Beat the Press: Death Threats and Bullying Tactics
Follow AIDS Journalists Who Contradict the Conventional Wisdom

By Leslie Kaufman

Washington Monthly, March 1993
Copyright 1993 by The Washington Monthly

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Soon after Newsday published a book review by Michael Fumento, the newspaper’s book editor, Jack Schwartz, began receiving anonymous phone calls late at night. Nasty calls. "They made a lot of threats," Schwartz recalls, "not the least of which was death." The calls came seven or eight a night for a month. It was clear very few of the callers had actually read the review, says Schwartz.

"What outraged these people was not the content of the review, which was very even-handed," he says, "but that we allowed this guy to write anything at all." The issue was Michael Fumento himself.

Schwartz wasn’t exactly surprised by the abuse. An editor of the now-defunct New York gay publication Outweek had previously made clear to him that Fumento was persona non grata, and that giving him a forum would carry serious consequences. Not long after the review appeared, Schwartz was "zapped." That is, his name and phone number were published in large, bold type in Outweek. The angry commentary that accompanied the number and invited readers to share their rage with Schwartz ran: "Why the fuck would Newsday have such a hate-filled, untalented, lying loser review important books?"

Who is Michael Fumento? He is perhaps the most politically incorrect AIDS writer in America. The title of his 1990 book says it all: The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS. In it, he theorizes that despite dire predictions in the media, AIDS will not devastate white middle-class heterosexuals as it has homosexuals and poor minorities. The core of his thesis runs as follows:

The myth of heterosexual AIDS consists of a series of myths, one of which is not that heterosexuals don’t get AIDS. They certainly do get it, from shared needles, from transfusions, from clotting factor which hemophiliacs use to control internal bleeding, from their mothers at or before birth, and sometimes through sexual intercourse with persons in these categories and with bisexuals.

The primary myth, however, was that the disease was no longer anchored to these risk groups but was in fact going from heterosexual to heterosexual to heterosexual through intercourse, that it was epidemic among non-drug abusing heterosexuals.

Fumento’s theories on the spread of AIDS aren’t ones you commonly hear, but they are not off the medical charts. The Journal of the American Medical Association called Fumento’s book "thoroughly researched, poignantly written, and a must read for anyone interested in learning the dynamics of the HIV epidemic or health care planning."

Dr. James Enstrom, a respected epidemiologist at UCLA who asked at first to speak anonymously because he feared retribution, said Fumento hit the nail on the head when he described "how the disease has been warped out of all proportions to how it occurs in society."

Even The Advocate, a newspaper aimed at homosexual readers, wrote, "Look, the guy is a pig... But that doesn’t mean he is wrong about the spread of AIDS."

Fumento is certainly not the only AIDS writer who has been harassed for having an unpalatable point of view. Others, such as Gina Kolata of The New York Times and Daniel Lynch of The Albany Times Union, have also been singled out for harassment by AIDS activists. But Fumento’s story is a particularly vivid illustration of just how effective the extremes have been in controlling the bounds of acceptable discourse on AIDS.

Fumento is no right-wing gay-bashing crusader, but his theories have policy implications that strike at the core of the AIDS activist agenda. Myth has a chapter entitled, "The AIDS Lobby: Are We Giving It Too Much Money?" In it, Fumento implies that the government should pare back what it spends on AIDS research — about $ 2 billion in fiscal 1992 — and start an educational campaign that explicitly describes the special dangers of anal sex in spreading AIDS. He mocks government-funded "sex-equals-death" campaigns which depict low-risk, straight, white people in their ads.

Fumento’s work is so focused on the outrages perpetrated on the public by the AIDS-research publicity machine that he often seems indifferent to the plight of those who are actually dying of the disease. But his lack of sensitivity (or even compassion) is no reason to dismiss his views. Even if Fumento offends personally, he is someone who belongs in our national debate on AIDS.

Unfortunately, as Jack Schwartz learned the hard way, not everyone can agree to disagree. Even before Fumento published his book he had become the target of AIDS activists. They have repeatedly attempted to silence him, often by resorting to violent intimidation, and they have almost succeeded. While the personal harm inflicted on Fumento by his opponents is in itself an injustice, his tale offers an equally sobering lesson about the politics of AIDS: that some sectors of the news media and publishing industry have given in to pressure from activists for fear of being branded the unenlightened accomplices of antigay conservatives.

Branding a Heretic

In 1987, Fumento, then a legal affairs reporter for The Washington Times, wrote an article for Commentary magazine ("AIDS: Are Heterosexuals at Risk?") in which he dared to challenge the widespread notion that AIDS was the next bubonic plague. The numbers coming out of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, he said, were being widely misinterpreted and the spread of AIDS exaggerated. Not surprisingly, the story was ignored by the mainstream media.

In 1987, reputable outlets from U.S. News & World Report to the normally stoic Atlantic were busy predicting an AIDS apocalypse. Needless to say, more popular tabloid journalists had also embraced the worst case scenario with a passion.

