Journalistic Ethics : AIDS Rumors--Do They Belong in News Stories?

Times Staff Writer

For months before fashion designer Perry Ellis died in May at the age of 46, there were rumors throughout the fashion industry that he had AIDS.

Was that rumor worth mentioning in Ellis’ obituary?

The Washington Post, USA Today, Newsday and the San Francisco Examiner thought so; the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the vast majority of other newspapers did not. Newsweek mentioned the AIDS rumor; Time did not. United Press International mentioned it; Associated Press did not.

In many ways, the Ellis/AIDS story is a fascinating and instructive case study of how different journalists--all trying to behave responsibly--take different approaches to a very sensitive subject.


Different Approach

UPI, for example--virtually alone among news organizations--tried to “dispel the rumor” of AIDS, in the words of reporter Barbara Rosenberg.

Rosenberg’s story quoted Dr. Harold Jaffe, an authority on AIDS from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, as saying that listing viral encephalitis as a cause of death is “not enough information to conclude whether Ellis had AIDS.”

Last month, New York magazine went to the other extreme, with a cover story that said, “. . . many people believe Ellis had AIDS, and given the evidence, it seems likely.”

Patricia Morrisroe, the author of the story, says she recognizes the “tough questions” of personal privacy and journalistic ethics involved in writing about Ellis and AIDS, especially since neither Ellis nor his doctors publicly acknowledged that he had AIDS.

Indeed, Morrisroe’s story quotes a friend of Ellis as saying, “Perry had ample opportunity to discuss certain things while he was alive, and he didn’t. I have to respect that.”

Deaths Linked to AIDS

Despite this--and despite Ellis’ having been, in Morrisroe’s own words, “a fanatic about his privacy”--she wrote in detail about his relationship with Laughlin Barker (whom she described as “his business partner and lover”) and about Barker’s death early this year at the age of 37 . . . and she linked both deaths to AIDS.



“The two deaths had a great impact on Ellis’ company, and yet the people . . . (in the fashion industry) were . . . not talking about what had happened,” Morrisroe says.

Morrisroe says she spent two months researching the Ellis story, interviewed 52 people and wound up thinking that “the evidence . . . clearly points to the fact that he did have AIDS. . . . One couldn’t do the story without touching on that.”

The Newsweek story on Ellis’ death also mentioned the reluctance of many in the “heavily gay (fashion) industry to admit that AIDS” had been responsible for several other recent deaths--”for fear of damaging their public image and jeopardizing profitable labels. . . .”

There are “escalating fears about the disease” in the industry, Newsweek said, in the course of noting, “Within the . . . industry, many people believed that Ellis had suffered from AIDS.”

Maynard Parker, editor of Newsweek, says the magazine’s fashion editor told him two or three months before Ellis’ death that the rumor about his having AIDS was “the talk of the fashion world,” but Newsweek didn’t publish anything about Ellis and AIDS until after he died.

“He was unwilling and his colleagues were unwilling to talk about it and we respected his privacy,” Parker says. “But . . . when he died, we were dealing with a household name . . . we were doing a disservice to our readers in not making it clear the . . . how and why of his dying.”

Since no one has complained that Newsweek’s story was inaccurate, Parker says, he believes that his decision has been vindicated. Moreover, Parker says, public health care officials are concerned about the under-reporting of AIDS deaths by doctors who are understandably determined to safeguard the privacy of AIDS victims and their families. By withholding this information, health care officials say, doctors distort the data needed for further research and for the establishment of sound public health policy. By not publishing information on AIDS deaths, it is thought, the press contributes to this problem and also compounds the social stigma already attached to AIDS.

In earlier generations, mental illness, venereal disease, tuberculosis and cancer were similarly ignored by the press--and similarly stigmatized by society: Unmentionable means untouchable.

Louis D. Boccardi, president of the Associated Press, says he can recall a time when “people kept cancer out of the paper. . . . There was an impression that the victim bore responsibility for having the disease. . . . In the present climate . . . AIDS is a parallel situation.

“Most of those close to the deceased know what he died of,” Boccardi says, and for the general public, “the cause of death of a prominent person . . . is a relevant piece of information . . . a part of the story . . . not a ghoulish question.”

