Much of the American press seemed to lurch back toward the early '80s recently, while reporting on the death of the famed celebrity and fashion photographer Herb Ritts.
It was downright creepy to see a Reagan-era euphemism for AIDS pop up as the cause of Ritts' death in obituary after obituary: 'complications from pneumonia.' The New York Times, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press (in a story that ran in Newsday and many other papers) and other media organizations quoted Ritts' publicist, also identified as a friend, who used that term to describe what brought the openly gay photographer's life to an end at the age of 50.
Soon enough it was revealed in the gay press (and since has only appeared in a few gossip columns) that Ritts had in fact been HIV-positive for years. His immune system had been sufficiently weakened; HIV infection had left him unable to fight off the pneumonia.
In other words, Herb Ritts' death was an AIDS fatality. And the ignorance of the truth surrounding it signals that, once again, this is a disease that dare not speak its name. And that silence has consequences.
The New York Times' policy regarding obituaries—formulated in 1986, precisely because of the problems encountered in reporting on public figures who died of complications from AIDS—states that 'the obituary of a newsworthy public personality, of any age, should reflect energetic reporting on the cause.'
The Associated Press doesn't have an official policy, but advises reporters to exhaust every means available—including interviews with the deceased's friends and family, public records and statements by doctors—to determine the cause of a public figure's death.
But it doesn't appear that there was any kind of 'energetic reporting' in this instance. Most mainstream press reporters seemed to have spoken to only one individual—the publicist—and even then seemed to have followed a sort of 'don't ask, don't tell' policy.
The Advocate, the national gay and lesbian newsmagazine, however, did ask.
And, lo and behold, the very same publicist offered a fuller explanation: 'Herb was HIV[-positive], but this particular pneumonia was not PCP [pneumocystis pneumonia, a common opportunistic infection of AIDS]. But at the end of the day, his immune system was compromised.' That statement perhaps prompted the Washington Blade, the gay weekly in the nation's capital, to rightly run with the headline, 'Gay photographer Herb Ritts succumbs to AIDS.'
It's nice to know that small pockets of the gay community might now have the full story. But the fact remains: Millions of Americans, gay and straight, still haven't a clue about what took the life of the celebrity photographer who was himself a big supporter of AIDS causes.
This isn't just another example of incomplete or deceptive reporting. It's also a tragic omission at a time when study after study shows unsafe sex and new infections continuing to rise steeply among younger generations of gay men, often because the realities of AIDS are abstract to them—enough to allow them to take foolish risks.
They are often too young to remember the AIDS deaths of celebrities, like Rock Hudson in 1985, which jolted America and the world. Most young gay men also have not watched their own friends die, as was the case for gay men of previous generations. This is true even as many of these young men become infected with HIV themselves and stay quiet about their illness, going on the drug 'cocktail,' chained for the rest of their lives to powerful pharmaceuticals that often have horrific side effects.
Those drugs have thankfully saved many lives. Ironically, they've also driven AIDS back into the closet. The decline of AIDS awareness in the newsroom mirrors what has happened in society in general. No longer are many people with HIV walking around rail-thin and gaunt. Many even use testosterone as part of their therapy, building up their bodies and developing bulging biceps, often appearing more fit than their uninfected friends. AIDS becomes increasingly invisible, on the streets as well as in the media, even as HIV infection is an ever-present danger. And clearly, though American fatalities have decreased a great deal, HIV still kills.
That's why the story behind the death of Herb Ritts, a man who photographed Hollywood icons and shot music videos for youth idols such as Jennifier Lopez and 'NSync, would go a long way.
That is, if anybody actually heard about it.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.