Journalists from the paper were invited to share the paper’s past.
The AIDS epidemic in the 1980s is a powerful and upsetting part of LGBTQ history, in part due to the way the gay community was treated over media coverage of the crisis.
It’s famously known that President Reagan didn’t publicly talk about AIDS in public until 1985, a time when the epidemic had already spread and had seen more than 5,000 people die from AIDS.
The New York Times, an influential newspaper at the time and still today, was often criticised for the way it treated the LGBTQ+ community during the epidemic. One article described AIDS as “a pneumonia that strikes gay males.”
Addressing its poor history of covering HIV/AIDS during the AIDS crisis, the newspaper recently invited six of its journalists to talk openly about the coverage of the epidemic and reflect on the paper’s past to figure out what can be learnt from it.
Kurt Soller, current articles editor at T Magazine, the New York Times Style Magazine, explained the paper’s early coverage of the epidemic:
Any newspaper must, by definition, aspire to be the “paper of record,” and yet when it came to this newspaper’s coverage of gay people and AIDS in the early ’80s — when the disease was morphing into a national crisis, and when rights that had been won a decade earlier, after the Stonewall Riots, were once again being jeopardized — The Times’s own record was checkered at best.
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.
One article in particular played a massive part in the stigma towards associating gay men with AIDS. In the 1981 article ‘Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,’ a hypothesis was explained to suggest that “there was no apparent danger to non-homosexuals” – which was later proved to be completely false.
Media reporter John Koblin noted that by the time the Times had put the story on the front page, 558 people had already died. The story ran two years after the paper had reported that 41 gay men in New York and California had been diagnosed with a mysterious cancer.
Roughly 700 editions of the paper had come and gone before AIDS, quickly turning into a full-fledged crisis, had earned a spot on Page One. It was never lost on AIDS activists just how vital the paper was — and for how long it did not pay serious attention to the disease.