In early 1987, Oprah Winfrey opened her show with these words: "Hello everybody. AIDS has both sexes running scared. Research studies now project that one in five — listen to me, hard to believe — one in five heterosexuals could be dead of AIDS in the next three years."

Fumento’s piece, however, caught the attention of right-wingers who helped get him appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as an AIDS specialist. But it wasn’t long before Fumento showed how, in trying to be honest about AIDS, he offended everyone. On the commission, he realized that conservatives were using the new epidemic to further an old political agenda: prayer in schools, chastity (rather than sex) education, and anti-homosexual legislation.

Just months after taking the job, he exposed these designs in an article for The New Republic ("The Political Uses of an Epidemic: The Conservative Movement and The Tragedy of AIDS"), detailing the many ways in which the political ends of the Reagan administration were directly at odds with a rational response to containing the disease. The Civil Rights Commission promptly searched his office, demoted him to researcher (civil servants are hard to fire), and ordered him not to speak to the press.

Having alienated his natural allies, Fumento left the Civil Rights Commission to turn his articles on AIDS into a book. But he was just beginning to feel the heat. Fumento and his agent, Glen Hartley, began looking for a publisher and soon ran into trouble. "We began hearing back about a number of controversial meetings at publishing houses," remembers Hartley. "One friend characterized the discussion inhouse as being ’heated.’" Another editor friend wrote Hartley, "Fumento makes good points, but I am not convinced that the cause of curing AIDS — for those who have it or are prey to it — is best served by publishing this in book form."

Eventually, New Republic Books, a subdivision of Basic Books and HarperCollins, agreed to publish the book. By this time, Fumento’s magazine articles, including one in The American Spectator called "The Incredible Shrinking AIDS Epidemic," had attracted the attention of AIDS activists. Well before the book was published, Bill Newlin, Fumento’s editor at New Republic Books, got his hands on an angry letter from the owners of a gay bookstore to other book stores and to big chains, demanding that they refuse to carry the book.

There were other indications that Myth would provoke a violent reaction. In June 1989, Forbes magazine ran a short piece on Fumento’s controversial views ("Straight Talk about AIDS"). The article was written by Joe Queenan, known mostly for humor writing, and had a light, irreverent tone. Like this article, it was more concerned with the backlash against Fumento than evaluating the merits of his views on AIDS.

Two days after the magazine hit the newsstands, 40 Act-Up activists stormed Forbes. The leaders of the contingent entered the office of Malcolm Forbes, who promptly gave in to theft demands. Forbes told the activists he had been out of town and had not seen the story before it was published. (Both Queenan and an Act-Up activist who worked at Forbes at the time say Forbes’s statement was untrue.)

In the next issue, Forbes published a lengthy, lightly edited response from Act-Up explaining why Fumento’s views were "dangerous" and his own editors were "irresponsible." In an introduction to the statement, Forbes added, "in the case of Michael Fumento’s speculations in a forthcoming book, The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, I find his views asinine."

Queenan was so furious at how Forbes handled the Fumento story that he left the magazine a few months later. He is still seething. "Hearing the words ’Mike Fumento’ is like hearing the words ’Kent State.’ It just brings back nothing but bad memories," he says.

Michael Fumento

When The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS was finally published in 1990, it got off to an auspicious start. It received fairly favorable reviews, something of a surprise considering its politically incorrect content. The New York Times Book Review, for example, called it "legitimate and soundly reasoned." Of course, Myth was also drumming up the kind of controversy book publicists dream of. Fumento made appearances on the Today show, Sonya Live, and Donahue, where the father of daytime talk hawked the book. "Do you know what that means?" says Hartley. "When Donahue does that with your book, you could sell 20,000 to 50,000 additional books in the next weeks."

But Fumento’s book didn’t sell 50,000 or even 20,000 copies. in fact, it sold about 12,000. What went wrong? Hartley and Fumento believe it was sabotaged from the top of the line on down. The huge Waldenbooks chain didn’t order any copies of Myth. Mike Ferrari, Walden’s buyer, is reputed to have told representatives selling the book that he didn’t want it for political reasons. (Fumento concedes that Waldenbooks did eventually place an order for the book — but only after he singled them out during an appearance on C-Span.)

The biggest blow to Fumento came when Basic decided not to reprint the book and didn’t tell him until there were so few copies in stock that even the book’s publicist, Lois Shapiro, had run out. The decision was uncharacteristic of Basic, which has a reputation for keeping books in print even when back-orders for them are low. Moreover, there was every reason to believe that Myth would continue to have an audience.

There had been intense foreign interest — major magazines in Germany and Australia had run cover stories on Fumento, as had many London papers — and the book was certainly causing a stir in the United States. Martin Kessler, the editor of Basic Books, gave Hartley his justification: "The reps who sell the books to buyers refuse to carry it."

