Restarting the Conversation on HIV/AIDS in the United States
An Interview With Susan Koch and Jose Antonio Vargas of The Other City
April 29, 2010
Myles Helfand: Jose, how much is the media to blame for that?
Jose Antonio Vargas: A lot, I think. You know, I was kind of stunned, to be honest with you. As I said, I worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, where Randy Schultz wrote And the Band Played On. I was definitely aware of that book. I had read the book when I was in college.
Then I get to D.C., the so-called most powerful -- it really kind of annoyed me, frankly, when I first got there, and there's all these really super-ambitious, young people who want to change the world. I call them, like, Tracy Flick from Election, right? And somehow it annoyed me that, OK, if they wanted to change the world, why couldn't they see what the city is really about? Why couldn't they see that the city was so segregated, and, as Susan said, so divided? I couldn't quite make sense of that.
And then, you get to the Washington Post. I had, of course, researched: How many articles did the Washington Post do on this issue? They did articles on it here and there. But there was never a this-is-happening-right-here-right-now-let's-get-this-on-the-front-page kind of moment. That's why I ended up writing, literally, a memo to the top editors, saying that I want to trace this epidemic. Much to their credit, they let me do it. And I had just been at the Post, at the time, for a year and a half.
"For me, having read AIDS coverage when I was younger, and knowing Larry Kramer, and knowing And the Band Played On, it was almost as if I wanted to take AIDS out of the ghetto. I wanted to get it out of the gay ghetto, and get it out of the black ghetto, and address bigger questions -- about self-esteem, about power, about powerlessness, about identity."
-- Jose Antonio Vargas
Look at the way, for example, politics is covered in this country. As a political reporter, this is my experience. So rarely do people get out of the talking points, and get out of the tit-for-tat and the cable wars, to really go into people's lives and talk about how policy is affecting people, everyday people.
For me, having read AIDS coverage when I was younger, and knowing Larry Kramer, and knowing And the Band Played On, it was almost as if I wanted to take AIDS out of the ghetto. I wanted to get it out of the gay ghetto, and get it out of the black ghetto, and address bigger questions -- about self-esteem, about power, about powerlessness, about identity. Because I think, you know, when you listen to Jose, you listen to J'Mia, you listen -- one of the characters that we haven't even talked about in the film, the men in the film, is a group of HIV-positive ex-convicts, mostly in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, all African-American. And to hear them, just the rhythm of their lives and the issues that they talk about -- it's not just AIDS; it's more than that. For me, that was the goal.
Myles Helfand: One of the few major reporting forays into HIV that I have seen done recently in the U.S., actually, was something that the Washington Post did not long after you left.
Jose Antonio Vargas: Yes.
Myles Helfand: It's the "Wasting Away" series. But that was a focus more on a scandal than on anything else. It was talking about how the city's HIV/AIDS Administration essentially squandered millions of dollars.
Jose Antonio Vargas: I actually was in conversation with Debbie Cenziper, who wrote that piece, who is a great reporter. She won a Pulitzer when she was at the Miami Herald. What she basically did; she said she wanted to work on it. We got together, because she had read my series back on '06; hers was basically '08 or '09. She had focused on a specific statistic that I had in the first article that opened my series, which was: Between 1998 and 2004, the city had spent nearly half a billion dollars in local and federal funds to treat, prevent and care for the HIV epidemic in the district.
What happened to all that money? To put this into context, D.C. was one of the first cities in the country to have an AIDS office, back in 1986. But the AIDS office, at the time, had had 12 directors in 20 years. There was a lot of turnover. So there really was a failure of the local government to tackle the disease.
"You could do another film just on the scandal. I mean, oh, it was so corrupt. The AIDS office became the dumping ground for patronage jobs; people weren't even showing up and they were getting paychecks. You just can't even fathom that, here you have this critical issue and people are dying, and then money is just being filtered off to friends. It was really -- it was pretty -- it's stunning. There are still problems with this, although they are trying to work on it."
