My story was ethical

Writer Andrew Sullivan's pronouncements on AIDS and other gay issues made his personal life fair game.


Last Friday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the results of a study that, according to the Associated Press, showed that HIV in the gay community is now spreading “at alarming rates that remind health officials of the explosive first years of the epidemic,” proving “the government’s most sweeping evidence yet of a resurgence in the disease among young gay men.”

In the same week, I wrote an article for the New York gay publication LGNY reporting that the HIV-positive gay writer Andrew Sullivan, a man who has a great deal of influence on gay and AIDS issues, was himself advertising for multiple-partner unprotected sex. After first refusing press calls on the issue Sullivan eventually confirmed on his Web site that he did advertise for unprotected sex. He made it appear that he was looking for a date or a boyfriend on a site where HIV-positive guys meet. But make no mistake: While there are hundreds of sites specifically for HIV-positive guys to find each other for the purpose of dating, the site Sullivan advertised on is a place where both HIV-positive and HIV-negative men advertise specifically and solely for unprotected multiple-partner sex.

Sullivan has, as I showed in my article, time and again claimed that the AIDS crisis is over, and that studies showing a dangerous expansion of the epidemic among young gay men are flawed and are just plain wrong. His impact in this regard — beginning in 1996 when he penned a New York Times Magazine cover story headlined “When Plagues End” — has been devastating, as much of the media has followed the lead over the years, pulling back coverage on AIDS, viewing the epidemic as over. And studies have shown, with coverage of AIDS receding and with the thought that AIDS is “manageable” pervading the culture, unsafe sex is rising at frightening rates among young gay men.

It is Sullivan’s pronouncements on AIDS, in addition to his pronouncements on other gay issues and their relevance to his actions, that influenced me to write my story for LGNY, confirming rumors that for weeks were being widely discussed all over the Internet, including on Salon’s Table Talk message boards. It is in light of these pronouncements that I and many other journalists — many of whom have posted their opinions on the Poynter Institute’s Media News — believe the story is both journalistically and ethically sound.

The subhead of Cliff Rothman’s Salon piece about my story claims it was a “vendetta masquerading as journalism,” with Rothman alleging a “long-standing feud” between Sullivan and me. But Rothman offers no evidence or examples to back up these claims. Sullivan and I have had differences — not petty or personal differences, but fundamental differences about ideas — but does that qualify as a “vendetta” on my part? To reduce this to a “feud” is to diminish the important issues the story raises, and to change the subject.

Sullivan himself has tried to change the subject to “sexual McCarthyism,” and Rothman unfortunately buys it without even looking at Sulivan’s own history and past statements, which make the charge coming from Sullivan quite ludicrous. Sullivan himself has pilloried Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson regarding their sex lives. And last October Sullivan wrote a column in the New Republic holding Matt Drudge up as a paragon of journalism. Was Drudge engaging in “sexual McCarthyism” for using unnamed sources in promulgating the Lewinsky sexual affair? Not according to Sullivan, who compared Drudge to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who of course exploded the Watergate scandal based on unnamed sources.

Sullivan railed against “former White House spokesmen Joe Lockhart and Mike McCurry” because they “often refused to answer press questions that emanated from rumors circulated by Drudge.” He criticized them because “they averred [it was] beneath them” to respond to the rumors. But Sullivan himself refused to answer questions about his online postings for weeks because, as he claimed on his Web site last week, “the only sources presented were anonymous,” and he was not going to respond to “mere anonymous rumors.”

For Sullivan to suddenly express disdain for anonymous sources is also ridiculous in light of the fact that unnamed sources are standard in journalism today, including at the New Republic, the New York Times Magazine and everywhere else Sullivan puts his byline, including here at Salon. You can’t turn on CNN or open the Washington Post without hearing or reading about a “highly placed White House official” or a “source inside the Pentagon” or “a top Wall Street executive” making often dramatic and powerful charges and observations. Of course, with potentially explosive charges most news organizations require at least one secondary source to confirm a story, anonymous or not (as in the case of Woodward and Bernstein). I had two independent sources, plus corroborating sources, on a story that was circulating the Internet and that Sullivan refused to comment on, not responding to reporters’ repeated inquiries, including my own.

The key of course is the credibility of the sources, as well as that of the reporter and the news organization. Drudge, whose journalism Sullivan respects so much, was dead wrong when he used anonymous sources to slanderously report that former White House staffer Sidney Blumenthal was a wife beater. (According to Sullivan, it was OK for Drudge to spew these falsehoods because Drudge did apologize — when actually, he didn’t; recently Sullivan accused Blumenthal of threatening the First Amendment because he launched a lawsuit against Drudge.) I, however, have never made unfounded charges as such, and have been as careful and accurate with this story as with any story I’ve written — and Sullivan’s admission confirms that.

Sullivan will probably continue to attempt to change the subject, and perhaps some, like Cliff Rothman, will continue to help him. But none of that changes the fact that the real and important issues here are HIV prevention, AIDS denial, the relationship between Sullivan’s pronouncements and his actions, and the erosion of an ethic of safe sex.

Michelangelo Signorile is the author of "Life Outside: The Signorile Report on Gay Men: Sex, Drugs, Muscles and the Passages of Life."

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