Critical to understanding the function of gay writers and activists during the AIDS crisis is acknowledging the actions of the media during that time. The ways in which society perceives an event is often dictated by the media’s coverage of that event; additionally, large-scale awareness of an event is engendered by whether or not mainstream media is bringing it to the attention of the majority. The attitude of news sources toward an event as well as the ways in which it is covered affect how it is perceived by society.
Subtle rhetoric choices, sensationalizing issues, and point of view are all tools of the media that can shift and mold how issues are nationally viewed and received. At the onset of the AIDS crisis it became clear what the reigning tone of the media’s coverage would be, and more importantly what it would lack: empathy. The psychological framework that media reactions to the AIDS crisis, and essentially all reactions to the AIDS crisis, can be viewed within is the Like-Me Theory, which states that “The bedrock on which social cognition is built is the perception that others are ‘like-me” (cite).
This idea that others are like ourselves and are therefore relatable is a driving force in human interaction and perception of other humans. The study goes on to assert that “work on human empathy shows that adults react differently to the injury of an entity as a function of the like-me-ness of that entity” (cite). AIDS struck mainly society’s most marginalized: gay people, drug users, poor people, and nonwhite people.
Even as AIDS spread to hemophiliacs and people who had received blood transfusions, it continued to be viewed as a gay disease; AIDS was so entrenched in stigma that linked it to marginalized groups that it continued to be viewed as a disease that only affected those groups. The media views the world through a largely white and heterosexual lense, with influence from the values of the Moral Majority; this sociopolitical context that defines the 1980s led to the inability to view high-risk groups as “like-me” and stopped the media from employing genuine empathy in its AIDS coverage.
Out of the psychological necessity to reserve compassion for groups in society that the dominant culture finds relatable came the premiere rhetorical strategy that defined AIDS media coverage: reserving concern for “the general public”. The media’s obsession with the “general public” is a representation of deeply rooted bigotry in American society and a manifestation of how AIDS victims were considered “other” by the national media; the experiences and issues of high-risk AIDS groups were not seen as universal human issues that demand empathy.
Again, to be represented in the media a group has to be represented in the culture that controls that media, a societally imposed guideline that is born out the the necessity to relate to others. In traditionalist 1980s America, the media targeted what was advocated to be the norm: the white and heterosexual family unit (Watney 43). Writer Leo Bersani encompasses this media-created phenomenon when stating that “The general public is at once an ideological construct and a moral prescription” (203).
The concept of the general public as it functions in AIDS media coverage is in itself an exclusionary tactic, founded on the basis that there are members of society that do not constitute the same treatment as others. Therefore, the popularization of viewing AIDS in the context of who was and was not a part of this conceived “general public” is a testament to what Sarah Schulman argues is the “centerpiece of supremacy ideology, the idea that one person’s life is more important than another’s” (The Gentrification of the Mind 47).
The “general public” mentality victimized AIDS patients and held them at the mercy of culturally powerful groups, because those groups warranted action and widespread concern. In his speech at an ACT UP demonstration in 1988 activist Vito Russo bluntly addresses the lack of investigation by the media on behalf of people with AIDS: “Reporters all over the country are busy printing government press releases. They don’t give a shit, it isn’t happened to them – the real people, the world famous general public we all hear about.
In order to maintain personal agency and more quickly move toward ending the AIDS epidemic, people with AIDS and high-risk communities had to create their own media or carve their way into the mainstream media’s attention. ACT UP activist Robyn Hutt states in the documentary United in Anger, “We decided that we were going to control the images, that we were not going to just be represented by mainstream media… very specific language that was used around PWAS [People With AIDS] who were always “victims”, who were not empowered.
As the media continued to perpetuate an image of AIDS in a way which stagnated widespread public concern and to employ rhetoric that reinforced the notion that the communities affected by AIDS didn’t require attention, it was left to those communities to speak up on their own behalf. Gay writers, artists, and activists assumed their positions as the ones who would change the face of AIDS, challenge prejudice, and reroute the course of political and scientific action in order to begin to control the AIDS epidemic.