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Tap moral courage to mold opinions.

I AM GRATEFUL for an opportunity to spend an evening in conversation with op-ed page editors of major newspapers.

I don't know your personal histories. One episode from mine is centered around my decision to drop out of college -- never to return, I might add -- because I found the control room more attractive than the classroom. My first jobs in media were here, beginning at the local public television outlet and then becoming a full-fledged producer at Detroit's ABC-owned and -operated station. They were wonderful, dynamic years, full of joy and challenge and learning.

I learned then, and have not forgotten, the need for a good story. Reporting facts requires only a list; telling a story requires a plot. When a reporter or editor begins her or his interview with me, I'm sympathetic with their need for a story.

And editorial tasks are even more complicated. One must think and write not only clearly, nor only for oneself, but persuasively and for an institution. Every day. Over and over and over again. When the dog days of summer drag on, the editorial gruel is thin; when the dogs of war howl and rage, the cost of a misjudged editorial may be your career.

Editors of op-ed pages, it seems to me, have a series of complicated and urgent mandates. You must find good issues, and then good ways to address them -- but others' names must go under the material. Often, you devote a day to finding someone to disagree with you. It's a lot like working with some managing editors: You must engage someone who disagrees with you, who would like nothing better than to rip your logic to little bits -- and then you must help them achieve their aims.

If morality is the consequence of making decisions reflecting our values, then your work is profoundly moral. You need to help sell the paper. But beyond that, you must judge what issues are sufficiently worthy to seduce the reader's attention as well as his coin. You need to decide when an opinion has been suffocated by too many words, or when it is being strangled by illogic. More importantly, you need to choose between those pieces or perspectives that are poignant, unusual, evocative, and startling -- and those which are mean, eccentric, dangerous, and destructive. I admire the courage as well as the craft with which you must work.

I've grouped some thoughts under four very loosely collected headings, each beginning with a "P": Practical suggestions, perennial issues, painful matters, and personal perspectives. First, some practical suggestions.

You should know that I crisscross the nation telling people in HIV/AIDS communities to work with their local media. I tell them they should not only write letters to the editor; they should get to know the editor, write op-ed pieces, and do what they can to influence editorial policies. I ask them how they expect editors and journalists to become sensitized without experience and without human relationships that make this issue tangible.

In fairness to them, let me render the same counsel to you. I wish you would be aggressive about seeking out people living with HIV in your community, and those who live with them. Get to know the parents who have lost a child, the orphans who are not yet able to ask the question, "Why?" Get to know the advocates. Go into grade schools and high schools and colleges to ask what issues -- including HIV- and AIDS-prevention -- demand attention, and to invite youth participation in your pages -- not just on the "youth page." Tell others to work with you. Get to know the caretakers and the care providers. Spend an hour in a hospice, if you haven't. It would be good not only for your soul but also for your art.

With due respect to the sensitivities many of you have no doubt honed to a fine edge, I am sometimes amazed at the insensitivity of editorial language when the topic is HIV and AIDS. When I am described as an "AIDS victim," I cringe not once but twice. First, because I am HIV-positive; I don't have AIDS. That error belies medical ignorance on the part of the writer. Second, because I am not a victim; nor, so help me God, do I ever intend to be one. I'm neither pathetic nor passive; I have been infected, not victimized.

Similarly, I am not an "AIDS patient." I see my doctor about as often as most other women. On my doctor's charts, I may be a patient, but not on the pages of your newspaper. Like most others who are HIV-positive, I am a person living with the virus, not a victim or patient dying of it.

To the extent that you play a critical role in setting your community's social, political, economic, and moral agenda, and to the extent that your pages reflect your community's discussion of that agenda -- to that extent, I hope you would seek to be both educated about this epidemic and sensitive to those who have been most captured by it.

Let me leave these practical suggestions and move to perennial issues.

It seems to me that the HIV/AIDS epidemic brings with it the problems that, from the perspective of editors, afflict many of the great crises. It is complicated and often ambiguous, wrapped up in a language which is inaccessible to the common person. It has a history which is largely subterranean and seldom well understood. The numbers are mind-boggling and, therefore, mind-numbing. The best human interest stories cannot be told for reasons of privacy. Side skirmishes -- between fundamentalists ranting at one end and liberals screaming at the other -- have limited shelf-life and even more limited editorial interest. And plaguing the whole thing is the need to find a new slant on a story or editorial position we feel we've run as often as a Kmart ad. How many AIDS babies' pictures are worth printing? We hardly dare ask out loud. "Gay man dies of AIDS-related causes" is not a stunning new headline. And how do we "cover" this epidemic without reinforcing stereotypes -- of the sort leaping from that mythical headline?

