BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week marks the 20th anniversary of a report by federal scientists that noted the emergence of a disease we'd later know as AIDS. The anniversary has initiated a spasm of retrospection by the media which has been assessing the impact of AIDS on the arts, behavior, activism and research. On the Media's Amy Eddings attended a forum in which the audience put the media itself under the microscope!
AMY EDDINGS: Larry Kramer's message for the activists and journalists at Newsweek Magazine's Forum on Two Decades of AIDS was bleak.
LARRY KRAMER: You, what you have to do is, is you have to find a way to save the world if an apocalypse is about to happen or whatever, and that sounds hyperbolic, and it's true.
AMY EDDINGS: Kramer thinks saving the world from AIDS is the media's job. It's certainly been his. HIV positive since 1981, he founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis and Act Up and he writes prodigiously about the epidemic. He's featured in Newsweek, as is researcher Dr. Seth Berkley who expressed frustration at the slow pace of research.
DR. SETH BERKLEY: No vaccine has been fully tested anywhere in the world to see if it works against HIV! Now to me that's shocking! You just heard - this is the worst plague since the 13th Century, and we're just getting around to testing some vaccines after many, many, many years of pushing them through development.
AMY EDDINGS: He says this is partly due to the breathtaking complexities of HIV and how it turns a person's own immune system against itself. But Dr. Berkley, Larry Kramer and others in the room also believe the political will hasn't been generated to get the job done. Newsweek's editor Mark Whitaker says the media doesn't create that will by itself.
MARK WHITAKER: I mean in our society, priorities are driven largely not by the media or even by the public sector; I mean to some degree but also -- and we're doing our part, and I think you can't fault us for not paying attention to this crisis over the last 20 years -- but by the private sector.
LARRY KRAMER: I can fault you for that! [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE] I mean it's got to be paid attention to every day! You know you don't - a plague doesn't go away for 4 issues; it gets worse!
AMY EDDINGS: Many at the forum agreed with activist Ann Northrup who told the panel that even when the media does cover the crisis it ignores the politics.
ANN NORTHRUP: The United States at this very moment is doing everything it can to stop any advance on stopping this plague. It is suing Brazil. It is-- [APPLAUSE] sub-- refusing to let money go to the purchase of generic versions of the drugs. And I can't tell you how angry it makes us-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
MAN: And our government is supporting it!
ANN NORTHRUP: -- that you keep doing these stupid stories about the medicine when it's all about the politics! And I....
AMY EDDINGS: Then came the new drugs which delay the onset of AIDS. Headlines spoke of breakthroughs and remarkable recoveries and new hope. Many feel those stories set back AIDS research and encouraged the current rise in risky behavior among young gay men and others. Newsday's Laurie Garrett believes many of her colleagues, hungry for something new to report, lacked the proper skepticism about the drug cocktails. She also chides journalists for their short memory about AIDS developments. But unlike activist Larry Kramer, Garrett does not believe it is the media's job to "save the world from the epidemic."
LAURIE GARRETT: If you really felt that it was a state of emergency - it's not your role to be an advocate for a particular position - but to give that level of coverage - it's the quantity of the coverage and the depth at which you pursue the story that's really the issue.
AMY EDDINGS: For Dr. Robert Blendon, professor of health policy at Harvard's School of Public Health, the media's coverage has influenced America's awareness of AIDS.
DR. ROBERT BLENDON: The media effect can be most shown when asked about what are the top health problems for the world -- essentially AIDS ties with cancer. So the fact that so many Americans would identify AIDS as one of the top health problems of the world is strictly a media effect. They would have no experience. They'd have no way of knowing that.
AMY EDDINGS: A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found nearly all Americans know that HIV can be transmitted through unprotected sex and sharing intravenous needles. Through the media AIDS has become a part of our culture, written about in Bruce Springsteen songs; dramatized in plays like Angels in America, movies like Philadelphia and campaigned against with the help of red ribbons, charity bike rides and walkathons. Two thirds of Americans in the Kaiser survey said the government should do more, but Harvard's Dr. Blendon says translating this awareness into dollars -- lots of dollars --will require both editorial opinion and political leadership to convince the public that this is a threat beyond all other threats. They would have to see AIDS not only as an epidemic, says Dr. Blendon, but as a war. For On the Media, I'm Amy Eddings.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Coming up, a Serbian journalist gets no honor for accepting an award; the working poor drop under the radar and amateur sportscasters call games on the Net.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from National Public Radio.