Peephole journalism

SYDNEY H. SCHANBERG

April 16, 1992|By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York -- WAS THERE a compelling need to publish the fact that Arthur Ashe has AIDS?

The editor at USA Today who forced Ashe to disclose his illness gives the following explanation: "Public figures are public figures." Such poetry. Such profundity. Such wind.

This nobleman -- Gene Policinski, USA Today's managing editor-sports -- explained his behavior both in interviews and in a bylined story in his own paper. He said the paper had received information that Ashe had AIDS and "there was no question that this was a significant news story."

Why was it significant? "A great U.S. athlete could be critically ill. If he had cancer or a heart attack -- as he did in 1979 -- it was and is news." So Policinski is telling us that this is in the same category of news as Ashe's open-heart surgery in 1979 (and again in 1983). But Ashe's heart bypass operations received only modest coverage -- mostly items on the sports pages. Ashe himself told us about those medical problems. AIDS, on the other hand, carries a chilling stigma, like leprosy or worse, and this is why Ashe wanted to keep his condition private. The stigma is foul and unjust, but it exists, which is why Policinski knew that, unlike the news of the heart problems, this story about Ashe would make front-page headlines around the world -- which it did.

Ashe, confronted by Policinski's reporter with invasive questions, asked to speak with Policinski himself. By phone, Ashe asked the editor -- according to Policinski's own published account -- "if he could have 36 hours or such, time he said he might want to use to call friends, other journalists or prepare to make a public statement."

Policinski refused the request. "I responded by telling him that, as a journalist, it was not my role to help him plan a press conference -- and that it was inappropriate for me to withhold a news story that I could confirm." Ah, such journalistic independence, such high-mindedness, such refusal to compromise the public's right to know this "significant news story."

Such hogslop. What was gnawing at this editor was the possibility that if Ashe began making phone calls to tell relatives and close friends that the story was about to come out, another news organization might get wind of it and publish it before the noble USA Today could.

What does this say about our profession? It says we have strolled mindlessly, without real discussion or introspection, into the era of peephole journalism.

Where is the public policy issue in the Ashe case? It doesn't exist. The only issue is prurient interest. The press now serves the prurient interest. Let's just admit this openly if we want to keep steady on the peephole course.

Our national voyeur, Barbara Walters, interviewed Ashe on television last Friday. Ashe told Walters that he felt victimized by the press; he said he had wanted to choose his own time to make his illness public because "I can still lead a normal life and I wanted the freedom to do that. Once you are, in our society now, tagged with having AIDS, you are in some way stigmatized and you cannot live a normal life anymore."

Walters instantly confirmed the stigma -- with a question from the recesses of her own pinched mind. Referring to Ashe's explanation that he had contracted the disease from contamineted blood transfusions, she said: "I have to ask you this sensitive question. . . Are you certain that it wasn't through sexual activity or through drug use or needle use?" Ashe said he was certain.

I guess you could call it the maturing of America. Barbara Walters leading us as champion of the prurient interest. And the rest of us applauding.

Sidney Schanberg is a columnist for Newsday.

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