I think my only response to this perennial issue -- how one feeds a popular audience an unpopular diet of truth -- is to urge that you not give up the effort.

The history of this epidemic is terribly important. In its history we discover that only in America is this seen as a "gay" disease. Here we learn that the rate of infections is one thing, and deaths resulting from AIDS are altogether different -- and often divided by more than a decade. It's in the history of this epidemic that we come to understand the rage of gay activists and the terror of a single mother newly employed and now testing HIV-positive. It's in the history that we discover why we know almost nothing about HIV in women. I understand you are not history teachers; but I believe, unless you gain at least a passing familiarity with the history of this epidemic, you cannot adequately assess either its present course or its future trends.

Then there are the numbers. Big numbers. Huge numbers. Because epidemics start small and grow large, and because the span of time between infection and morbidity is so long, Americans are taking false security in reports of "AIDS deaths." Remember that those dying today were, in many instances, infected before we had yet coined the term "AIDS." If you want to grapple with numbers, grapple with the 1 to 2 million Americans like me who are HIV-positive with this one added fact: Approximately 90% of all HIV-positive are "silently positive" -- they've never been tested. They don't know. Whatever it is that got them the virus is likely still occurring within their lives, thus making it a near certainty that they'll be passing it along. Now try your arithmetic.

And, as with all perennial issues faced in the newsroom or the editorial council, the haunting question becomes: How do we turn it into a story? I urge you, maybe I should beg you, to do this without flinching. When you finally lose your first friend to this disease, do not wait until you've stopped crying. Write your grief, and publish it. When you spend your hour in the AIDS hospice, write what it has done to you with your passion as well as your pen. Don't sanitize this story with sterile facts. Let it be stained with human emotion. Nothing else will communicate the truth.

Third, and briefly, let me at least mention a few painful matters. A report was recently issued which intended to serve the HIV/AIDS community. But the report was summarized in a poorly worded news release, and those of us who need to produce today's copy for today's deadlines worked from that release, not the report itself. As a result, great pain was caused to categories of people who heard themselves being described as "socially valueless" and, essentially, not worthy of America's concern. Those journalists who were especially close to the HIV/AIDS community were instantly suspicious and took extra care. But their number was few. It was a painful week for many of us.

When you hear about a "cure," please be careful. Don't build false hopes in the minds of a few million parents and children. Or when you hear the prediction that this thing will never be cured, be careful how you handle the report. Living with HIV can be daunting; hope can be fragile, and suicide is no healthier option than AIDS.

Well, these are matters which I find painful -- though I would certainly be willing to discuss them with you. I'm not really sure there's much difference between these items and what follows under the heading personal perspective.

I must tell you that, almost without exception, I have been treated fairly and usually kindly by the press during the past year. Sometimes we've been amused by descriptions that are overly sympathetic or, worse yet, bordering on a kind of heroism one doesn't notice in a mirror.

But I worry that at least some of this treatment is coming at the expense of clear thinking and good moral sense. Here's my fear. I fear that stigma and bias have had their way, also with the media, and that I, Mary Fisher, am treated -- as is Elizabeth Glaser, as was Ryan White, as was Arthur Ashe -- as "an innocent in a field of guilt." Because I am straight, not gay; because I contracted the disease from a husband instead of a needle or a neighbor -- therefore, the conception of this disease in my body was immaculate. And I am innocent.

To the extent that such thinking is having its way among those who shape public opinion, we should be terrified. It suggests that we withhold compassion from those whose behaviors may have caused or contributed to their deaths. On these grounds we would never mourn the passing of a heart attack victim who ate salt, worked under stress, or ate cholesterol. Persons with lung cancer owing to smoking should be disdained; persons with back injuries from lifting should be despised; the person who sees the ice but nonetheless slips on it should be left in agony where he landed. . . . This is more than logically ridiculous. It is morally reprehensible.

Those who are quick to judge, who champion an arrogant morality which is more a weapon of attack than a call to decency -- their voices are dangerous. And I hope you will never let them find expression without a challenge.

Compassion and dignity, justice and affection -- these are the tools of morality with which we fight back in a battle against a virus which has, thus far, taken every person it ever visited.

To the extent that you wield those tools on an everyday basis, deciding which opinion should be heard and which should be muffled, I wish you great moral ambition and a sturdy moral courage.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:editorial writing
Author:Fisher, Mary D.
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Previous Article:The case of the missing Pulitzer: is editorial writing in trouble?
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