CNN on HIV in Africa: Listen to the 'Experts,' Not the Pope

Zain Verjee, CNN Correspondent | NewsBusters.orgCNN’s Zain Verjee couldn’t seem to find any health care “experts” who agreed with Pope Benedict XVI during a report on Tuesday’s Situation Room about the “political firestorm” the pontiff apparently set off during his first visit to Africa. Verjee not only cited unnamed “experts” who disagreed with the pope’s statement that the distribution of condoms on the continent “increases the problem” of HIV/AIDS instead of helping it, but also found “some priests and nuns working with AIDS victims in Africa question the church’s anti-condom policy.”

Anchor Wolf Blitzer introduced the correspondent’s report, hyping how “Pope Benedict XVI is facing a condom controversy right now. That may be last thing he needs on his first tour of Africa, [which is] struggling to cope with a massive AIDS epidemic.” Verjee continued in this vein: “Pope Benedict XVI set off another political firestorm, even before he landed in Africa, saying condoms could make the HIV/AIDS crisis worse. He told reporters, ‘It’s a tragedy, but you can’t resolve with it the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.’

After citing how “health experts disagree” with the pope’s stance, Verjee played the first of two sound bites from Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the only named “expert” in the report, who, as you might guess, argued in favor of condoms’ effectiveness against HIV/AIDS.  In his second sound bite however, Dr. Fauci did seem to be more open to the pope’s message of abstinence than CNN: “In certain circumstances, abstinence is important. And, obviously, if you don’t have sexual relations, you’re not going to get HIV through a sexual contact. But it has its place.”

The CNN correspondent did play two other sound bites, but neither one were directly related to the condom issue. The first came from an African women who was happy the pope was visiting, and the other was from the pontiff himself. She concluded her report by again citing unnamed “experts” who echoed President Obama’s line about putting “science over ideology” on embryonic stem cell research: “In light of the pope’s comments, experts say people really just need to listen to the health care workers and experts and to the community leaders on how to avoid HIV infection. Some experts say that, with all due respect to the pope, this is a health issue and not a religious issue. Wolf, the church would argue it’s a morality issue.”

The full transcript of Verjee’s report, which began 49 minutes into the 6 pm Eastern hour of Tuesday’s Situation Room:

WOLF BLITZER: Pope Benedict XVI is facing a condom controversy right now. That may be last thing he needs on his first tour of Africa, [which is] struggling to cope with a massive AIDS epidemic. Let’s go back to Zain. She’s got the details. What’s going on, Zain?

ZAIN VERJEE: Wolf, he’s been pope for four years, but he’s never talked openly about condoms. Well, today he did.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can see the plane now.

VERJEE (voice-over): Pope Benedict XVI set off another political firestorm, even before he landed in Africa, saying condoms could make the HIV/AIDS crisis worse. He told reporters, ‘It’s a tragedy, but you can’t resolve with it the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.’ Health experts disagree.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NIAID: Condoms have been proven time and again to play a major role in the prevention of the transmission of HIV infections. There’s no evidence whatsoever to indicate that the distribution of condoms to people who would be using condoms in any manner or form makes them engage in more risky sexual activity.

VERJEE: From Cameroon, the pope will go to Angola, and what the pope says matters in Africa. Twenty-two million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV/AIDS -- a continent where Catholicism is finding converts.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, it’s a pleasure to receive the pope today.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: Even amidst the greatest suffering, the Christian message always brings hope.

VERJEE: The Vatican is pushing sexual abstinence and one-partner relationships to fight HIV/AIDS.

FAUCI: In certain circumstances, abstinence is important. And, obviously, if you don’t have sexual relations, you’re not going to get HIV through a sexual contact. But it has its place.

VERJEE: But some priests and nuns working with AIDS victims in Africa question the church’s anti-condom policy. President Bush poured billions of dollars into HIV/AIDS programs in Africa for treatment, education, and prevention. But, like the pope’s message, those programs stressed abstinence and monogamy, while downplaying the role of condoms.

VERJEE (on-camera): In light of the pope’s comments, experts say people really just need to listen to the health care workers and experts and to the community leaders on how to avoid HIV infection. Some experts say that, with all due respect to the pope, this is a health issue and not a religious issue. Wolf, the church would argue it’s a morality issue -- Wolf?

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center