. . . but the Ashe case is a tough call


April 14, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

I FEEL like one of those cartoon characters who has a little angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other. The reporter -- the one some people would say is carrying the pitchfork -- says one thing, the human being another. There's a lot of this going around.

The subject is Arthur Ashe; the news is AIDS. This week the gentleman tennis player became a reluctant symbol. He had known since 1988 that he'd been infected by a transfusion, but he and his wife and a few close friends kept the secret for an obvious reason: they feared the shunning. Then someone tipped USA Today, and USA Today called and asked. Confirm or deny. That's how we do these things. Mr. Ashe called press conference and went public.

Welcome to Journalism 2001. Anyone who tries to make readers believe the questions are simple ones, who automatically invokes freedom of the press and the public's right to know, is doing a disservice to America's newspapers and straining the credulity of its people. Naming rape victims. Outing gay people. The candidate's sex life. The candidate's drug use. Editors are making decisions they have never made before, on deadline, with only hours to spare, with competitors breathing down their necks.

I am disquieted by the Arthur Ashe story. I can't help but feel that in the medical sense we outed him, a practice that, in the sexual sense, I deplore. That's the human being talking. The reporter understands: public figure, big news. An editor argued rather persuasively on television that if Mr. Ashe had been in a car accident or been hospitalized for cancer, we would have written about it.

But listening to those arguments was like listening to others I'd heard not so long ago. We publish the names of victims of muggings, of murder; why not the names of victims of rape? The answer is that rape is not like other crimes. There are good arguments to be made that our newspapers shape our mind-set, and that by withholding the names of rape victims we perpetuate the stigma. You can make the same argument about reporting AIDS. But, like rape, perhaps the victims of this illness deserve some special privacy.

Privacy, privacy. The white light of the press and the closed doors of our homes are two of the most deeply prized aspects of our lives as Americans. It just so happens that, like those two little cartoon characters, they are often in direct opposition to each other.

Is Arthur Ashe still a public figure, this many years after his days at center court: If he is, need we know the medical condition of every public figure? If we are are entitled to reveal a reluctant patient, what about a reluctant gay person? What are the parameters?

I don't usually put this many questions in a column, but it's questioning that is going to serve the press best. Actually, there is no "the press." We are a collection of men and women, the good, the bad and the nondescript. We know the dangers of knowing too little: We remember the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, Vietnam and, more recently, the arid historical record of the Persian Gulf war. We know about the man who was a member of the American Nazi Party and a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, who, in the face of a story that he had been born and raised a Jew, committed suicide. It was a very good story; the hypothetical is always whether you'd publish it, knowing the aftermath.

We tell people what we think they need to know. We hurt people, sometimes without reason. Sometimes we are kind. Mr. Ashe described a "silent and generous conspiracy to assist me in maintaining my privacy" on the part of some reporters. I would have joined up. This story makes me queasy. Perhaps it is the disparity between the value of the information conveyed and the magnitude of the pain inflicted.

But kindness is not the point. Information is the point of the product, and questioning the point of the process. We are making a lot of this up as we go along. In the newspaper business we assume certainty; when you spell Steven with a "v" it is because you know that's how Steven spells it. But we are moving these days into areas of great uncertainty. Arthur Ashe has already begun to turn his exposure into education. I hope we manage to do the same.

Anna Quindlen is a New York Times columnist.

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