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CNN Tackles HIV and (GASP!) Just About Succeeds

By Kellee Terrell

January 19, 2011

When I read that CNN's Anderson Cooper was hosting a news special about the HIV epidemic in America, I wasn't too excited about it. Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for Cooper, but too many times mainstream media's coverage of HIV has fallen flat.

Case in point: CNN's 2009 special "Black Men in the Age of President Obama." In one of the segments, CNN attempted to address gay and bisexual black men. But instead of tackling homophobia, violence, bullying and job discrimination, CNN anchor Don Lemon, Essence's former editor-in-chief Angela Burt-Murray and a panel of straight black men (none of whom possessed HIV or LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] expertise) used the time to talk about how the down low is killing black women. No real proof to back up their claims, no real HIV expert to explain the rise in HIV rates among black men who have sex with men and no voices of actual gay men telling their own stories in their own words were provided.

Even though that unfortunate journalistic misstep occurred a year and a half ago, I still haven't forgotten it -- inaccurate media coverage really irks me. But as I prepared to watch Cooper's special, "Hope Survives: 30 Years of AIDS," which aired on Jan. 14, I told myself, "Kellee, get over it. It's your job to have an open mind."

So I did. And I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw.

As the hour went by, I found myself feverishly taking notes, nodding my head to many points that were being made and feeling somewhat impressed. That rarely ever happens with these kinds of programs.

Many topics that my colleagues and I complain don't get enough media attention got their due during this hour-long special. The panel of talking heads included singer and HIV advocate Elton John; Project Runway contestant Mondo Guerra; Black AIDS Institute chief executive and president Phill Wilson; Academy Award-winning actress Mo'Nique; and the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, M.D. They discussed the connection that LGBT inequality has to HIV; how oppression, homophobia, racism and hate fuel stigma and HIV; their own personal experiences with HIV; the importance of knowing one's status and getting into treatment, and the consequences of not doing so; the negative outcomes of abstinence-only education; generational complacency around HIV; the need for better prevention methods; and recent medical breakthroughs.

While I can't prove it, I have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps Cooper and his staff read our "10 Tips for the Media on How to Stop Screwing Up HIV/AIDS Coverage." Or maybe that is just wishful thinking.

A few moments that stood out:

  • Elton John's honesty: Even though John has done tons of HIV philanthropy since creating his Elton John AIDS Foundation, he admitted that he did nothing when the epidemic first hit, despite losing 80 friends to the disease. He said, "I was frightened. I was scared. I turned my back. I should have been out there with Larry Kramer." His openness was touching, and I hope it will spark more people to get involved.
  • Phill Wilson on HIV in black America: While he wasn't saying anything new per se, Wilson did a really good job of illuminating just how serious HIV is among blacks in the U.S. -- it is a fire raging in the African-American community. And Wilson, thankfully, didn't make a single reference to the down low.
  • The Berlin patient is not an example of "the cure": Earlier this month, the media was buzzing that the "Berlin patient" had proven that there was a cure for HIV. Anthony Fauci, M.D., set the record straight and said that while the case of the Berlin patient was promising, it was "not practically applicable to the people who have HIV." I hope that people were listening. There is still no cure for HIV.
  • "Keep your chin up": When HIV is covered in the media, there are rarely any messages of hope for people living with the virus. Jeanne White-Ginder shared an emotional story about how her son Ryan White would always tell her to "keep her head up" when she got down. So in turn, she sent a message to all the people living with HIV to "keep your chin up." I'm pretty sure there wasn't a dry eye in the house after that segment.

See a video of White-Ginder below:

Some notable weaknesses:

  • No female HIV-positive panelists: Minus HIV activist Marvelyn Brown, who had a brief taped segment, there were no HIV-positive female panelists talking about any of the issues that women face, such as motherhood, pregnancy and gender inequality. As Elton John said, the No. 1 killer of women throughout the world is HIV. An HIV-positive woman should have been there to represent.
  • Hollywood overload: I appreciated celebrities such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Susan Sarandon, Sharon Stone and Maya Angelou sharing their "deciding moments," as well as Elton John and Mo'Nique for making really poignant points, but more time should have been allotted for people living with HIV to talk about their own experiences. The HIV community barely got the spotlight. And while closing the show with a slideshow of the faces of those living with the virus was touching, it wasn't quite enough.
  • Only 60 minutes: It's obvious that an hour is no way near enough time to dig deep into the complex issues around HIV; the show just scratched the surface of the epidemic. But this was a good start, and hopefully with HIV turning 30 this year, CNN is planning something bigger for its viewers.