Two Different Issues

But there are two issues involved here:

- Should a newspaper mention AIDS as a cause of death if AIDS can be proved or is openly acknowledged--as was ultimately the case with both actor Rock Hudson and Way Bandy, one of the fashion world’s best-known makeup artists?

- Should a newspaper mention AIDS if it is only widely believed but neither acknowledged nor proved?

Both questions involve matters of privacy--medical and sexual--since the most frequent victims of AIDS are homosexuals, and many readers automatically assume someone is gay if he has AIDS, even though the disease also afflicts intravenous drug users and members of certain other groups. But the second question also involves a second ethical problem--the propriety of publishing a rumor.

The Associated Press couldn’t prove Ellis had AIDS, so the Associated Press didn’t mention AIDS in Ellis’ obituary, Boccardi’s general views on the issue notwithstanding.

Most editors made the same decision.

The New York Times obituary was perhaps the most cautious of all; it mentioned neither AIDS nor Barker’s death.

No Confirmation

“We tried to confirm the rumors that Ellis had AIDS,” says A.M. Rosenthal, executive editor of the New York Times, “but the people who spoke for him . . . and the hospital wouldn’t say he had it. Unable to confirm the rumor, we printed what his spokesman said. . . . To say in Ellis’ obit that the other guy (Barker) died would imply a connection we didn’t feel we could make.

“If we know something, we say so; otherwise, it’s just innuendo. That’s wrong.”

Other newspapers thought differently on this point.

USA Today, for example, said Barker, Ellis’ “close friend and associate,” was “rumored to have had AIDS” (although the paper said, “the cause of death was reported as lung cancer”).

In her obituary on Ellis, Nina Hyde, fashion editor of the Washington Post, wrote:

“When a friend asked about his health recently, he said, ‘I’ve been very down for months because of the death of my special friend Laughlin. . . .’

“When asked about the rumors that he had acquired immune deficiency syndrome, he said, ‘There will always be rumors. They come and go and there is nothing you can do about it. But I know how I feel.’ ”

Hyde herself was the unidentified “friend” referred to in that obituary, and she said she felt perfectly comfortable quoting from her conversation with Ellis without making that clear and she said she also felt comfortable introducing the subject of AIDS in the story; she said she “didn’t think it appropriate or right to actually write ‘Ellis died of AIDS,’ ” though.

Flat Statement

Just last week, however--almost two months after Hyde’s obituary on Ellis and a month after she made that statement--the Post flatly said on its front page that Ellis “died of AIDS.”

George Solomon wrote those words in the course of a story about Jerry Smith, the former Washington Redskin football star who has just acknowledged that he has AIDS.

“My reading of (newspaper) clips and conversations with reporters who cover AIDS led me to believe Ellis did die of AIDS,” Solomon said in an interview.

Some editors worry that printing a story about someone dying of AIDS could cause pain and embarrassment to the family, but Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of the Post, says: “We’ve just got to get over that. . . . AIDS has the potential of a scourge, and to deny that people are dropping like flies from it is putting your head in the sand. . . . It’s clearly news and clearly justified.”

Though very few other papers mentioned AIDS in connection with Barker or Ellis, many (including the Los Angeles Times) did mention Barker’s death and characterized him as a friend and business associate. Though no papers said the two were lovers, several editors said they thought readers could deduce that--and the likelihood that Ellis died of AIDS--from the way their stories were written. Allowing readers to draw that conclusion themselves was preferable, they said, to flatly stating something the papers could not prove.

But not all editors agree, and sometimes disagreements over a story like this occur within a single news organization.

45 Phone Calls

At the Los Angeles Times, Fashion Editor Bettijane Levine says she made 45 telephone calls to medical and fashion industry sources and friends of Ellis the day he died, trying to determine if Ellis had AIDS; when she could find no one willing to authoritatively say he had the disease, she decided not to mention AIDS in her obituary.

After Levine left the office, Times editors saw mentions of the AIDS rumors in the Washington Post and Newsday obituaries, both transmitted by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. Ted Rohrlich, a Times reporter sitting in as acting city editor that night, called Levine at home, told her of the Post and Newsday stories and, he says, “argued strenuously” that the material should be included in her story.

“I thought it was relevant,” Rohrlich says. “I argued that if it’s known among insiders, we ought to make it known to outsiders--our readers.”

Levine disagreed.

She said no one she had called had said Ellis died of AIDS, so it would be “unethical and unprofessional” for her to mention it.

