NY Post’s Shameful AIDS Coverage


This article is cross-posted with permission from POZ.

I’m appalled by a heinously reported piece in the New York Post that uses HIV as a salacious hook to a story that is not–and should not–be about HIV.

Last week, the New York Post reported that a woman working as a maid in New York’s Sofitel hotel was allegedly sexually assaulted by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, one of the world’s most powerful and richest men–a man who also happens to be running the International Monetary Fund (IMF) while running for the French presidency.

The headline for the piece was: “IMF Accuser in Apt. for HIV Vics.” The accompanying cover line was: “Maid HIV Shocker.”

Talk about burying the lead and misleading the reader.

How about: French Presidential Candidate and Head of IMF Suspect in Sexual Assault Case.

Rather than focus on the purported crime and the man who committed it, the Post used the first nine paragraphs of the story to delve into the woman’s housing situation; a situation that may or may not be an indication of whether (or not) she is living with HIV. The survivor’s lawyer, Jeffrey Shapiro, claimed on The Today Show that she was “absolutely not” living in housing for people with HIV, as was claimed by the Post.

The woman (whose name has not been released and who is a widow, mother and originally from West Africa) claimed she was viciously attacked and forced to engage in sexual acts against her will. The Post labels her as the “accuser,” the “victim” and an “HIV victim.” Meanwhile the man who purportedly viciously attacked her is referred to by the Post as “the humiliated 62-year old suspect.” Later in the piece, when describing Kahn, who is on suicide watch and being held without bail, the Post said he has been “reduced to wearing shoes without laces and a medical device to make sure he’s breathing.” It seems the editors of the Post have placed their sympathy in the wrong place. I’m not saying he’s guilty. It’s too early to know. But, given that there are theoretically equal degrees of uncertainty about both claims, it seems only fair that the coverage would not defile one person over the other. Unless that person may have HIV and then, well, they must be a bad person, right? Wrong.

I can’t help but wonder if the Post would be as unsympathetic to the female survivor if her HIV status had not been raised. It’s just too easy for them to take a side: the word of a West African immigrant who lives in low income housing who may have HIV versus the word of one of the most influential men in the world. The irony is that she may not have HIV and/or that he may. Who’s to say that he doesn’t have HIV simply because he’s not living in housing for people with HIV? I’m not saying he does; I’m saying that technically it’s a possibility and if she proves to be HIV-negative and has been sexually assaulted, I hope she has been offered counseling and post-exposure prophylaxis (or “PEP”–a 28-day course of antiretroviral HIV medications that, if commenced within 72 hours of potential exposure can prevent a person who may have been exposed to the human immunodeficiency virus from becoming infected).

The question is: Is her HIV status germane to this piece? No.

Unless, of course, you are Kahn’s lawyers looking to discredit her. Then, it might be very important to attach the heavily stigmatized diagnosis of HIV to her. And, by doing so, attempt to render her as a person of “questionable moral character,” as many people erroneously construe people living with HIV.

It may also matter if you are the editor of a newspaper whose sales depend on provocative headlines employing the “sticky factor” of the world’s most arresting words. If your job is to sell the most dead trees possible, you may just make “HIV” part of your headline as often as you can. People do things for two basic reasons: fear, and desire. That’s why “HIV” and “sex” are two words with great power to catch eyeballs. One summons deep and primal fear; the other is synonymous with desire.

The Post‘s coverage makes one thing searingly clear: Anyone who thinks HIV stigma is any less intense or harmful than it has been for years need only to consider this example to see that HIV remains one of the most reviled topics of all time. And that the fact, or even suggestion, of someone’s HIV status remains a powerful tool when trying to discredit their character.

This piece implies that the horror of the idea that this woman may be living with HIV trumps the horror of her assault. That her HIV status is the most important and shocking thing about the case. But how, in 2011, could the notion that someone may be living with HIV be more shocking than what may have happened to her (forced fellatio, sodomy, etc.)?

Even more awful is that this piece posits that though a man may face life in prison for rape–he may have a bigger worry because he may have been exposed to HIV. The first two sentences of the report are, “Dominique Strauss-Kahn may have more to worry about than a possible prison sentence. The IMF chief’s alleged sex-assault victim lives in a Bronx apartment rented exclusively for adults with HIV or AIDS.”

As we near the 30th anniversary of the first reported cases of what we now know to be HIV (June 5, 2011), I am just dismayed that any media vehicle, even those like the Post that are known to be sensational, are still so irresponsible when it comes to reporting about HIV/AIDS.

Since the Post chose to raise the issue of the alleged survivor’s HIV status, why then did it not also discuss the scientific facts about HIV and mention whether or not Kahn has been tested for HIV (or plans to get tested, as it takes a certain amount of time for changes in the body to occur post HIV-transmission to allow for an accurate HIV-test result)?

The piece mentions that “according to the federal Centers for Disease Control: ‘It is possible for either partner to become infected with HIV through performing or receiving oral sex'” but the piece fails to clarify that statement in any helpful way. There is relatively very low risk of HIV infection when performing or receiving oral sex. For a complete, and completely accurate, explanation of HIV risks associated with oral sex, read the lesson on oral sex at POZ’s sister site, AIDSmeds.

The Post also failed to mention that if she is living with HIV, there is the possibility that she is on antiretroviral medications and if so is 96% less likely to be able to transmit HIV to a sexual partner–a fact reported by the New York Times last week, on May 12.

This coverage is just gross. Shame on you editors at the New York Post. There are 33.3 million people, 1.2 million of them Americans, living with HIV/AIDS on the planet. Many of them will die if they can’t get treatment. Only 6 million people currently have access to care. A big barrier to access to care is HIV-related stigma. By wielding HIV on your pages as you did in this story, you are contributing to a problem that can only be addressed when accurate information is disseminated and people become educated and less fearful about what is, ultimately, nothing more than a disease of the immune system.

