Media coverage of the controversy over CBS' 'The Reagans' miniseries—and an AIDS-related line in the script—has largely ignored the reality of the Reagan Administration's record on AIDS. And in light of last week's announcement that CBS will not broadcast the miniseries, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has joined prominent AIDS organizations in calling on journalists to expose the right's attempts to obfuscate the history of the Reagan Administration's AIDS policy and undermine current federal AIDS research.
'Media have repeatedly failed to challenge Reagan supporters' revisionism efforts, and they've failed to provide commentary by scientists, historians and AIDS experts who can detail the true history of the Reagan Administration's policy response to HIV and AIDS,' said GLAAD Executive Director Joan M. Garry. Though one line in The Reagans script that has received considerable attention (where Reagan says of AIDS victims, 'They that live in sin shall die in sin') is clearly fictionalized, the broader reality it attempts to convey is evident in the history of the federal government's inadequate response to the AIDS crisis under the Reagan Administration.
Reagan did not publicly utter the word 'AIDS' during the first six years of his administration (his first public mention of the disease was made to the Third International AIDS Conference May 31, 1987). The Kaiser Family Foundation's Daily HIV/AIDS Report for June 7, 2001 also notes that the San Diego Union Tribune quoted Reagan as telling the conference, 'Final judgment is up to God.'
In a 2001 speech at the Kaiser Family Foundation's National Symposium on U.S. AIDS Policy, Dr. C. Everett Koop, Reagan's surgeon general, said that due to 'intradepartmental politics' he was cut out of all AIDS discussions for the first five years of the Reagan Administration—and that 'because transmission of AIDS was understood primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs, the advisors to the President, [sic] took the stand, they are only getting what they justly deserve.'
'For Reagan apologists to act as if his record on AIDS was anything short of tragic is both inaccurate and deeply offensive to the memory of the 60,000 people who died of AIDS during Reagan's presidency,' said Shana Naomi Krochmal, director of communications and public affairs for the STOP AIDS Project. 'At a time when our nation could have led the way in preventing transmission and fighting stigma and discrimination against people with HIV, Reagan offered no leadership—only silence.'
'In the history of the AIDS epidemic, President Reagan's legacy is one of silence,' said Michael Cover, Associate Executive Director for Public Affairs at Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C. 'It is the silence of tens of thousands who died alone and unacknowledged, stigmatized by our government under his administration.'
According to Dr. Koop, the Reagan Administration's resistance to publicly discussing and addressing HIV and AIDS was the product of a larger reluctance to engage in frank discussion about matters of sexuality. Eerily, there is a distinct parallel between Reagan's AIDS policies and the current efforts to withhold funding from AIDS researchers and service organizations that explore and provide comprehensive education and prevention strategies.
Recently, the National Institutes of Health (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) found itself the target of a blacklisting effort by the anti-gay lobbying group Traditional Values Coalition, whose executive director circulated a list of nearly 200 scientific researchers to a small group of conservative lawmakers in an attempt to squash researchers' studies of sexual issues. The attempt—characterized by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., as 'scientific McCarthyism'—has raised again the issue of whether federal health policymakers and researchers are being intimidated and coerced by people who don't want them to talk about sexuality.