Rohrlich neither insisted nor pursued the matter with higher-ranking editors. Levine’s story was published without reference to AIDS.

Do top-ranking editors at The Times think that was the correct decision?

Yes, says George Cotliar, the managing editor: “If we couldn’t confirm it, I wouldn’t use it.”

Unsubstantiated Reports

No, says William F. Thomas, the editor of The Times: “If it’s all over . . . the fashion industry, then . . . saying that there have been reports for some time (that Ellis was suffering from AIDS) but the reports so far are unsubstantiated” acknowledges the existence of the rumor and also “makes it clear that it’s indeed a rumor . . . by no means necessarily true.

“Both your readers and the subjects of your stories . . . are entitled to responsible treatment,” Thomas says, “(but) I am opting for the reader in this case.”

Nevertheless, Thomas concedes, “It’s a close call. . . . I could argue equally effectively on either side.”

Interestingly, The Times did link Ellis and AIDS three weeks later--not in a news story but in an editorial on the need for public education on AIDS. That editorial began:

“Perry Ellis, a fashion designer, dies at the age of 46, and the cause of death is announced as encephalitis. No one mentions AIDS. . . .”

Lee Dembart, who wrote the editorial, says his information on Ellis came from confidential sources who “knew what they were talking about. I considered it a fact, not a rumor.”

Did Dembart’s sources include Ellis himself or his doctors or family or individuals with access to Ellis’ medical records?


How can Dembart be so sure then?

Newspaper Standards

“My sources were, as we say, close to the situation,” he says. “We get paid to use our judgment on these matters. We don’t need the same standard of proof you need in a court of law.”

How did Dembart’s editor feel about this?

“I thought that it had been established that he (Ellis) had AIDS,” says Anthony Day, editor of the Times editorial page. “If I’d known . . . that had not been the case, I would have said, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ ”

Trying to decide what to say (and when to say it) when rumors are widespread about someone having AIDS is a frequent problem for newspaper editors these days--especially in industries hard-hit by the disease--and most editors are opting, as they did in Ellis’ case, for caution and restraint.

The Los Angeles Herald Examiner published a story Aug. 24 saying, “Reading obituaries in the entertainment trade papers has become something of a macabre guessing game. Did they or didn’t they die of AIDS. . . . The stated cause of death is frequently euphemistic.”

The Herald quoted Robert Peterson of the Hollywood Reporter as saying, “Thirty percent of the obituaries I get now are people who have died of AIDS. Most of them cite other causes, but you read between the lines and it’s obvious. They’re young, single men aged 25 to 45 (and) cause of death is pneumonia or no mention at all.”

Extensive Coverage

In an attempt to illuminate what it called “the invisible epidemic,” the Herald devoted the entire front page (and half of the back page) of its Style section that Sunday to the story on AIDS, complete with a paragraph (and, in many cases, a photograph) on each of 20 people the paper said had died of AIDS.

The story mentioned the rumors about Ellis, but reporter Nancy Spiller did not include him in her list of 20; she decided to use there only those people whose deaths were publicly acknowledged to have resulted from AIDS, she says.

The best-known of the people mentioned in the Herald story was Roy Cohn, the controversial chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s investigations of alleged communist subversion in the 1950s. For months before his death early this month, Cohn was rumored to be suffering from AIDS. But he denied having the disease and also denied he was homosexual, and newspapers covering the story of his illness weren’t always certain what was fair to report.

Although some of Cohn’s supporters attributed the zeal of the press in pursuing the AIDS rumor to longstanding enmity toward Cohn, Cohn himself invoked his poor health as an issue in disbarment proceedings he was fighting, unsuccessfully, in New York; many editors thought that made the precise nature of his illness both relevant and newsworthy.

Nevertheless, concerned by the ethical questions involved--and perhaps by fears that Cohn might sue--most newspapers handled the subject very gingerly. The New York Times, for example, generally said Cohn was suffering from “what he has described as liver cancer,” a construction many papers emulated.

Rumors Grow

“Sixty Minutes” raised the AIDS question with Cohn in March, and People magazine raised it in July; Cohn denied it both times. But the rumors grew, and in the final days of Cohn’s life, a few newspapers did mention AIDS in stories about him--especially after syndicated columnists Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta quoted from Cohn’s medical records at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and described his treatment for AIDS.