My overall grade for the show: B.

Mr. Cooper: You and your staff did a good job researching the topic, presenting its history and illuminating some of the pertinent barriers that we face today. I just hope that by airing the show on a Friday night, CNN didn't make it so that people such as myself -- those who are already educated about HIV -- were the only ones watching.

What did you think about CNN's "Hope Survives: 30 Years of AIDS"? Please e-mail us or leave a comment below!

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for and

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See Also
13 Moments in Black Celebrity Activism
History's Biggest HIV-Positive Celebrities
More About HIV on Television

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Shawn (Orlando, FL) Wed., Jan. 26, 2011 at 7:28 am UTC
I believe in the theory of one step at a time. Having a gay friendly news anchor on a major news program who is willing to address this issue is certainly a move forward. The issue of the celebrities and the healthy looking HIV'ers probably has something to do with the fact that people will look and pay attention to things that are attractive as opposed to something that is not good looking or real. Just look at our tastes when we pick partners. I guess that might be something to work toward, but I doubt that as long as we care about how we look and how we are perceived by others, the sad truth is that we will have to take and make our progress whatever way works best, which will probably be through the glitz and glamour of Public Relations.
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Comment by: Biglin (Otukpo, Nigeria) Thu., Jan. 20, 2011 at 11:53 pm UTC
I didn't watch the program but can imagine: people who don't really know anything about our problems acting like nobles. Here in Nigeria we just try to move on. You won't believe it but on the media here those who claim to air programs on positive living end up scaring you more and creating a negative image about those living with HIV
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Comment by: Dave (NJ) Thu., Jan. 20, 2011 at 6:13 pm UTC
I would have given the program a C- because there were far too many comercials, all of the issues that were touted to be discussed were not! What about criminalization? What about Dr. Fauci's take on the state of medications and are there any new ones in the pipeline? No, sorry, it was a very disappointing program. And what did Mo'nique add to the discussion? Whilel celebrity involvement is in fact necessary, those celeb's need to be activitists and not merely story tellers.
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Comment by: Ken Howard, LCSW (West Hollywood, CA) Thu., Jan. 20, 2011 at 5:14 pm UTC
This is great. There needs to be more discussion and education in the media. And more on the non-medical, cultural, sociological, and mental health aspects of HIV. (This is my expertise as a licensed psychotherapist and 20-year HIV survivor, Kudos to Anderson and CNN.
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Comment by: @ (Texas) Thu., Jan. 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm UTC
I'm with Ted on this one...I missed a few minutes here and there of the show.... I wish someone would of shed more light on the price of medication, insurance issues, Adap, lack of funding toward cure research.

They really had given more airtime to positive people, so that others can have a deeper understanding of the issues poz people side effects, stigma, etc !!!
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Comment by: Ted (Louisville, KY) Thu., Jan. 20, 2011 at 2:56 am UTC
It is funny how people can watch the same show and come away with totally different views. I presented this topic in an HIV/AIDS forum. Everyone who saw the show and posted said it was terrible. They didn't like that only 2 minutes per year of the 30 years was given. With commercials, the show was not even 60 minutes. We've all seen CNN go over an hour without a commercial break for a police chase.

Many took issue, like you, with the celebrity orgy. I realize celebrities can help to get people to watch, but a whole show without stories from real people living with HIV/AIDS was a lapse in judgment on the part of CNN. Dr. Fauci didn't get that much time. The whole show seemed to focus around Elton and Monique. They did not discuss funding issues and ADAP. They did not discuss health issues people still face. They didn't discuss all the prosecutions of HIVers that seem to happen on a weekly basis. They failed to address in-depth how so many only learn they are poz after getting sick with some OI and are in the hospital. It all seemed too sanitized--you take meds and no big deal. The guest who said he has been poz since 1981 looked healthier than many neg folks I've seen. I think without all the other info I stated, many would look at him and think HIV is no big deal. The title, "30 Years Of AIDS" just seemed misleading from what was presented. I think CNN and the producers were actually lazy in putting on this show. I hope this is just a beginning and CNN will do more--and, other networks will do more. I guess it was better than nothing. It was interesting to hear Elton say he basically ignored HIV, even with friends dying. I hadn't heard that before. That was refreshing honesty and he is making up for that big time now. I just don't think it was very educational for people who don't already know much about what living with HIV is like today--how you can feel fine until you end up in the hospital, importance of adherence, etc. I give it C-
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