When Rock Hudson died in October, 1985, USA Today published an editorial that said, "With Hudson's death, many of us are realizing that AIDS is not a 'gay plague' but everybody's problem."
Given Hudson's own homosexuality, that statement seemed ironic. But it also proved to be strikingly accurate. AIDS coverage in the American media can clearly be divided into two eras, two eras so strikingly different that it's almost as if it were two different diseases--pre-Hudson AIDS and post-Hudson AIDS.
"Prior to Rock Hudson's death . . . U.S. policy-makers and the public could have concluded from mass media coverage (in general) that AIDS was perversely fascinating but, overall, not very important as a national issue," said James Dearing and Everett Rogers of USC's Annenberg School of Communications in their unpublished study, "The Agenda-Setting Process for the Issue of AIDS."
But after Hudson's death--beginning, really, with his diagnosis for AIDS--AIDS was suddenly Page 1 news, cover story news, network news. Everywhere.
More than 12,000 people were suffering from AIDS and more than 6,000 had died of the disease before Hudson, but a Times investigation has shown that:
--No one in the press asked President Reagan a single question about AIDS at a presidential news conference until after Hudson was stricken with the disease.
--Not once in the first three years of the AIDS epidemic did the annual Associated Press poll of editors and broadcasters on the year's most important stories include AIDS in the top 10; AIDS finally made the list in 1985--after Hudson's death was judged to have "illuminated the insidious powers of the disease."
--AIDS stories in the major print media more than tripled in the first six months after the announcement of Hudson's diagnosis.
Just five days before Hudson's diagnosis, Marlene Cimons--a reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times--said one of her editors in Washington questioned her use of the word epidemic in a story on AIDS funding.
"Couldn't we call it an outbreak , he asked. "I don't know anyone who has this disease. Do you?"
'A Different Dimension'
George Cotliar, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, echoed the comments of many editors in saying, "Clearly, when you get a celebrity, you do have a different dimension to a story." But Cotliar, like many other editors, insisted, "We didn't rush into battle because of Rock Hudson. . . . I don't think that anyone stopped and said, 'Hey, Rock Hudson has AIDS; let's turn loose twice as many reporters (on the AIDS story).' "
True enough. After all, The Times had published more than 200 stories on AIDS before Hudson's diagnosis. But like most papers, The Times greatly increased the space and the prominence it accorded AIDS post-Hudson.
In the six months before Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS in July 1985, The Times published three Page 1 stories on AIDS; in the six months after Hudson's diagnosis, The Times published 29 Page 1 stories on AIDS--several of them comparable to earlier stories that did not run on Page 1. Analyses at other papers yield similar findings.
Interestingly, although Hudson's case triggered the largest and most enduring wave of press attention to AIDS, the first such wave actually came in the spring of 1983 after the Journal of the American Medical Assn. published an article (and an editorial) suggesting that "children living in high-risk households are susceptible to AIDS . . . (without) sexual contact, drug abuse or exposure to blood products."
When Lawrence Altman, the New York Times medical writer, saw the brief wire service story his paper was planning to run on the study, he was "horrified" by it and wanted to write a story challenging it. But it was already past deadline for the first edition, and Altman said his editors didn't want him to write a story for the next edition.
Then Altman saw the headline on the first-edition story--"Mere Contact May Spread AIDS." He protested. In the next edition, the story carried a far less alarming headline--"Family Contact Studied in Transmitting AIDS."
But when Altman tried to interest his editors in a follow-up story the next day, they weren't interested; many other papers throughout the country followed the tone of the Journal study and the original New York Times headline.
"Once a seemingly authoritative source such as the Journal raised the specter that AIDS was not necessarily limited to a few specific groups, many in the media felt they had important backing to speculate and to scare," said a 1984 report by the Twentieth Century Fund.
Words like panic , terror , nightmare and fear began showing up in the nation's news media, and even though the vast majority of medical authorities denied that contracting AIDS through casual contact was possible, the press leaped on the story more vigorously than on any other AIDS development to that time.