Of course, Fumento and Hartley’s charges can’t be proved. HarperCollins says it did its best for the book, and Shapiro points out that it had a much larger publicity budget than most. But the fact remains that The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS is impossible to find today. HarperCollins doesn’t even have back copies. (For this story, Fumento sent me a copy of the book he photocopied himself.)

Ultimately, the fate of Myth is best explained by the very orthodoxics that it sought to expose. Asked why the book didn’t sell well, Clinton Morris, the Basic representative who sold to Waldenbooks in New York, says, "Look, it was going against everything we know about AIDS, against anything anybody who was reputable was telling us. Why buy a book like that?"

Acting Up

Of course, not everything Fumento has published on the topic has provoked an activist backlash. For example, his piece in this magazine "Technical Foul: Not even Magic can change the facts about AIDS," December 1992, a review of Earvin "Magic" Johnson’s What You Can Do to Avoid AIDS, drew no direct response from Act-Up. (Fumento theorizes that only magazines with circulations above 100,000 or so are singled out; the circulation of The Washington Monthly is approximately 30,000.) But considering that plenty of truly homophobic and pseudo-scientific books on AIDS sell like hotcakes — The AIDS Cover-Up, for example, which advocates quarantining HIV-positive individuals, has sold 230,000 copies — the obvious question is why a thoughtful writer like Fumento has been singled out for retribution.

Unfortunately, the question points to the answer: It is precisely because his arguments are legitimate that Michael Fumento is a threat. The proof of this supposition is in the company Fumento keeps.

Gina Kolata, a science writer for The New York Times, found herself the target of a vicious campaign in 1990 after she wrote a story describing why many health care professionals objected to the liberalized distribution of experimental AIDS drugs. Bumper stickers appeared on Times boxes throughout New York saying, "GINA KOLATA OF THE NEW YORK TIMES IS THE WORST AIDS REPORTER IN AMERICA."

Act-Up members called Kolata’s editors and her colleagues at other newspapers to complain that she was incompetent. Kolata also received several hundred angry, threatening Christmas cards at her home, again courtesy of Act-Up.

Kolata is more reflective than indignant about her experiences, saying that the intimidation is primarily psychological and poses no physical threat. Besides, she argues that Act-Up is so splintered these days that it’s not much cause for concern. Fumento, who has never actually received a death threat himself, seconds Kolata’s assessment. "They save death threats for people who they think they can scare," he says. Even Queenan admits, "They gave me death threats. But these weren’t FBI death threats, these were bullshit death threats. They would call me and say ’Don’t turn on your car this morning,’ and I don’t have a car."

On the other hand, Kolata’s obituary for Act-Up and other AIDS advocacy groups may be premature. They remain committed to silencing journalists they disagree with. Just ask The Albany Times Union’s Lynch, who writes a weekly column on the media. Last spring, he was amazed by a Gallup poll showing that Americans identified AIDS as the greatest health threat to the country. Since AIDS was the number 11 killer in America that year — behind cancer, diabetes, and even liver disease — Lynch suggested that the media had exaggerated the threat. Washington Journalism Review and Cosmopolitan carried reprints of the column.

An anonymous note branding Lynch a homophobe appeared on the bulletin board at his newspaper. As a guest on a local talk radio program, he was besieged by hostile and sometimes violent callers. A major advertiser — a car dealer — called the newspaper and demanded that Lynch’s column be pulled. And, of course, he received a truckload of less than solicitous mail. Lynch, a veteran of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Newsday, says that in all his years in journalism he "never got this kind of response."

It is increasingly true that journalists who write heretically about AIDS will face some kind of retribution. Writers seldom risk physical harm, but the harassment and the threats are disincentive enough. Any journalist seriously thinking of tackling AIDS or another hot-button issue would have to consider the cautionary tale of Michael Fumento. After his book was published, Fumento was summarily fired from his job as an editorial writer at Denver’s Rocky Mountain News and spent two years unemployed. He is routinely called a racist and a homophobe in print. And when he speaks on college campuses, he is mau-maued by angry protesters. At the beginning of last year he got hired again by the Investor’s Business Daily on the condition he wouldn’t write about AIDS.

Of course, Fumento does occasionally write freelance pieces on AIDS. He has also just finished a new book, Science Under Siege, which he bills as "a serious counter-argument to the media claims about technological threats to human health and the environment." Like Myth, it is a challenge to medical orthodoxies. Fumento’s attraction to this kind of confrontational story has led many of his colleagues to conveniently dismiss him as a trouble-seeker.

While that may be true, challenging half-baked conventional wisdom is supposed to be the media’s job. If the marketplace of ideas becomes so unsafe that only our pit bulls do that job, we all lose.

Leslie Kaufman is an assistant editor at Government Executive Magazine.

Read Michael Fumento’s additional articles on AIDS.

Michael Fumento, a science and health journalist, is author of The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS (Regnery).