Monday was World AIDS Day, and one standard item of media bias every year is lamenting how some people still persist in thinking "AIDS is a gay disease," or a disease acquired by intravenous drug users – in short, often acquired by behavior, not by chance. This is not an ideological argument. It’s a medical fact. From that claim, it’s often a way for reporters to lament that "homophobia" persists. CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen reported on Monday morning with a Phil Donahue-style isn’t-this-a-new-century report.
HEIDI COLLINS, anchor: Wow, what a story. They live with a debilitating disease and they have to fight the discrimination of others, too. Still stigmatized by HIV. The story on this world AIDS day...Today marks the 20th anniversary of World AIDS Day. So years after the facts of AIDS are known, why does the stigma remain? Our medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen is here now with that story. It's a good question.
ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is a good question. Because you and I certainly remember the days of Ryan White and the stigma of HIV and AIDS was so huge. And we talked to experts has it gotten better and they said yes it has but it still has not improved as much as it should.
But wait: Ryan White was a child who acquired AIDS through a blood transfusion. There was discrimination against him, but the media also turned him into a dramatic cause celebre against AIDS ignorance. The villain in his story should be the anonymous infected blood donor at least as much as anyone who made him feel rejected. The videotaped story began (video is here):
COHEN (voice-over): 24-year-old Antron Reshaud knows a thing or two about stigma.
ANTRON RESHAUD, HIV POSITIVE: I found out that I was HIV positive, it was around 2004. When my mother found out it was one of the reasons why she decided to put me out.
COHEN: Reshaud was diagnosed at age 20. And the discrimination began almost immediately.
RESHAUD: It just hurts me so much when I hear the things, you know, the stories about how people are constantly kicked out of their homes or how they have to go to work and you know they are made fun or they're fired from their jobs because they happen to be positive.
COHEN: It's 2008. More than 25 years into the HIV, AIDS epidemic and still people who were infected are often unable to avoid the stigma that surrounds this disease.
Over that sentence, CNN aired footage of lesbians and gay men walking arm in arm and hand in hand at a march, a clear visual signal that "homophobia" was their target. Notice that Cohen doesn’t provide any statistics about how many are "constantly kicked out of their homes" or how many are "fired from their jobs because they happen to be" HIV-positive. For a medical reporter who’s laying on the politics a bit thick, perhaps more social science would be a good idea. But then, the story turned into how conservatism kills people with AIDS:
FRANK OLDHAM: It's a matter of pure ignorance. It's a matter of prejudice.
COHEN: Frank Oldham is president and CEO of the National Association of People with AIDS. He says that prejudice is deeply rooted in the belief that AIDS is still a gay disease and the consequences can be fatal.
OLDHAM: It acts as a barrier to people getting tested, getting their HIV test, knowing their HIV status, and getting into care and treatment. Because they're afraid to be identified as someone living with HIV/AIDS.
Let’s get this straight: Citizen A acquired the HIV virus, and fails to get tested because of his fear of societal attitudes, and so the blame is all on society? Notice the ideology behind these reports, the unscientific suggestion that AIDS is like acquiring a cold, that it just happens to people. Would a medical correspondent do a story on the "stigma" against smokers and how lung cancer just happens to them? If they fail to get cancer screenings, can it be blamed on the American Lung Association for adding to the stigma of smoking?
Cohen goes on to lament remaining ignorance about the disease, which is sad, but CNN is spreading the ignorance by suggesting to viewers that AIDS is transmitted like other communicable diseases.
COHEN: And for those who don't have the disease -
DR. KEVIN FESTON, CDC: There's the fear of contagion. The simple fear of becoming infected by HIV and not really understanding or knowing ways in which the disease is transmitted.
COHEN: Last year a three-year-old HIV positive boy was banned from using a public swimming pool and shower in Alabama. A few weeks ago students at a high school in St. Louis were ostracized when someone connected with their school tested positive for the disease. A survey by the MAC AIDS Fund found more than 30 percent of Americans are uncomfortable working with someone with HIV or AIDS. And that includes health care professionals.
OLDHAM: If the doctor doesn't claims he doesn't know how to treat them. They really don't want to treat them.
COHEN: One in five Americans with HIV doesn't even know he or she has the disease. When HIV is diagnosed late the results can be deadly.
FESTON: More than 40 percent of people who are diagnosed with HIV in the United States progress to full-blown AIDS within a year of their diagnosis.
COHEN: Reshaud hopes to reduce that number by convincing others to get tested and seek the proper treatment.
After the story ended, Cohen and Collins again professed their personal opinion that the AIDS "stigma" must vanish:
COHEN: Now because that stigma has not gone away even after all these years the Center for Disease Control does have a program to help ease that stigma. Maybe next year on World AIDS Day we won't be talking about the same story.
COLLINS: Well, I hope not. Is that program or are there other programs out there that are working on even more awareness? I don't know, in schools or something.
COHEN: Yes, absolutely. You know who has been really active on this has been churches. Churches in communities where HIV is more prevalent. The first step, the first thing they're trying to do is just to get people to talk about it. Because, you know, there was this saying that's been out there for a long time, silence equals death. Just talking about HIV is the first step. And sometimes it's hard to get people to do that.
Later in the day, at 1 pm, the Cohen report ran again, and anchor Betty Nguyen was asking about HIV-testing recommendations by the American College of Physicians:
COHEN: So, let us take a look at who ought to get tested for HIV. This group says that anyone ages 13 or over, should at least be offered screening. You don't want to be screened without knowing it, but you should at least be offered screening --
NGUYEN: 13, though? 13 and over?
COHEN: Sure. I mean, look we talked about that high school. Many people contract HIV when they're teenagers. And secondly, higher risk patients ought to be tested more frequently. So, we're talking about folks who are intravenous drug users, we're talking about folks who are gay. And then that screening needs to be repeated on a case by case basis because of course, you can be negative you know, one minute and you know, positive several years later. Or, you know, you can be positive the next day depending upon what you're doing.
After at least two airings of scolding about "stigma" about HIV/AIDS, Cohen is openly discussing how "folks" who are gay or intravenous drug users are at "higher risk" of getting HIV/AIDS. Isn't that exactly what some of the "stigma" promoters were trying to argue? Of course, no one who disapproved of the morality of some AIDS sufferers were allowed to speak at any time in Cohen's story.