before her assignment to that post, Ms. Hesser published a book, ‘Cooking for Mr. Latte,’ that was praised in a jacket blurb by the restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who later opened Spice Market. He wrote: ‘Amanda Hesser's charming personality shines as the reader experiences the life and loves of a New York City gourmet. `Cooking for Mr. Latte' is perfectly seasoned with sensuality and superb recipes.’ The review should have disclosed that background.” [14]

Odd that the Times thinks it necessary to issue a note about a restaurant critic’s conflict of interest with someone she is reviewing, but the same disclosure is not required of Altman and his past and present associations with a federal agency, a university and a professional organization he covers.

I eagerly await your reply.


Michael Petrelis
San Francisco, CA