Monday, June 19, 2006

The darling disease

Is Hollywood burned out? Or, is the media fickle?

I had a chance to visit with family this past weekend. Lots of girl talk, lots of old lady talk. One of the family members is the publisher of a daily newpaper in a small town in Texas. I didn't want to be a pest about HIV and Texas AIDS Network, but I was delighted when there was even a brief opportunity to talk about this work that I do. I took it as an opportunity to refine some thoughts that I've been having about HIV and the media. The conversation moved on before I got a chance to finish the refinement, but you're here, no? So let's think about this a bit.

Today's Contra Costa Times brings an article (Tina Daunt, LA Times) that exactly makes my point--in a roundabout way. Daunt writes about Hollywood stars and their many causes. She points out that AIDS was once, as Paul Michael Glaser says, "the darling disease," but now actors might be found working on other things, such as the environment. If they are working to call attention to AIDS, it's just as likely that, like Bono, they are focusing on AIDS in Africa. This has caused some problems for some Los Angeles AIDS organizations, reducing the funds that they are able to raise with the help of Hollywood. After 25 years, however, Daunt (and some of her interview subjects) allow that there is both burnout and complacency because of the available treatments in the U.S.

My thoughts, as I expressed them this weekend (or would have had I been a little pushier with the ladies), are that Hollywood is not necessarily the culprit here. After all, each of us is attracted to some issues more than to others. HIV seems to have claimed my heart, but it could just as easily have been diabetes or heart disease or cancer or hemophilia or substance abuse or urban planning or . . . something else. People have different interests, and, for all the glitter in Hollywood, actors turn out to be just folks.

What may be more critical here, even in terms of Daunt's article, is the media. Among the points I managed to squeeze in over Diet Coke and conversation is that there are really very few stories today about AIDS in the media. My publisher relative brought the subject up herself, intending to say, I think, that the number of news stories was really quite few. That in itself is true. Twenty years ago, there were dozens of stories about AIDS each day. The total number of U.S. media stories about AIDS might have been in the thousands in some years. Not so much these days.

What I tried to express, however, is that if you discount the repetitions of various stories, there are really only a few basic stories being told at all these days. There are variations, but the news story is the same.
  • A celebrity attends a fundraiser.
  • AIDS is a big problem in Africa.
  • Researchers have passed another step in development of a drug (usually in the business or scientific press).
  • It's World AIDS Day.
  • There's a management problem at an ASO (fortunately, not too many of these).
  • We're still trying to figure out where AIDS came from.
  • People are arguing over abstinence.

Are there others? This is just the riff that I can gave off the top of my head, but I think it's not a bad summary.

What I didn't get to say to the ladies, but what I thought when I read Daunt's article, is "it's the media, stupid!" It's the media that has burned out on the issue, that has gotten bored and moved on to other causes.

The result is that we are stuck in a time warp of information. People are left with the old stories and ideas--that HIV is a gay disease, that it's not an issue that the general public needs to be concerned about. At the same time, the paucity of story lines adds another distortion--AIDS is a concern in Africa, but not in the U.S.; we just really don't know the best way to promote prevention; we have drugs to deal with that now (so why worry?).

I recall a conversation with a businessperson, some time in the 1980's, when I mentioned a conference session being planned about AIDS. Her remark sticks in my memory: "AIDS is very vogue right now." Maybe that's Daunt's point--that AIDS is no longer "vogue" in Hollywood. Mine is that, vogue or not, the media isn't covering the epidemic in the U.S. Maybe they're too busy covering Hollywood.

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