Arthur Ashe is an instantly recognized public figure, and word that a public figure has a fatal illness is news, says Gene Policinski, managing editor/sports for USA Today.
"I don't think there is any question that Arthur Ashe is a public figure. He remains very much a vocal presence in tennis and in larger social issues.
"It was news when he had his heart attack, and it was news when he underwent bypass surgery. There was never any question in my mind that it was news."
It was a phone call Tuesday afternoon from a reporter at USA Today that set in motion Mr. Ashe's dramatic news conference yesterday at which he revealed that he has known that he has AIDS for 3 1/2 years but disputed the public's right to know that.
"There is no good reason for this to have happened now," Mr. Ashe said. "I didn't commit any crime. I'm not running for public office. I should have been able to keep this private.
"There was certainly no compelling medical or physical necessity to go public with my medical condition," said Mr. Ashe, drawing a comparison with Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who was forced to explain his sudden retirement from professional basketball because he tested HIV-positive.
Mr. Ashe discovered he had acquired immune deficiency syndrome as a result of a brain biopsy in 1983, and, he said, it was widely known in the New York City medical community but was kept secret.
But he added, "Someone just called and ratted on me, and they [USA Today] felt journalistically they had to follow it up."
Mr. Ashe said he called the news conference because he fully expected to see a story in yesterday morning's newspaper.
Mr. Policinski said USA Today did not print the story in yesterday's domestic editions because Mr. Ashe did not confirm the report.
"Our policy is not to run stories based on unnamed sources or on unattributed information," Mr. Policinski said.
Mr. Policinski said that during his conversation with Mr. Ashe Tuesday evening, the tennis great asked hypothetically if the story were true, whether he could have 36 hours before it was printed to inform close friends.
"I told him it wasn't appropriate for me to enter into that kind of
agreement," Mr. Policinski said.
"He did not ask me at any point not to print the story," said Mr. Policinski. "We finished our conversation, and we continued our efforts [to confirm the story]."
It was when Mr. Ashe began to inform others of his illness that USA Today was able to confirm his condition.
Mr. Policinski said the story ran in USA Today's international editions yesterday and on the news service owned by Gannett Co. Inc., which operates USA Today.