BY ED SIKOV | Courtesy of Peter Staley, writing in the Huffington Post, chronicling the mirth-filled reaction of the Reagan administration to AIDS:
Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement — the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” [Laughter.] No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the president is aware of it?
SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? [Laughter.]
Q: No, I don’t.
SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the president —
SPEAKES: How do you know? [Laughter.]
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
SPEAKES: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
Q: Does the president, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
SPEAKES: I don’t think so.
As Staley points out, the first question about AIDS to be posed to President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, came in the middle of October 1982 — 17 months after the first reported cases. And as we can see from the transcript, it was all a big joke, not only to Reagan’s staff but to the assembled journalists as well. May they all rot in hell.
Cut to the fall of 2014. Ebola is ravaging West Africa, killing thousands of people and poised to kill 10,000 a month by December. The American media responds in full panic mode. It’s widely characterized as a “crisis” even here, though the death of one person in the US as of October 29 scarcely constitutes a crisis. As the weeks progress, the press pays scanter and scanter attention to the horrific conditions and metastasizing mortality rate in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, preferring to set up encampments 24/ 7 outside those few hospitals in the US that are treating the handful of Ebola patients, clearly in the hope that someone else will die a horrible death so they can ratchet up the panic level another few notches and improve their ratings and boost their advertising revenue.
To their credit, most media outlets have made a point to note at least somewhere in their coverage that Ebola is very hard to transmit and that people with the Ebola virus are not infectious until they are symptomatic. But the mule-like public persists in braying about how confusing it all is, in no small measure because of the breathless tone of television, radio, and print news outlets. A second-grade girl on Long Island has a cousin who flew in from West Africa, and half the school is kept home by idiot parents — this despite the fact that the girl herself is kept home as well. The willfully ignorant can be partly forgiven though, since the facts of Ebola transmission in news accounts always appear well after the hysterical opening paragraphs.
Still, the wretched fact is that at least people give a governor’s ass about Ebola. The same could not be said of AIDS. For the first two years of the epidemic, when hundreds of gay men were dying and the rest of us were turning inside-out with terror, the so-called “gay plague” made no impression whatsoever on then-Mayor Ed Koch, then-Governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, and the clown king himself, Ronald Reagan. The New York Times spent next to no time on the subject at all; on those rare occasions when something appeared in its pages, it invariably appeared on a Tuesday — in Science Times alongside articles about the mating habits of moles and whatever Jane Brody was suffering from that week. The only source of information about AIDS on the East Coast was the New York Native, the gay paper that printed the first article ever about the disease. Its author was Dr. Lawrence Mass, who continues to be a sentinel on the issue of gay men’s health.
My Media Circus column will continue to follow the Ebola story in the months ahead. Having lived through the AIDS epidemic, we have a moral obligation to do so.