Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The excerpt below is from the book “AIDS Demo Graphics,” written by Douglas Crimp with Adam Rolston, published by Bay Press in Seattle.

While reading the book over the weekend I was impressed with how the authors vividly capture the spirit and political problems we faced in the 1980s, as queers in America and people living with HIV disease.

After putting the book down, three thoughts came to mind: 1) ACT UP’s claim in 1989 that the NY Times was rewriting news releases from the Centers for Disease Control is as true today as it was then. Just as in 1989, Dr. Lawrence K. Altman pens today’s Times stories about HIV and the CDC, and he rarely, if ever, includes voices critical of the agency in his news stories. Some things never seem to change at the Times.

2) After the action at Punch Sulzberger’s pad and the paper’s W.43rd Street headquarters, our action received no news coverage from the mainstream press, some attention from the gay media, and an intelligent analysis of it all from Doug Ireland, who wrote the Press Clips column for the Village Voice at the time. It’s a shame Ireland’s piece is not available online.

3) Decades of homo-hatred at the Gray Lady cannot be erased or changed overnight, and it’s been a relatively short period since the paper began using the word “gay” instead of “homosexual” and turned from demeaning and debasing the gay community into the champion of equality for us that it is today. There is still need for improvement related to gay and AIDS issues at the paper.

If you have a copy of Ireland’s fantastic Voice column from 1989, please send it to me.


AIDS Demo Graphics
By Douglas Crimp with Adam Rolston
Published in 1990


"Punch" Sulzberger's Fifth Avenue residence and the New York Times Company, New York City, July 26, 1989

A book will one day be written about the New York Times's continuous failure to report the AIDS crisis accurately -- if at all. It will no doubt begin with the infamous comparison noticed by Larry Kramer:

• During the first 19 months of the AIDS epidemic (by the end of which time there had been 891 reported cases), the Times carried seven articles about it, none of them on the front page.

• During the three months of the Tylenol scare in 1982 (seven cases), the Times carried fifty-four articles about it, four of them on the front page.

If all along, the failure of official policymakers to respond to the epidemic was a result of their disregard for the populations in which the disease was first noticed-primarily gay men-the New York Times seconded their contempt. Homophobia is notorious at the Times, well known by any lesbian or gay man who reads the paper and every day sees news about us distorted, trivialized, or completely ignored; known, too, from stories told by closeted gay people working on the inside-closeted because being openly gay at the Times is cause for immediate dismissal. It took eighteen years of pressure from lesbian and gay organizations to get the Times to use the word gay instead of homosexual, and the paper does so now reluctantly and selectively. When AIDS began to claim the lives of more and more gay men, the Times adamantly refused to report AIDS as the cause of death or to list gay lovers among surviving family members. And the Times insists on "AIDS victims" against the express wishes of people with AIDS, who prefer precisely that: people with AIDS.

But those of us in the - AIDS activist movement know the depth of the Times's contempt to be far greater. Because of the newspaper's racism, sexism, and class bias, no one affected by AIDS appears to matter to Times editors and writers, or to be understood as included among their readers -- no one, that is, but the "exceptional" "victims": the white middleclass hemophiliac child, the white middle-class heterosexual transfusion recipient. Because w e don't count for the Times, AIDS has been a minor news story, one that doesn't require full-time specialized reporters, investigative reporters, reporters knowledgeable of the science and politics of AIDS.

The New York Times sent one reporter to the Fifth International AIDS Conference in Montreal, attended by over 12,000 people (New York Newsday, a tabloid, sent five). The Times reporter didn't bother to attend the opening ceremonies, which were commandeered by hundreds of international AIDS activists in order to read a MANIFESTO OF THE RIGHTS OF PEOPLE WITH AIDS -- just one more AIDS story the Times therefore missed (national network news programs found time for it even though it happened the same day the Ayatollah Khomeini died and hundreds of Chinese students were massacred in Tiananmen Square).

Least of all does the Times feel the necessity of having its reporters consult with people with AIDS or people working within the communities most seriously affected by the epidemic. One Times reporter confessed, "Times editors discourage use of the word community; they consider it jargon." The most serious result of the Times's failure to imagine those of us living every day with AIDS as among its readership is its failure to cover drug treatment and access issues. ACT UP's expertise in these areas has made us all the more painfully aware of the Times's blind prejudice, its ignorance, and its disinterest in saving lives.

ACT UP considered going after the Times on several occasions, but always opted for less intransigent adversaries or those whose ignorance or arrogance might be modified by public pressure. But a Times editorial of June 29,1989, titled "Why Make AIDS Worse Than It Is?" was the last straw. In its desire to reassure its readers that the epidemic was leveling off and in any case would never be their worry, the editorial typified the newspaper's often-repeated position on AIDS, but this one reached new heights of callousness. The editorial's argument had often appeared before in rightwing journals: that those of us fighting the epidemic, especially the “powerful gay lobby," exaggerate forecasts in order to get more funding (one wonders, do the officially reported 100,000 + cases have to be exaggerated in order to make someone-the Times, say-pay attention?). According to the Times, dire predictions for the future are misguided. AIDS is "leveling off" because "the disease is still very largely confined to specific risk groups. Once all susceptible members are infected, the numbers of new victims will decline." In other words, "Soon all the fags and junkies will be dead, and we'll be rid of AIDS." The Times thus reveals why it still prefers to think about AIDS epidemiology in terms of "risk groups" rather than risk behaviors.

As ACT UP began planning an action, the Outreach Committee struck immediately with two crack-and-peel stickers, BUY YOUR LIES HERE for newsstands and OUT OF ORDER to place over the coin slot of Times vending machines. Another recently invented technique was set in motion: a fax zap. The Times’s fax numbers were distributed at the weekly meeting, and ACT UP member were encouraged to use our employers’ fax machines to jam those at the newspaper with out complaints.

Because Times policy is set at the top, ACT UP decided on publisher Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger’s Fifth Avenue residence as a starting point for our protest. During the night of July 23, the streets outside Sulzberger’s apartment were painted with outlines of bodies and the inscription ALL THE NEWS THAT FIT TO KILL. Three days later, 200 ACT UP members gathered at the same spot for an angry demonstration. Fliers with a series of questions were handed out to Punch’s neighbors:

-- Why does the Times refuse to print information about new AIDS treatments until long after their discovery?

-- Why, instead of actively investigating the work of federal health organizations, does the Times merely rewrite the press releases of the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Institutes of Health, among others?
n Why does the Times currently have no AIDS reporter in Washington, D.C., the city from which most crucial treatment policies originate?
n Why would the Times write an editorial that supports New York City health commissioner Stephen Joseph’s plan for an end to anonymous testing and the implementation of contact tracing, a proposal repudiated by both the medical community and a panel of AIDS experts?

At the demonstration, ACT UP found out just how much clout the newspaper has in New York City: the police department guarded Sulzberger’s residence with ranks equal in numbers to our own, and not a single story about the protest appeared in the mainstream media. Deterred at the publisher’s digs, ACT UP’s legions proceeded to march down Fifth Avenue and over to the Times offices on West 43rd Street. There we were met with an even bigger police gang, fully determined to protect the Times’s property rights against our own rights of free assembly and speech.

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