I get the editorial instinct to titillate and grab people’s attention. I’m an editor who is tasked with growing my audience. But I believe in doing that by giving people life saving information and debunking dangerous myths and misconceptions around a disease that remains so deeply stigmatized, in part, because of articles like yours on the Kahn case.

Why report on HIV/AIDS housing only to use it to assassinate someone’s character? You’re missing the real story: that services for low-income New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS (including housing) are being cut severely making thousands of people’s lives more unstable and therefore, perilous. I’d love to see the Post have as much sympathy for people who are living with HIV who are at risk of being thrown back into the shelter system or out onto the streets of New York. When this happens, people living with the virus often are unable to take their life saving medications.

As a woman who is living with HIV and who knows first hand the damaging power of HIV stigma, I ask the editors at the New York Post to reconsider your AIDS coverage.

Because if you don’t, millions of trees won’t be the only thing you have a hand in killing.

The National Minority AIDS Council has condemned this piece.

NY-based Housing Works has condemned this piece.

I’m condemning it.

If you choose to join in the backlash, post a comment here and I’ll be sure to pass along your comments to the editors of the New York Post.

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  • elburto

    I stand with you on this. It’s disgraceful, fucking shameful, that the victim of a rich, powerful, white man is slandered in every way possible, she’s black! An immigrant! A single mother! She lives in subsidised housing! She’s possibly HIV positive! while the aggressor is cushioned in sympathetic prose.

    I’m so grateful that I live in a country that provides HIV/AIDS treatment (and PEP) free of charge, regardless of the situation. It meant that my good friend, only diagnosed as he was about to die from PCP, was fully turned around and had a viral load that was almost undetectable within the space of a year. I only wish everyone was so lucky. Allowing anyone to go untreated is counterproductive, and increases the costs associated. I think every patient should be entitled to free care, to help stem the flow of transmission and help prevent new cases. I’m sure that if governments put their heads together with drug companies and charitable organisations like the Gates Foundation, they could come up with a plan to make treatment a right, not a privilege. Healthy people make better workers, cost less in terms of welfare and medical care in the long run. It’s in everyone’s best interests, positive or not, to make this happen.

  • raysa-capellan

    I definitely think we should work grassroots, I’m not putting everything on the gov’t, they go with what’s convenient as do all politicians, I don’t want liars mounting a movement, I want people who know that caring for one another is the only form of survival for a whole race= the human race including all colors, genders, and identities not “mankind” only consisting of white, heterosexual, rich, christian Men. 

  • raysa-capellan

    As a Human being first and as a Feminist, I am angered that this kind of social injustice is still going on. The New York Post is a SEXIST, RACIST, CLASSIST institution and along with that definitely helping kill more trees. If the New York Post thinks that this is a way to sell papers, they’ve got another thing coming because us Feminists activists are no longer sitting in our high white tower of theorizing, we are involving ourselves with the community. And they should not think that an apology is enough, we want justice- meaning we don’t want your dumb ass publications just to simplify that for you New York Post! You are going to have to set a standard where you do not feed on the oppressions of others or helping the ruin of our natural habitat. I am so glad that people like Regan Hofmann are holding accountable the Post’s oppressive assholes. I am so angry that these idiots think they can get away with this… Ms/ Mss Hofmann, if they do nothing about this, nor apologize please post it up… it’s terrible how women’s bodies are so often terrorized and controlled, I am so extremely disgusted, that a victim has been victimized again, and has also been victimized by whoever she reported her case to: police officers. This is ridiculously disgusting how Rape is not considered above theft and petty crimes, Rape is worst and is something that psychologically ruins a human being, this is the stupidest system in the existence of the Earth.

  • meintoo

    Here we go with the blindly arrogant “SEXIST,RECIST,CLASSIST” so he MUST be guilty accusations. 

     

    Yes, Rape IS  a “different” crime – because while BOTH genders suffer rape attacks – possibly in pretty even numbers – (“Bubba’s Bitch” is America’s favorite punch line is it not? ) only one gender enjoys relative safety from being victimized by a false accusation, and even fewer fear REAL accusations;  The same gender that sees no harm in calling accusers “victim” and presuming HE DID IT.

     

    Which is why women are so willing to throw Constitutional Due Process rights out the window.

     

    News Flash : She IS an accuser.  No more and no less at this point.

    News Flash: He IS alleged – he has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt.

    News Flash: If HE had AIDs the reporting would be the same – but somehow I doubt your defense of him would be.

     

    You can pass THAT along, as well.

    -The Mother Of A Falsely Accused

  • edward-craig

    This is what we have learned to expect from Rupert Murdoch possessions.

  • arekushieru

    I think you and I are reading TWO COMPLETELY DIFFERENT ARTICLES.  NO one, but YOU, is saying that the sexist, classist, racist remarks of a certain PUBLICATION, makes the person who is accused of the crime, AUTOMATICALLY guilty.  Btw, do read up on the law.  A woman CAN be a victim of rape, whether the one who is accused is convicted of the crime OR NOT.  Newsflash: There are fewer false rape allegations than you so DESPERATELY want to believe.  Just because someone wasn’t convicted of the crime of rape, doesn’t mean they didn’t commit it.  And incidences of rape go underreported precisely beCAUSE of egregious attitudes like yours. Newsflash: If she IS an accuser, then why aren’t those who lay charges in other crimes labeled as such, especially when almost all other crimes are deemed to have occured ONLY when the person is conVICted of them?  Hmmm…?  That’s right, it IS, PURE misogyny.