Media Beat, Feb. 23, 1994
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Tributes to Randy Shilts Ignored His Media Criticism

After Randy Shilts died in mid-February, news stories remembered him as a pathbreaking journalist who overcame two huge obstacles - prejudice against gay people and ignorance of AIDS.

Media retrospectives hailed Shilts as an openly gay reporter who broke new ground after joining the staff of a large daily newspaper in 1981.

Reporting for the San Francisco Chronicle, Shilts exposed the AIDS epidemic early on. That put him in conflict with many heterosexuals inclined to ignore the deadly disease because it mainly struck homosexuals. And Shilts also angered some gay men who resented his candid articles about sexual transmission of AIDS.

A few days after Shilts died from AIDS at age 42, the CBS TV program "60 Minutes" featured a moving interview with him. But such media reports on the life and death of Randy Shilts routinely omitted his sharp criticisms of mainstream journalism - for shoddy coverage of AIDS, and for tacit acceptance of anti-gay attitudes.

His landmark book "And the Band Played On" - documenting indifference and duplicity during the first years of the AIDS epidemic - gained accolades when it was published in 1987. Yet, by the decade's end, the nationwide volume of AIDS news coverage had dropped to its lowest level in three years.

"One consequence," Shilts wrote in 1989, "is that CDC (Centers for Disease Control) staffers now routinely find that many people think the AIDS epidemic has 'leveled out' or peaked." The reality was quite different: "Caseloads have never been higher, with as many as 1,400 Americans a week being diagnosed with the disease. It is only the media's interest that has peaked."

When the 1980s drew to a close, Shilts noted that "no TV network has a reporter covering AIDS full-time." And he used the word DISMAL to describe "the state of print reporting on federal AIDS policy."

Overall, Shilts declared, "Most of the institutional failures to confront the epidemic aggressively - whether in science, government or the media - can be traced to prejudice against gays."

That prejudice surged into the national spotlight last year. Although large numbers of gays have always been in the U.S. armed forces (their persecution is chronicled in Shilts' 1993 book "Conduct Unbecoming"), the possibility that they would no longer be forced to stay in the closet sent homophobes into a protracted frenzy.

Last summer, as Senate hearings paved the way for continued discrimination against gays in the military, listeners to KPFA Radio in the San Francisco area heard an interview with Randy Shilts - expressing views on the press that never made it into his obituaries.

The tone of hostility toward gay people in those hearings, said Shilts, "showed how profoundly ignorant our society remains. And it shows that among our sort of intelligentsia, the pundit class and things, for there not to be absolute outrage at what's being said in these hearings is - I find it astounding."

Shilts added: "I just can't believe that there's no outrage among sort of the liberal media class. ... They'll write editorials saying gays should be allowed in, but there's no sense of outrage about what this ban means."

The ban "basically says that if you're gay, you're presented with a list of jobs in our society that you are not permitted to hold, no matter how well you're qualified and no matter what the content of your character is. ... This is not something that's supposed to happen in a free society. And that's what this ban means to me. It just shows that we're not a free society."

Even today, the trails that Randy Shilts blazed are still choked with prejudice.

Just ask Sandy Nelson, an award-winning journalist in the fourth year of battling to get her reporting job back at the Morning News Tribune - owned by the McClatchy newspaper chain - in Tacoma, Wash. Nelson, a lesbian, was transferred involuntarily to a copy-editor post because of off-duty activities for gay rights.

Just ask the activists fighting for more funds for AIDS prevention, while the Clinton administration proposes to cut those funds and the news media pay little attention.

And ask gay people - in the military and in a wide range of other workplaces - who live under intense pressure to hide their sexual orientation.

Meanwhile, anti-gay ballot initiatives proliferate in many states.

Randy Shilts achieved a great deal before his death. But the bigotry that he challenged is still very much alive.

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