Arthur Ashe, dying of AIDS, says he wished to live out his final years keeping his secret to himself. But he says questioning from a newspaper reporter forced him to announce his disease to the whole wide world.
If a reporter forced his hand, then God save all of us in journalism from ourselves.
"I have AIDS," Ashe declared yesterday afternoon, trying in vain to keep his emotions in check. "I am sorry that I have been forced to make this revelation now, at this time. There is no good reason for this to happen now, but it has happened."
It happened because we in America live in a state of constant feeding frenzy now. Gossip is our snack food. The need for empty caloric titillation never goes away, it only arrives in a different wrapping each new morning.
Those of us in the "legitimate" press laugh at the supermarket tabloids but rush to reprint the sleaziest of allegations about a contender for president. We shake our heads ruefully over gay publications which expose alleged closet homosexuals. How dare they violate privacy so callously, we ask. But then we sit a 22-year-old college basketball player in front of a sea of reporters and ask if rumors about homosexuality are true.
What we have here are variations on a theme: Satisfy the need for titillation, go through the proper gestures of sadness and self-righteousness, remind everybody of the First Amendment, and then move on while the bodies await the stretcher bearers.
In such an atmosphere, Arthur Ashe says he took a phone call from a USA Today reporter asking him if it were true that he had AIDS.
He knew the implicit consequences: He would be "outed," not as someone who is gay, but as someone with the disease associated mostly closely with gays and drug abusers.
Magic Johnson aside, he would be lumped as one of our modern lepers.
"Someone just called and ratted on me and they felt journalistically they had to follow it up," Ashe said.
USA Today did not publish its story yesterday, but closely on the heels of Ashe's statement came a defense from the newspaper's managing editor for sports, Gene Policinski.
"For any news organization when any public figure becomes ill . . . there's no question that it's news," said Policinski. "We were treating AIDS as any other illness . . . [Ashe] is a public figure far beyond the world of tennis."
So what? Does USA Today run medical bulletins any time retired tennis players get the flu? Or does it run medical stories only when they involve the disease that's terrified a nation and ostracized its victims? Where does it draw the line?
As Ashe himself pointed out, he's no public official, no leader of business with hundreds of people's lives dependent on his good health.
He's a private citizen who deserves the dignity of coping with his own dying in his own way.
Shame on Policinski for his self-righteousness on the grand scale, and shame on any of us in this business who would now mouth some vague notions of journalistic integrity to cover a hit below the belt.
There's a pretty standard rule about exposing public figures' pri
vate weaknesses: Does it affect their public performance? In Ashe's case, it's a moot point. He said yesterday:
"I am not sick. I can function very well. And I plan to continue doing those things that I have done all along, if the public will let me."
There's the rub, isn't it? He's no longer Arthur Ashe, former tennis player who suffered a heart attack and became a TV analyst and respected writer. He's Arthur Ashe, who says he contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion in a 1983 heart operation, found out he was infected five years later, and thought he could keep it to himself.
Those of us in journalism need to think this process through some more. The system's turning us into servants of the moment.
Newspapers are struggling for life in a time when millions of people need to be hit over the head to read the printed word. The tabloids sit on the supermarket shelves and scream so loudly that the rest of us struggle to be heard over their noise.
And the public's attention span diminishes steadily. The television people know this, and reduce the length of their stories and refine their visual effects constantly because of it. Run a story longer than 90 seconds? Do it, and run the risk of losing viewers.
The newspapers, having long ago lost the battle for breaking news, turn instead to lengthy analysis pieces, telling what the broadcasters have neither the time nor inclination to do, and to the old-time scoop.
Sometimes the scoop is a shame on us all. It's gossip pretending to be investigative journalism. It's invasion of privacy masquerading as the public's right to know. This time, it's nobody's business but Arthur Ashe's, only now it's been turned into everybody's business.