Sunday, February 17, 2008

And his work lives on.

Fourteen years ago today, Randy Shilts died. It's odd that I'd remember the actual day, as I'm usually pretty bad with dates (even important family-related ones: the kind where nobody talks to you for a while if you forget them). I did not know Randy personally. There's just some reason why the date sticks in my mind. One of those things, I guess.

Randy Shilts is well worth remembering, though, for he was perhaps America's preeminent gay journalist. Regular readers know that I don't link group identities and occupations/accolades in that manner—"foremost female violinist"; "first African-American president"; "respected left-handed Navajo investment banker"—and I recoil from such labeling when I encounter it elsewhere. In this case I think it's apt. Especially in HIV's uncertain early years, when everyone in the medical establishment was trying to figure out what the hell was happening to gay men, and everyone in the political establishment was trying to figure out a better way of not giving a damn, and even journalists were shrugging off "gay cancer" as some utterly distasteful thing that was beneath comment...Shilts' remarkable reporting was a talisman of the plague to come.

He worked for the San Francisco Chronicle and took the paper's name and mandate seriously: He became the nation's foremost chronicler of the emerging AIDS epidemic. The highlight of that effort (though by no means the end of it) was his 1987 book, And the Band Played On, which is both exhaustively comprehensive and narratively spellbinding. When I taught journalism at Indiana University, I used it in class as proof that honest journalism could be mesmerizing without sacrificing its core mission of providing reliable facts.

The AIDS bandwagon, it must be said, overcorrected in time. Though the complaints of neglect continue (and may have some merit again now, given that the so-called gay agenda isn't too high on the Bush Administration's radar), during the mid-years of the crisis there was more money being spent per capita on AIDS research than on some diseases that threatened and killed far more Americans. Once Rock Hudson came out of the closet and gave that oh-so-sad 1985 press briefing from his wheelchair—looking utterly wasted and nothing like the matinee idol America knew from his roles opposite Doris Day—it was as if we suddenly couldn't talk about HIV enough. People felt they had to make an elaborate show of just how much they cared about AIDS. This tendency, no doubt born of guilt, extended even into the realm of clinical research at the highest levels. Spokespeople at the CDC and NIH began overselling the epidemic, the most egregious example being a mid-90s repackaging of AIDS as "Everyone's Disease." That was the new message: AIDS was destined to break out of its core groups and overspread the American landscape with a vengeance. CDC officials shared this troubling news at major press conferences, even as upstairs in that same building, top doctors actively working the disease continued to say among themselves that no such breakout was imminent or even likely. I know this because I interviewed several of them for a controversial and (then) highly impolitic story I wrote on the subject.* Instead of going through the usual media channels, I just got myself a CDC directory and began dialing numbers. I was shocked at how many people were willing to speak to me without going through channels themselves. But that's research types for you.

Anyway, my inside sources were correct. That breakout has not occurred, despite the ongoing alarmism from first-name-only media stars like Oprah, Ellen, and Rosie. If you analyze the data, it's clear that AIDS remains largely confined to the initial groups Shilts cited two decades ago: gay men, prostitutes, women with bisexual partners, and IV drug users. (Several of those categories overlap.) I always thought that in attempting to make the disease "bigger" and "more relevant," the powers-that-be actually did a disservice to gays.

Why did this have to be "America's disease" to be important? Is a gay man's life not worth as much as mine or my daughter's in its own right? I think Randy Shilts, in his heart, agreed.

Tragically but almost fittingly, he would succumb to the disease he covered. On February 17, 1994, the craft of journalism lost not only a dedicated practitioner and gifted storyteller, but a man of vision and perspective. In the piece I just did for Skeptic, I talk about journalists with no sense of proportion who find all sorts of cosmic significance in meaningless random events. Shilts was just the opposite. He did his homework, interviewed his sources, and found and filed stories that mattered, including one of the stories of the closing years of the 20th Century.** And he didn't have to create some faux "cause" in the course of doing that. He just reported on what he found. Which, really, is all a good journalist should ever do.

