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Posted Thursday, September 10, 1998

Déjà vu:
How Big Business Exerts an Evil Leverage on Controversial Issues

Some Reflections on the Sorry State of AIDS Journalism


by Celia Farber, August 24, 1998

I have attended, as a reporter, eight International AIDS Conferences -- in Washington, D.C., Montreal, San Francisco, Stockholm, Florence, Berlin, Vancouver, and this year, Geneva. They are uniformly awful, a total waste of a journalist's time. Mostly I go just to fortify my belief that AIDS -- the entire industry and social machinery of it -- is at its root a totalitarian system. By that, I mean that there is a central ideology that seeks to enforce its domination by methodically obstructing any ideas that run counter to it. This is no place for journalists.

"Media" -- to the extent that they are present, are only there for decorative purposes. If any rogue journalist actually asks a question -- a real question -- he or she is met with a sea of frowning faces and hisses. Microphones are shut off. I've even seen guards called in and seen one journalist expelled from the country (in this case Germany) because he asked questions the AIDS establishment didn't like. These conferences are about the enforcement of an ideology -- not the questioning of it. I have said in the past that they resemble a kind of 'October Parade' for the AIDS party.

I realize that to the average American, when I say "AIDS" you think of perhaps Liz Taylor or Elton John and red ribbons and marches and quilts and candles and all kinds of benevolence. All of that stuff is probably well intentioned enough. But the real force driving the AIDS super-structure, what pulses just beneath the patina of do-goodism -- is an industry of awesome, relentless, amoral power -- the pharmaceutical industry. I'll return to the question of media in a moment, but first, let me quantify what I just said.

These "International AIDS Conferences" are really just microcosms of the AIDS industry itself. They are funded by, driven by, and controlled by the pharmaceutical industry. In Geneva this year, there were pharmaceutical ads plastered right onto the luggage-conveyor belts at the airport.

At every conference, the leading pharmaceutical giants take up an entire stadium-sized floor with their structures -- mini-villages that they build, complete with huge video screens, towering pillars, interactive displays and all kinds of goodies, including CDs, videos, carry bags, condoms, ice cream, chocolates and whatever else they can imagine will lure conference delegates into their booths.


Glaxo-Wellcome, maker of the now-fallen former pinnacle AIDS drug AZT, routinely pays for the first-class travel and hotel accommodations of scores of so-called activists, mostly from ACT UP.

Most of the doctors present are there courtesy of the pharmaceutical industry, and in addition to their travel expenses and per diems, they are invited to a constant series of lavish lunches and dinners. Many of the doctors who write for medical journals about the effects of these AIDS drugs are paid consultants to the drug companies. It is, in short, a festival of sophisticated whoredom.

I thought I had seen it all, but this year in Geneva, in the pressroom, I saw something that made me think for a second I was having an acid flashback. I picked up what looked like a copy of USA Today. It was USA Today, complete with the logo and everything. But all the text -- every story -- on the cover was about drugs. In fact, it was all about Glaxo drugs, and it was all glowing, glowing. Then I saw in fine print at the bottom of the page that the entire cover spread had been bought by Glaxo -- the copy written by its employees! And this "special edition" was going out all over Geneva, looking for all intents and purposes like a copy of USA Today, where the staff had just suddenly decided to enlighten the world to the wonders of Glaxo's drugs.

Each morning in the media room, envelopes were laid out by pharmaceutical reps, addressed to the reporters from all the major papers. You'd see them open the envelopes, walk over to a laptop and start typing. "They all look like they're doing their knitting in there," remarked my friend Huw Christie, editor of the AIDS dissident magazine Continuum. (A "dissident" is simply a person who questions the establishment's AIDS hypothesis.)

At the 1993 conference in Berlin, when the results of the so-called Concorde study blew to smithereens the long-held hogwash that AZT was a life-extending drug, I vividly recall an incident that seemed to say it all.

Outside the conference entrance stood a man with a sign that read: "Down With AZT," or something to that effect. Well, the poor man was set upon by an angry mob of activists (ACT UP), some of whom sported neon hair and Mohawks. They broke his sign in half, took his fliers and ripped them up, shoved him to the floor, roughed him up, and then set his materials on fire. It later emerged that these AZT-loving fanatics -- who by the way were never disciplined -- had all been flown in courtesy of Wellcome.



