How John H. Johnson Covered AIDS

Posted in: News 2005-Older

By Kai Wright

Today’s magazine editors and T.V. producers have roundly patted themselves on the back for their supposedly-groundbreaking coverage of the “down low.” But through all of the push and pull that story has generated, everyone has overlooked one clear piece of evidence that it’s just warmed over hype: Ebony magazine reported it as long ago as January 1988.

To be sure, the Ebony article was just as salacious as today’s coverage. Titled “The Hidden Fear,” the story profiled men who “confessed” having had “sexual dalliances” with other men while dating or married to women. “None of the women suspected their lovers’ secret,” the writer intoned, later calling them “undercover bisexuals with a double sex life and high risk factor.”

Then, as now, the story ostensibly explored the HIV risk these men pose to women, while actually plumbing communal anxieties about sexuality rather than talking about the unsafe sex that transmits HIV. But unlike today’s coverage, Ebony did offer sobering perspective. The article was clear that its subjects formed a relatively small group in the community, and it took pains to avoid demonizing gay and bisexual men in general. “This poses a problem that has nothing at all to do with gay or homosexual lifestyles,” the writer declared.

The article was an ambitious, if flawed effort to address important questions about STDs in our community — and it is an apt example of the legacy that Ebony and Jet founder John H. Johnson leaves behind.

The history-making publisher’s August 8 death, at age 87, has spawned reams of copy analyzing his contribution to 20th Century Black American life, and his eulogists have been universally laudatory. He’s been called “giant,” “genius,” “inspiring” — all justifiably so.

But Johnson’s life work — two of the nation’s most successful and long-lasting publications — may also offer definitive examples of the tenuous balance our community still struggles to strike when painting its own portrait. From the first, we have groped for answers to a crucial question: How do we debunk white supremacy’s stereotypes of Black depravity while, at the same time, educating our community and America at large about the urgent, dire problems we face?

When it came to AIDS, Johnson’s magazines answered that question in the same way they had other issues.

As always, he was first and foremost bold. He launched his publishing empire, as a young man not long out of high school, by leveraging $500 in borrowed money and convincing 3,000 people to buy subscriptions to a magazine that didn’t even exist yet. He could be just as bold editorially. During the early Civil Rights Movement, he shocked Jet readers out of complacency by defiantly publishing a now iconic image of Emmett Till’s mangled and bloated body following his 1955 lynching.

Ebony and Jet were equally ambitious about covering the AIDS epidemic. According to Cathy Cohen’s definitive study of Black institutions’ response to AIDS, The Boundaries of Blackness, Ebony and Jet (along with Essence) leapt forward in the 1980s and early 1990s, publishing dozens of stories on the epidemic at a time when few other media outlets — either Black or mainstream – were discussing HIV/AIDS’ impact on African Americans.

But Johnson’s boldness was only half of his patented publishing formula. He also maintained an unflinching focus on what he felt to be the positive aspects of Black life. “We try to seek out good things, even when everything seems bad,” he once said, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “We look for people who have made it, who have succeeded against the odds, who have proven that long shots do come in.”

Add to that list people who advertisers can sell things to. As Johnson’s broadcast counterpart, BET’s Robert Johnson, put it, “Our goals are the same: to provide content to an underserved audience and convince advertisers that these are consumers who need to be reached.”

In AIDS, as with other topics, this combined focus on the positive and the monied constrained Johnson’s rendering of Black America. According to Cohen’s review, both Jet and Ebony’s AIDS coverage narrowly focused on celebrities like Arthur Ashe and Magic Johnson and on how HIV altered middle class, heterosexual dating norms. While these issues are valid and important, the magazines were all but silent about two of the Black epidemic’s most heavily impacted groups: injection drug users and openly gay men.

But Johnson was a publisher, not a public health advocate. So why does it matter how his magazines covered HIV? Because in a 2004 Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 71 percent of respondents cited media as their primary source of information about HIV/AIDS, compared to 9 percent who cited health care providers. Almost two-thirds of African Americans said they know someone who is either HIV positive now or has died from AIDS-related illnesses.

So media is important — and particularly community media, as previous Kaiser surveys have found that African Americans and immigrants are far more likely to trust community-based media when it comes to health issues.

Today’s Black media giants are rising to the challenge – NNPA’s George Curry, American Urban Radio Network’s Jerry Lopes, Tavis Smiley and others on both the national and local level have committed to giving their readers, listeners and viewers consistent and full coverage of the epidemic. Others will surely follow on the path — one which Johnson helped blaze.

So while his publications may not have hosted a full conversation on AIDS, Johnson will be remembered for getting the talking started when others ignored it altogether.

Kai Wright is editor of BlackAIDS.org.

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