* I'm going to do something I almost never do on this blog and ask you to trust me on this one. For some inexplicable reason, though I keep copies of just about everything I write, including all associated research materials, I can't seem to find anything related to that piece, titled "AIDS: Undue Alarm?", for the September 1993 issue of American Legion. And I don't have time to reconstruct my entire argument here. I can only tell you, and ask you to accept on faith, that several of the major players in HIV research were openly dismissive of the "alarmist" attitudes that the CDC was attributing to them at that very moment. They gave me the statistical breakdowns and scientific rationales to prove it. When my piece ran, there were quite a few closed-door meetings held at the agency, I am told.
Please also realize that these comments have nothing to do with HIV in the Third World, which is a whole different matter.
** If you read the Skeptic piece, you know my basic argument: that almost all daily journalism occupies itself with trivia. And if relevance can be defined as "the number of people who are directly affected by a given story," then most stories have little relevance for the average American. So yes, Shilts' reportage gave us a relatively small lens on life, because most people do not contract, or die of, AIDS. But among the trend pieces journalism typically covers
, AIDS surely must be ranked among the biggest of the small, if you will. And certainly within Shilts' native community (both geographically and personally), this was a huge story from beginning to...well, wherever we are in the AIDS saga.


jape said...

Let me take this opportunity to thank you for your blog. I am in my late 30's and come from a fundamental religios background. This business of taking a reasoned, clear eyed view of things....and having the courage to say out loud that the emperor is not wearing any clothes, is all very refreshing and cathartic. I agree with you that in this case, as in all cases, lack of integrity tends to hurt more than it the long run. People like Shilts give us a glimpse of what it means to be honorable in an ever insane world.

Steve Salerno said...

I'll return the favor: Let me thank you, Jape, for visiting and commenting. I hope that I can hold your interest in the weeks and months ahead.

Anonymous said...

I came out because of Randy Shilts. He gave me the courage. It may sound odd that I'm posting this anonymously after talking about coming out, but there are actually other reasons for that. You see, I'm one of those TV journalists who hype meaningless news. ;) (And you know what? I agree with you, Steve, for the most part!)

Great blog. I'll be a regular from now on.

Steve Salerno said...

I should mention that two people have emailed me today to ask if I'm "secretly gay." Or bi. This is hilarious to me. Well, maybe not hilarious, strictly speaking, but more like tragicomic. (The answer is no to both, btw.) So if you write something complimentary about a gay guy, or seem in any way sympathetic to a "gay cause," that means you're secretly gay? And I figure if two people actually write, then dozens (at least) must be thinking it. It doesn't enter their minds that what we're talking about here is a simple question of human empathy/decency?

That couldn't possibly be the explanation, from their POV?

This is exactly the kind of partisan thinking that we need to get away from. And fast. The same applies to politics: If you like Obama's platform, then by all means vote for Obama. If you like Hillary's politics, vote for Hillary. But PLEASE don't do either because "he's a brother/she's a woman, just like me...."

Anonymous said...

I guess you can't wonder at people thinking you're gay (maybe) after the "I'm not even a guy" post the other day, followed by this. The thing is, why does it matter?

Anonymous said...

I didn't think you were gay or bi when I read this blog, but kind of understand those e-mails. A lot of people, for whatever reason, seem to speak of themselves when blogging about others. I know of a closet gay man who blogged extensively about Larry Craig and how the media was attacking Craig because of his homosexuality (which Craig denies being) arrest, etc. It's a lot like the old "I have a friend with this problem" routine. I think that's maybe what people infered by your post.

mikecane2008 said...

I remember the first national news report about it. Dan Rather, and it was then called "GRID" -- "Gay-Related Immune Deficiency."

For all those people wondering if you are gay or not, I suggest reading:

The Homo Fag Queer We All Owe

That Funny, That Nasty, That Charming Man

There are worse things in the world to be than gay: Narrow-minded, bigoted, idiotic, dull, fearful, just to name five.

The Crack Emcee said...


That last comment struck a nerve:

When I first saw them, I was moved by the very-black, very-hardcore, and very-gay, films of Marlon Riggs. I liked their passion. Anyway, when he died, I went to his funeral and - completely unplanned - when it was asked if anyone wanted to speak, I did. And his family was so moved by what I said, and that I (a very-straight Rapper) could get into his movies, they invited me to stand in the recieving line with them.