Using those confidential records raised further questions about journalistic ethics, of course. Then, the day before Cohn died, the Wall Street Journal triggered questions of political and medical ethics when it reported that Cohn was “said to have been moved ahead of other potential candidates for an experimental AIDS drug after the White House intervened.”

Still, most papers continued to tread carefully around the AIDS question--until Aug. 2, when Cohn died and NIH spokesmen said a secondary cause of his death was “underlying HTLV-3 infections” (HTLV-3 being the virus most scientists think is the cause of AIDS).

The next day, Cohn and AIDS were on front pages all across America. Other stories have followed.

Stories like those on Cohn and Ellis--involving, as they inevitably do, concerns about invasion of privacy--are often difficult to write fairly, if at all, especially while the individual is alive. But the Post’s Bradlee thinks that they should be written, often while the individual is alive.

“If you are a public figure and seek to be a public figure and thrive on being a public figure, the public has a right to know about you,” he says.

No Exceptions

Everything? Including the specific cause of an individual’s death? And his or her sexual orientation?

“It’s . . . a bona fide area of inquiry,” Bradlee says. “It’s . . . part of the description of these people . . . part of what society should know. . . .”

Many editors disagree--which is why most have ignored rumors that certain prominent political figures are homosexual. The rumors have attached themselves in recent years to governors, senators, congressmen and mayors--among others--and on occasion these rumors have found their way into print in responsible, respected publications. Is that fair?

The argument most often advanced in favor of publishing such information is that everything about a public official is the public’s business. But some editors think that is true only of the top elected officials.

“I feel sex is a very private matter and we shouldn’t go into people’s sex lives, whether they be public or private figures,” says Gene Roberts, executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I’ve encountered it (rumors of homosexuality) with city officials, state officials, congressional people . . . and always, as a reporter and editor, I’ve opted not to print it.

“But with the President, there is so much power that attaches to that office that at that point . . . if massive rumors are going around that a person is gay, maybe you should . . . bring it into the open.”

Moreover, says David Jones, national editor of the New York Times, “Politicians use us by parading their four blond children and their young wife before the television camera and advertising their marvelous home life. . . . If they (make) . . . their family life an important part of the candidacy, then they themselves are opening the question of family and then it’s fair game.”

Considerable Difference

As with AIDS, though, there is considerable difference between rumors of homosexuality and provable, acknowledged homosexuality. Shouldn’t the two be handled differently in the press? Sure. Theoretically. But few elected public officials publicly acknowledge their homosexuality, and homosexuality is virtually impossible to “prove” without that acknowledgement; journalists investigating these stories are almost always dealing with rumors.

Most editors think that the media should publish or broadcast stories about the private behavior of public officials only if that behavior affects the individual’s execution of his official duties or becomes part of a public controversy or--in the case of rumor, rather than fact--if the rumor takes on a life of its own and begins influencing events.

Indeed, sometimes when a rumor of this sort becomes widespread, a newspaper will print it just to deny it. The Miami Herald ran a story last year debunking rumors that actor Burt Reynolds had AIDS, for example. Women’s Wear Daily did likewise in 1983 with similar rumors about fashion designer Calvin Klein.

On occasion, a prominent individual will publicly deny a rumor--as Reynolds did last year--or he may try to defuse the rumor in other, less direct ways. A campaign aide to a politician rumored to be homosexual once invited several reporters sitting in a hotel bar to peer down a hallway, for example, so they could watch the candidate as he walked to his room, hand-in-hand with a woman.

Stringent Standard

In the aftermath of Vietnam, Watergate and various other political and personal scandals, the press imposes a more stringent standard on public officials in all arenas than it did in previous generations, and it is doubtful that the press would ignore rumors about a philandering President as it did 25 years ago with President John F. Kennedy. Nor would the press wait as long as it did in the case of Rep. Wilbur D. Mills, whose long-rumored alcoholism was widely thought to interfere with his work but who escaped press scrutiny on this count until the day in 1974 when his companion, stripper Fanne Foxe, jumped into the tidal basin in Washington at 2 o’clock in the morning.

But the stigma generally attached to homosexuality in our society--a stigma aggravated by AIDS--makes the publication of rumors about homosexuality (and AIDS) especially problematic, even today.

Susanna Shuster of The Times editorial library helped with the research on this story.