Media Mash: A Compilation of Media Musings

Celia Farber Exposes Aids Cocktail Drugs Nightmare in Gear MagazineThe Masher reads a lot of magazines and newspapers and some great journalism every week. But one of the best analyses on the medical, drug and media industries to have come around in a long time appeared in an unlikely place: the current issue of Gear magazine. Gear belongs to the Maxim, Details genre, aimed at young men with high devotion to pop culture near naked, beautiful women.Gear has already reaped publicity for the current issue because of a steamy, revealing spread on teenage TV star Jessica Biel, who apparently wants out of her contract with Aaron Spelling, the producer of her show, Seventh Heaven. So the theory goes -- pose very provocatively and the show aimed at a teen audience will want you out. So far Spelling is not biting; in fact, he has threatened to sue Gear. But that's another story.Hopefully, the Jessica Biel spread brought scads of readers to the magazine, who then read Celia Farber's extraordinary article on the fall of David Ho, the former superstar of AIDS research. Farber documents the cruel toll Ho's increasingly discounted remedy of "drug cocktails" has taken on HIV sufferers. Ho's theory claimed that by striking at HIV early, before AIDS symptoms appeared, with an extremely powerful combination of AZT and newer drugs called protease inhibitors, HIV could be annihilated in the bloodstream.Four years later, the conventional wisdom is that David Ho's theory was just wrong, and that the media PR machine that catapulted him to prominence (Time magazine chose him as Man of the Year in 1996, the New York Times Magazine did a cover story) was all a consequence of an environment in which media hype, AIDS politics and desperation for a cure created a hero.Farber interviewed David Pasquarelli, an ACT UP activist in San Francisco, whose organization has a 1,200-member clientele of HIV sufferers looking for help. What is going on? Farber asked Pasquarelli. What are you seeing as a result of the drug cocktails? "Death and deformity," he said. "Death from strokes and heart attacks and kidney failure. We lost probably half a dozen clients from sudden deaths this year. We also have seen 30 people that have distended bellies and hunchbacks from taking the drugs."While statistics show that the drug cocktails are saving some lives, the impact of the drugs on many others has been heartbreaking. At Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Massachusetts, the conclusion of a review of "post-cocktail deaths" was that liver toxicity from the drugs was now the leading cause of death among HIV patients. Holly Melroe wrote last year in the Journal of Association of Nurses in AIDS Care that the drug therapies "may have a greater life threatening potential than the disease itself."Farber's article offers a detailed critique by several scientists of the mathematical formula that lead to Ho's theory, which was not adequately tested. "It was just preposterous," recalls Dr. Steven Miles. "It was almost like an instantaneous religion or cult."How did the cult of Ho and his theory gain such widespread acceptance? Veteran AIDS doctor Joseph Sonnabend, co-founder of AmFAR, explained: "Anybody is capable of having stupid ideas, but what is unusual is getting them onto the front page of the New York Times and Time magazine. The real villains are these journalists. We have traditionally depended on the press to protect us from nonsense like this -- not anymore. Now people who have feet of clay become oracles thanks to their publicists and the cooperation of journalists."Farber points out that the rush to get the new AIDS drugs on the market caused a total disintegration of the FDA approval process. Some drugs were approved in a matter of weeks, when approval normally takes years.Farber quotes another source (who insisted on anonymity for fear of losing his job): "Look at the media, that's where it happens. Look at those earliest pieces about Ho that ran in the Wall Street Journal. They are just pure propaganda, pure drug company puff pieces. And those reporters won the Pulitzer that year for their AIDS reporting. The pharmaceutical industry exerts a huge influence on scientists and journalists. And nobody -- certainly not the reporters -- is going to stand up and wave their finger and say 'This is all a big horrible machine.' You know why? Because they are all profiting from it."You Win Some and Then You Lose Some: Pacifica Goes CorporateThe initial news was heartening for Pacifica activists who have been battered by their struggle with the double-barreled leadership of Mary Frances Berry and Lynn Chadwick. They are both leaving Pacifica. Chadwick soon, Berry not until her term ends in September. Two other board members, progressive liberals June Makela and Bill Lucey, also resigned from the board. But the old adage -- be careful what you wish for, you just might get it -- may be in effect here.The new board chair is David Acosta, a CPA from Houston, who is well-known for pushing for the sale of one of the Pacifica stations at last summer's board meeting. The vice chair is Ken Ford, who works for the National Association of Homebuilders. The new board also includes controversial D.C. businessman Bertram Lee and corporate attorney John Murdock. Lee's business history includes buying and selling radio and TV stations. He was a co-owner of the Denver Nuggets and served on the board of directors of Reebok. Murdock is an HMO attorney whose law firm, Epstein, Becker & Green, specializes in such services as "maintaining a union-free workplace," according to Pacifica activists. Leslie Cagan, a radical activist who has devoted much of her career to Cuba-U.S. relations, was also brought onto the board after heavy lobbying from New York's WBAI.It seems once again that Pacifica activists' paranoia is well-founded and the future of the network as we knew it looks dim. The Masher wonders what this cast of characters is doing as the board of the only progressive radio network in the U.S. "Pacifica's board members should be progressive community leaders -- not wheelers and dealers who sell broadcast stations and attorneys from union-busting law firms," said Andrea Buffa, executive director of the San Francisco advocacy organization Media Alliance.From Angola to California, Journalists ResistingJournalists jailed for expressing or writing opinions is unfortunately a regular occurrence around the world. One current example of this involves Rafael Marques, a 28-year-old independent Angolan journalist who is in trouble in one of the more repressive and historically brutal southern African regimes. Marques has been charged with defaming President dos Santos for criticisms he made of him in a July 3, 1999 article in the weekly paper Agora and a broadcast on Radio Ecclesia. Marques referred to the Angolan president as a "dictator," and said he was "responsible for the destruction of a country and the production of corruption." On October 16, 1999, Marques was taken from his home by the police and detained there until November 25, 1999. Under Angolan law, he should not have been detained for defamation. Yet Marques is subject to judicial restrictions on his movement and has received death threats. The detention and upcoming trial of Marques follows a trend of harassment, threats and detention of members of the independent press in Angola. Since January 1999, more the 20 journalists have been detained and questioned, based on accusations of defamation and crimes against the state. Rafael Marques' trial is set to begin Thursday, March 9.For more information, go to www.soros.org/marques.Meanwhile in California, journalists are having censorship problems of their own. In reaction to a new display of owner arrogance and bias, 12 reporters, editors and other newspaper workers, calling themselves the Weyrich 12, have quit from a chain of California Central Coast weeklies after "the owner banned positive news about abortion choice and homosexuality," according to Elaine Herscher of the San Francisco Chronicle. The owner, David Weyrich, a multimillionaire developer. told his readers in a front-page statement, that he and his co-owner wife's beliefs as Roman Catholics led them to conclude that homosexuality is an unnatural choice. He also said they could not condone abortion, which he called "destroying a life."The chain of papers, located in San Luis Obsipo County, include the Atascadero Gazette, where Ron Bast resigned as editor. Bast said he was stunned: "We were defining ourselves as a community paper, then all of a sudden the community has a couple of significant holes cut out of it." Bast asked: "When you begin excising pieces of the community, where do you stop?"Of course, conservative stands by publishers affecting editorial content is not a new story in the newspaper business. For example, in San Diego, the owner of the local alternative weekly, the San Diego Reader, who is a devout Catholic, has also on occasion censored coverage of gay and pro-choice issues.

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