And you know what happened? Guys started hitting on me - in the recieving line! It was outrageous, and kinda creepy, that so many people had absolutely no propriety; no sense of the occasion; even pinching me on the ass. I didn't say anything but I've never thought of gay men the same way since. I'm not homophobic, but I don't buy everything I hear from them, politically, either.

As a foster child, with artistic talent, I found myself in "gay" homes occasionally, and, in each one, I always had to chase fools out of my bed after they'd snuck in as I slept. On the other hand, when I moved to San Francisco, two of my best friends were a gay couple, Ben & Tracy, best friends who, I hope, considering their lifestyle, survived the plague. They were great guys - and damn good fighters - especially Tracy. Fierce.

Anyway, I'm glad you wrote this. Randy Shilts was a very important journalist, and it's nice to be reminded the San Francisco Chronicle was once a really brave paper, rather than the sorry-ass comic book I'm forced to tsk-tsk over, these days.

Anonymous said...

As far as Hillary and Obama go, the only thing separating them is their gender and race. If you take away their names and just look at their stance on issues, you can't tell them apart too much. I took many "blind" tests and was given either candidate.

Anonymous said...

Awesome posts from Mike Cane and Crack. Steve, you should be proud to have such high-quality regulars on your blog!

Steve Salerno said...

Mike and Crack, did you write that last comment together? ;)

Seriously, of course I take pride in being a forum for such folks, and the rest of our regulars, as well as many of those who "pop in" now and then to commit random acts of sagacity. I take pride in the level of feedback/repartee as a whole. I can tell you very forthrightly that the days are long gone when this blog served as a promotional medium for my book (if it ever truly served that function at all; usually people found the blog after having read "SHAM").

If this kind of high-level visitor participation shut down, so would SHAMblog.

Steve Salerno said...

And to make a related comment about the "why does it matter?" question, a few anonymouses (anonymi?) above: That's really the great thing about cyberspace and blogging. Most of the diverting personal aspects fall away, and it all comes down to the merits of what's actually said. Sure, you can tell that some dude may be "black" (as we presently define race in this country) and some dude may be "white," and this one's a girl and that one's a guy--but mostly we just take the comments at face value (or maybe I should say "comment value"), and we respond in thinking-person's terms. I've heard it said that if the Nixon/Kennedy debates had not been seen on TV--that if the performance aspects were irrelevant and it just came down to what was said on some transcript--Nixon would've won that election hands-down. I don't know if that's true, and I don't know if that would've been a good thing in any case--but it certainly does get you thinking.

Imagine our current slate of candidates evaluated purely on cognitive aspects: How different might the polls look?

Then again, are intellect and debating skills the be-and-and-end-all of what we want in our leaders? (Clearly not, given the current occupant of the Oval Office.) But should they be in any case? If it came down to one or the other, would you rather have a truly brainy prez, or a truly "nice," honest one?

I can honestly say that I don't know the answer, for myself.

Anonymous said...

Well, I've concluded that the plural of "anonymous" should be "anonymice" rather than "anonymouses."

Your point about the televised debates is very well taken. I saw the Reagan-Carter debate, and thought Carter wiped the floor with Reagan. But at the end of the debate, Reagan walked over and offered Carter his hand, and it obviously hadn't occurred to Carter to do that--in fact, Carter's stunned response (you could just see the "oh God, what do I do now?!") looked boorish. I went to bed that night without a doubt in my mind that Carter's crushing victory would be all over the morning papers, and you can imagine my horror and chagrin to see the huge headline "REAGAN WINS!!!" when I arose the next morning. I'm convinced to this day that it was the handshake, just as I'm convinced that it's Ron Paul's rather goofy appearance (and possibly voice--I haven't heard him) that keeps him from being taken seriously as a viable candidate.