For those of you who have not been following the AIDS-media scoreboard all these years, I can sum it up as follows: The mainstream AIDS media have botched the story virtually beyond repair, by constantly repeating, without any scrutiny, the pronouncements of the federal government's AIDS institutions.

They bought wholesale the totally unfounded notion of a heterosexual AIDS "explosion," based on no evidence at all, and indeed it never happened and won't ever happen. They uncritically reported that AZT was a wondrous, life-saving drug, based on studies that were fraudulent and funded by the drug's maker. (Instead it turned out to shorten lives.) They failed to report that the U.S. AIDS scientist Robert Gallo had stolen his HIV viral sample from the Pasteur Institute, even though it was as plain as day, and they also, inexplicably, never questioned Dr. Gallo's totally unsubstantiated 1984 announcement that HIV was the proven "cause" of AIDS. They continue to invent an AIDS epidemic that is decimating Africa, even though all African countries afflicted by AIDS are reporting population growth. And they went hog wild with the "AIDS Is Over" stories of 1996, which credited the new cocktails with bringing people back from the dead. Now the tide has turned, and the drugs are proving to have horrific side effects and little effect on mortality.

But not one of them has lost a job, or even been reprimanded -- because AIDS journalism is only a facade. I realized this this year in Geneva when I attended a panel discussion on "AIDS and Media Responsibility." A bunch of journalists were up there, and in the middle sat Miss America. They spoke in the usual way, about how the media's "responsibility" in AIDS is this and that. About how important it is to "educate" the public. About how journalists shape cultural responses to AIDS.

I finally couldn't stand it anymore, and I went to the microphone in a rare moment of spunk.

"The problem," I told them, "is this kind of talk, all this talk about 'responsibility.' There is no responsibility, no more and no less than for any other story. The only responsibility a journalist has is to investigate, to report. We are not Boy Scouts or missionaries or agents of the greater good. We are journalists."

They shut my mike off. A woman from the panel who was from a small West Indian island came up to me and said: "I think I know what you mean. I keep hearing that in my country we have over 400 cases of AIDS and that the numbers are growing, but it's not true. We have about 18 cases. But if I say that, they tell me it's irresponsible."


She laughed. "Is that what you mean?"

I told her that's exactly what I mean.

It is a virtual fulfillment of Orwell's dystopia, where the party dictates that what is untrue is "responsible" and that what is true is "irresponsible."

How swollen, how grandiose, to think that we, as AIDS reporters, have some kind of higher "responsibility," some kind of job that is more complex, more portentous than that of any other journalist on any other subject. All of this is really a thinly veiled argument in favor of propaganda. Journalism unravels, reveals -- at best, disturbs. Propaganda, by contrast, operates on an emotional plane, and forces a constant focus on what is seen as a greater good. "Its task," in the words of Goebbels himself, "is to keep the people persuaded, and to mold coming generations." Goebbels was quite open in his disdain for factuality: "This shows the difference between propaganda and people's enlightenment," he said. "Propaganda is a revolutionary-political concept. People's enlightenment limits itself to informing the people in a more factual way about existing necessities and questions."

At one press conference featuring AIDS figureheads Dr. Anthony Fauci (head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) and Dr. David Ho (cocktail enthusiast), some dissident journalists asked probing questions about what proof existed for HIV's isolation. A colleague of mine overheard a reporter sighing and rolling her eyes in exasperation. She then walked up to Dr. Fauci and whispered audibly: "How do these people get press passes? We have to do something about this!"

Activist Mark Harrington, also on the panel, shouted: "Why don't you people have your own conference? Why do you have to come here?"

We later learned that the complaints about our presence at the conference came not from the AIDS leaders, and not even from the pharmaceutical reps; It came from journalists -- who probably don't even realize that they have left the realm of journalism and floated off to a quiet, well-run place where there are no questions, no disturbances at all, and truth is in total eclipse.  



Special contributor Celia Farber covered AIDS for Spin for a decade.

Our opinion
ALL OF THIS has a disturbingly familiar ring: different hemispheres, different topics, different arguments, but the same Big Money and muscle men being used to propagate wrong views.

The above news item is reproduced without editing other than typographical

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