In a new magazine feature, six queer journalists revisit articles in The New York Times discussing the homophobic ways the newspaper once reported on issues relating to the gay community, specifically the spread of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. This New York Times HIV coverage — or lack thereof — has long been considered a reason why important information about HIV wasn’t more readily available for people, because it was constantly being pushed to the margins of the world’s most important news source.
“The New York Times had a spotty record of covering the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s — and gay culture in general,” the feature begins. “Times staffers reflect on the paper’s past, and what we can learn from it today.”
“The Times’ own record was checkered at best,” the feature explains. “Information about the spread of illness was often scant, judgmental or distressingly vague — even while reporters on the Science desk were trying their best with an ever-evolving story. The social and emotional toll of AIDS and the resulting queer movement were, when covered, often buried in the back of the newspaper (on a page called Styles of the Times), far from national news stories that were deemed important enough for the front page.”
The first time AIDS was mentioned in the New York Times was July 1981. That article, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” ran July 4th weekend and was published on page A20. It took almost two years for The Times to finally dedicate front-page real estate in the newspaper to the epidemic. That story, “Health Chief Calls AIDS Battle ‘No. 1 Priority,’” informed readers there were 558 dead in the United States, and more than 1,400 cases reported.
“Are you kidding?” says Larry Kramer, activist and writer. “The front page of The New York Times is the most important real estate in the world for getting any issue out. As The Times goes, so will every other news outlet all over the globe.”
Max Frankel, the former editorial page editor at the paper, explains that “squeamishness” stopped them from putting the AIDS crisis on the front page sooner. “They [the newsroom] were being squeamish for some reason,” Frankel says. “Their squeamishness was actually damaging to the public understanding of what was going on.”
One of the other articles highlighted in the piece is titled “City Closes Bar Frequented by Homosexuals, Citing Sexual Activity Linked to AIDS” and in it Adam Nagourney reveals that articles like these were examples of the Times’ first reporting on the AIDS epidemic.
“It was challenging for news organizations as well, drawn to the story for legitimate reasons (a health crisis) and perhaps less noble reasons (sensationalism) as they struggled with just how explicitly detailed the reports needed to be,” he says. “And no less discomfited were many in the city’s gay and lesbian community, concerned that raising the curtain on a world that most people did not know existed could threaten the gay rights movement after a decade of progress.”
The Times’ stigmatizing coverage of the AIDS epidemic is a huge part of our collective LGBT history, as the newspaper’s denial and at-times disparaging journalism is archived for all to see. Getting in front of this and reflecting on its own mistakes in 2018 is a needed moment of accountability. We can’t move forward as a culture if we don’t understand where we’ve come from, good and bad.
Times have obviously changed. But it’s important for an institution like The Times to take accountability for its own track record of being one of many roadblocks that have at times prevented LGBT people from being accepted by society.