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, there is Paul's voice--and his Pat Paulsen-esque appearance. (It's almost freaky, really, like life parodying parody.) And then there's Dennis Kucinich's stature and overall dweebishness; it's actually quite sad that a sincere guy like Kucinich could never make a serious run at the presidency. Then we have Hillary's squirrel-like cheeks and her cankles (mean-spirited? Sure. But she just turns a lot of guys off). In fact, I'm somewhat surprised that John McCain is taken seriously, given his age, size and distorted face. I think it's only his status as a "war hero" that redeems him, and enlarges him beyond his actual physical proportions.

Fearless retrospective analysis: If John McCain looked and sounded like Mitt Romney (but with the same ideas as John McCain), he would've been the presidential nominee--and a shoo-in for the office itself--years ago. He would've been reconceptualized as a "great healing voice," rather than someone who even polarized his own party (and always found a way of pissing off all the Dems except Joe Lieberman, too). His altered appearance would've changed the way people saw his ideas. Indeed, if Romney himself had found a way of coming off as less robotic, and hadn't suffered from being a conservative at a time when it's not good to be a conservative--and above all, hadn't been a Mormon--who knows how far he could have gone.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, makes you wonder what would have happened if Kucinich or Paul looked and sounded like Mitt Romney, or, say, the young Mike Gravel...

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, emphasis on the "young," with Mike Gravel. Too bad the guy sounded senile and drunk most of the time, during the few debates they actually let him attend.

The Crack Emcee said...

I don't think Ron Paul can get in because his positions aren't realistic (Eliminating the I.R.S.?) not because of his voice or looks.

I don't think Dennis Kucinich can get in because he's too leftist - and believes he saw a U.F.O. at Shirley McClaine's house - not because of his height or "dweebishness".

I don't think Mitt Romney could get in because he's a Mormon and - until he can explain how Utah became Israel after they first mistook it for California - won't ever stand a real chance.

John McCain is a war hero - a real one; hasn't made a big deal of it - but it's his rationality that's most appealing (He appears to be a deist, like the Founding Fathers) Notice his size, or age, doesn't matter? Nor do his looks - his facial deformity is from a bout with cancer - McCain's just old school (a "real man") with his priorities straight, and that's, at least, attractive to me.

And, in case you're wondering, I'd take the same qualities in a skinny, short, ugly black woman.

Steve Salerno said...

You mean...McCain isn't a black woman?

Your PR Guy said...

This is an interesting segue from the typical. A fresh segue, I might add.

Steve Salerno said...

It's not really apropos of Shilts per se, but given that we're talking about journalists and journalism, I thought I'd mention that my local Philadelphia CBS affiliate is hyping Mad Cow again--in conjunction with that massive beef recall. Why is it that whatever happens in life these days, the media must pick out the absolute scariest angle of the story, package it in terms of the absolute worst-case scenario, and make it sound as if that's what we're imminently facing?

Elizabeth said...

Not being a journalist I'd say that the "absolute scariest angle" gets the greatest number of viewers.

Topics that deal with our most primal fears and desires -- death and sex, notably -- have the greatest power to draw and hold our attention.

From the POV of media programmers, it appears (to me) to be a calculated move to grab as many consumers as possible.

Your PR Guy said...

Being a trained journalist, I'd say Elizabeth is right. That's one reason why I left both of my newspaper posts.

It wasn't a few weeks into each job before I understood ratings mattered more than truth.

Anonymous said...


I remember when the comedian Sam Kinison was almost run out of show business in the early 1990's for pointing out (in his own way) that AIDS was overblown and not that big of a threat to the heterosexual population.
"Scientists say that AIDS isn't just a 'gay disease' - that heterosexual people get it too. Really? (pause...) NAME TWO!"

Personally, I didn't care too much for Randy's reporting because he spent too much time giving implied credibility to the activists who blamed Ronald Reagan for not caring - as if Reagan had the answer in his hip pocket, but he just wouldn't let anybody have it. There was a constant theme that money would quickly provide all the answers - that the CDC's budget was the real problem in understanding AIDS. Shilts did a lot early on to perpetuate this myth; obviously ignorant of the complexity that is the immune system of the human body.

Steve Salerno said...

You know, Anon, I had this discussion just yesterday with an editor of mine. He says to me, "Read your blog. 'Shilts didn't politicize the issue'? What the hell have you been smokin'?" Different people see things differently. That's what makes life so interesting, huh?