-- Susan Koch
That was basically the gist of what she did. At the very beginning, she said to me that she didn't really want to do what I had done, which was really focus more on individual people's demographic stories. She wanted to basically follow the money, which is exactly what she did. And she did a very good job doing that.
Susan Koch: Our film starts out with a little bit about that, about the failure of the city, just to set the stage for what's going on. But it then goes into the people.
We had a lot of that, and we had a lot of information. But, again, we chose to focus on the people. That was our film. You could do another film just on the scandal. I mean, oh, it was so corrupt. The AIDS office became the dumping ground for patronage jobs; people weren't even showing up and they were getting paychecks. You just can't even fathom that, here you have this critical issue and people are dying, and then money is just being filtered off to friends. It was really -- it was pretty -- it's stunning. There are still problems with this, although they are trying to work on it.
That was a very useful series, but it's different from what we tried to do, which was humanize this story.
Jose Antonio Vargas: And to back up this point -- this was something, for example: I maybe had spent four months trying to create a timeline for the AIDS director that replaced the other AIDS director that replaced the other AIDS director. But to me, what's important to notice here is the government can only do so much. The federal government and the local government can only do so much. Individually, we all have a responsibility on this issue. So I think that's something that we address in the movie.
Somebody like Ron Daniels and Jose: They talk eloquently about how they got to where they got. And I don't think the "everyday, ordinary person" would relate as much if people don't own up to that -- that they had done something that maybe they should not have been doing.
Myles Helfand: You guys were filming for the better part of a year. By the time you were wrapping, did you feel more hopeful or less hopeful about the direction things were going in D.C.?
Susan Koch: Oh, boy. That's a tough one.
Jose Antonio Vargas: From my reporting point of view, I think a little more hopeful. Because, from a government perspective, D.C. actually has a functioning surveillance unit now. The surveillance unit is -- in my opinion, at least; in my reporting on this for seven years -- that's really the most critical part of an AIDS office. You need to know what the trends are.
At one point, D.C. had the fastest rate of AIDS cases. Because by the time people tested, they already had AIDS, not HIV. They had already progressed to AIDS. For a while, D.C. didn't even know what the numbers were.
Well, now the government knows what the numbers are. So now the question becomes, OK, now that you know, now you have a map of where the epidemic is and where it's going to go. What are you going to do to not just prevent it, but to care for the people who already have it? To me, that's a step in the right direction.
Even now that I'm in New York -- I don't live in D.C. anymore -- I still keep in contact with people like Ron, or Patricia Nalls, who's the head of the Women's Collective, which is mostly about black women in D.C. And there's a feeling that the people right now in the AIDS office just haven't done the kind of outreach that they should be doing, actually talking to people on the ground.
Susan Koch: I think that I feel hopeful, in the sense that there are a lot of incredible organizations and individuals that are on the grassroots level that are working. But it's discouraging because I think that they are not working together, and they are also all vying for that same small slice of pie. The funding situation is extremely tough.
I don't know. I guess if you try to look at the big picture, you can get overwhelmed. But when you stop and see what some of these groups and individuals are doing, then you think, OK, maybe we can begin to make a dent.
Jose Antonio Vargas: I remember, one of the first things I did when Susan and I had agreed to work on the film together was taking her to meet all my sources. The Latin group, the black gay group, the white gay group, the women, the transgender group, and the teens -- the guy that handles Metro Teen AIDS, which is all about youth outreach. They all sat there at a table. And one of them says, "Oh, this is one of the first times that we actually have been at the same table."
And I remember looking at Susan and going, "Oh, wow." That's the problem. D.C. is not that big. And I bet you that that exact same scenario is probably happening in a lot of urban areas: At the end of the day, these groups just don't really talk to each other. They become islands unto themselves.
I've been at a seminar for -- I'm not going to name any names -- but I went to an AIDS conference. And I was stunned. I was just stunned at the lack of representation, the lack of representation of other people in the discussion. I couldn't believe that they were talking about AIDS in America, circa 2009, and these are the people who are representing the groups. I think that's something that really needs to be addressed, as well.
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This article was provided by TheBody. It is a part of the publication This Month in HIV.
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