Oct
01
2006

Star Power Trumps History in AIDS Coverage

A love letter to the 'two Bills'

A number of activists at the 16th International AIDS Conference complained that the Toronto gathering foregrounded the rich and famous—most prominently Microsoft chair Bill Gates and former President Bill Clinton—at the expense of front-line workers and people living with AIDS (e.g., “Activists Blast Focus on Celebrity,” Calgary Herald, 8/17/06).

“They can’t have it both ways,” responded Conference co-chair Mark Wainberg (AP Worldstream, 8/17/06). Advocates who want the increased public attention that comes with media coverage, Wainberg suggested, should know the deal. “They should understand, as we all do, that we would not have 3,000 journalists at this conference if not for Richard Gere and Bill and Melinda Gates and Bill Clinton. We simply would not.”

For a message directed at activists, the statement was a ringing indictment of media priorities. Even with the draw of celebrity, the AIDS conference did not entice either CBS or NBC nightly news producers; of the three nightly network newscasts, ABC World News alone aired a report (8/14/06), and it was not likely to assuage activists’ concerns about the impact of using the wealthy and powerful as a lens for the AIDS story.

The message of ABC’s segment was simple (as befits a word count of 410): Clinton and Gates are “saying things no one else has said and doing things that no one else has done.” With money and star power, “They are doing everything.”

It’s not necessary to begrudge credit to those who use their wealth and fame for good in order to be troubled by the tone and implications of the report. But ABC’s love letter to “the two Bills” also ill-served the issue by omitting relevant information.

It’s one thing, for example, to salute Gates for bucking official resistance to back “immediate and controversial” prevention strategies like needle exchange programs, gels and creams women can use to block infection, and encouraging condom use. But can you really describe these as areas “where many governments dare not tread,” without noting that the United States is by far the most influential foot-dragger? From its insistence that 33 percent of global HIV-prevention dollars go toward much-criticized abstinence-only programs, to its refusal to fund groups unless they pledge to oppose commercial sex work, the Bush administration’s promotion of conservative ideology over medical science is notorious, and central to the story.

Then there’s the portrayal of Clinton, presented as employing his “connections and communications skills” to help “underdeveloped countries buy drugs more cheaply.” Was there no room to acknowledge that while president, Clinton used his “connections” to defend at every turn drug companies’ ability to restrict access to life-saving drugs, including fighting the efforts of countries like South Africa to legally provide generic equivalents? (See “Gore, AIDS and Greed,” Extra!, 9-10/99.)

ABC isn’t alone in this re-imagining of Bill Clinton. The New York Times’ August 29 profile of the ex-president had him conceding “that his administration fought too long to protect the patent rights of pharmaceutical companies against countries trying to make or import cheaper AIDS medicines,” with no further elaboration or clarification.

As Dean Baker pointed out on his blog Beat the Press (8/29/06), such a description fails by a long shot to convey the actual effect of Clinton’s allowing big pharmaceutical companies to shape trade policy in their interest, “in some cases raising the price of AIDS drugs by several thousand percent.”

The Clinton White House had the endorsement of the mainstream press corps in these efforts, it’s worth noting. The Washington Post (6/24/99) helpfully explained that, while poor countries may “chafe” at being denied life-saving medicines, denying drug companies profits means they “won’t look for new drugs and everyone will suffer, Americans and foreigners alike.” So perhaps rewriting Clinton’s record on AIDS helps media forget their own.

ABC’s placing “two Bills on a bold crusade” at the center of the story might be merely galling, given that there are thousands of people who have dedicated their lives to fighting the pandemic at far greater personal cost and nothing like the acclaim. (When ABC credits Gates with “unprecedented focus” on preventing the disease, the phrase “for a rich guy” seems to be implicit.)

But when that celebrity spotlight pushes important history and political context out of the story, the approach becomes more worrisome. And that, one imagines, is exactly what the activists were complaining about.

Please also see the sidebar to this article: Never Apologize