Where Is AIDS Among The A-List Topics?

Think about what happened the other day. Enron hearings opened to an Standing Room Only crowd on Capitol Hill. The sleaze was about to start gushing out and then, the TV picture shrinks and another story interrupts. Breaking News displaces Breaking News.

The car carrying John Walker Lindh, also known as “Taliban John Walker,” “Jihad Johnny” or simply, in New York Postese, “The Rat,” approaches the courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. Let’s Go Live. There’s nothing to really see, but how can we skip it? ANYTHING might happen!

You can almost hear the mutterings of accountants from Arthur Anderson who had allegedly cooked Enron’s books saying as the media scrutiny shifts away, “Thank you, there is a God,” when their testimony was preempted for the LATEST.

When two stories collide, one gives way until the networks realize they can split the screen more and more, so you can glimpse all the big stories at the same time, the better to distract us and limit our attention spans.

Increasingly, front page attention is stuck on stories starting with A: Arms. Al-Qaeda. Ashcroft. Annan. Arafat. Arthur Anderson. Anthrax. Afghanistan. But one A is, for the most part, missing: AIDS. That omission says a lot about the state of the world and the world of news.

Ted Koppel Rediscovers Africa In mid-January, just to show that another A (Africa) could be covered, Nightline’s Ted Koppel highlighted stories that had been swallowed up by yet another A: amnesia (i.e., the tendency by news organizations to forget that Africa exists). For five nights, he showed that a forgotten corner of the world could be covered on television, and covered well.

I didn’t always like the analytical overlay, especially on a moving profile of a desperately poor woman in the Congo that cited Greek mythology to compare her to Sisyphus forever pushing a rock up a hill, with a strong subtext of “the poor shall always be with us” fatalism. But at a time when most of the developing world goes uncovered on TV, it was an impressive demonstration of caring and daring.

But what if you feel that the African AIDS story needs to be told but in a different way, through the eyes and voices of African youth – the group that is most at risk?

Notes UNAIDS, the organization leading the global fight: “Children and young people are at the center of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The extent to which their rights are protected, the services and information they receive and the behavior of young people can help determine the quality of life of millions of people. Young people are particularly susceptible to HIV infection and they also carry the burden of caring for family members living with HIV/AIDS.”

According to the UN, AIDS has killed 25 million people since the early 1980s, and as many as 8,000 die every day around the globe. Fully 40 million are infected, and an estimated 14,000 people are added to that number every day. Yet as AIDS claims more victims it gets less coverage.

On January 25, The New York Times carried a Reuters story reporting that “AIDS will surpass the Black Death as the world’s worst pandemic if the 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS do not get life-prolonging drugs, a public health physician said Friday.”

OneWorld’s new on-line AIDS Channel (www.aidschannel.org) notes that many of the promised contributions to a global AIDS fund have not come through. Writing from Zambia, in the epicenter of the epidemic, Catherine Ndashe Phiri, the AIDS channel’s editor, writes that the war on terrorism “slowed the renewed commitment from the June UNGASS on AIDS [UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS] for the end of global AIDS… AIDS was once again put on the backbench, and undoubtedly it will be felt largely by Africa and other developing nations.”

When AIDS isn’t visible in the media, it doesn’t exist for communities that rely on media to tell them what matters most. This is true not only in the West, but in Africa itself, where stigma and discrimination against AIDS sufferers is deeply entrenched, and where silence and denial still drive many governments to cover up their frightening infection levels.

Often the young people who most need to know how to protect themselves have few programs directed their way. At the same time, there are many stirring and effective responses led by unsung young heroes whose stories could inspire a greater youth mobilization.

But who is going to tell these stories?

Speak Up Young Africa!

Two young medical students, Kebba Jobarteh from Gambia and Nduka Amankulor from Nigeria, who went to Yale and received public health training at Harvard, found that many people in the West took a rather paternalistic approach, the mindset of medical missionaries who don’t really respect or support initiatives underway in Africa at the community level.

“We looked around and realized that most of our colleagues knew very little about our world, customs and concerns. They couldn’t really speak to African youth, or for that matter, encourage young people to speak for themselves,” Kebba told me when he approached Globalvision to help fashion a media project with a film, web component and youth network to showcase what Africans themselves are doing about AIDS.

“We are calling it “Speak Up Young Africa,” adds Nduka, “because we know how ineffective most anti-AIDS programming is because it talks down to young people in boring and uninspired ways.”

With a small research grant, these passionate doctors-to-be jumped in with both feet. They spent two months crisscrossing the continent talking with youth groups, medical colleagues and extraordinary individuals whose stories can become components of the film they insist needs to be made.

“There is nothing out there like what we want to do–media with youth for youth,” Kebba insists. “Who better to help tell this story than us? We know the medical dimension, understand the cultural challenges and relate quite personally to what African youth are going through because that’s who we are.”

Funds Needed For Anti-AIDS Media Now their big challenge begins – to find the resources to produce the project. They have an advisory board that reads like a Who’s Who of AIDS experts. And they have going for them at least six C’s: charisma, consciousness, contacts, competence, commitment and caring. Only one C is still a bit light: cash.

A lot of money earmarked to fight AIDS in Africa is sloshing around the world. Much of it is spent on research institutes in the North, on conferences and meetings of experts. Some of it is ripped off by corrupt governments or ends up in the coffers of wealthy pharmaceutical companies. Talk to people in the field and they will you about waste and misplaced priorities. Travel to infected communities and you hear complaints not just about the lack of access to vital high-priced medicines but about the unavailability of basic care, even aspirins.

Precious little is being invested in media projects that can inform young people in a language they can relate to, produced by people who connect with their pain and aspirations. Already “Speak Up Young Africa” has been spoken down to by some TV outlets and funding agencies. A few cop out by saying “Not for us” or “We don’t fund media.” But they didn’t ignore September 11, and they must not be allowed to ignore AIDS.

“Speak Up Young Africa” will get made somehow. I am going to help these multilingual, multitalented young men with the smarts to survive in two very different cultures, and I am sure others will too. I am sure there are funders who will get its significance and potential. If you can help – with money, with contacts, with ideas – contact Kebba and Nduka at [email protected]

A project like theirs is vital, given the basic indifference of many media gatekeepers who keep Americans underinformed about Africa and AIDS. This is not a conspiracy by the news business, by the way, just a reflection of its market-driven culture and often parochial focus. That needs to be challenged both with documentation of the gaps and criticism of errors and omissions on the one hand, and with engaged independent media on the other.

Ted Koppel titled his last report from the Congo “Heart of Darkness.” But as has been said before, the only thing dark about Africa is our ignorance of it. We all need to open our hearts to let the ignorance out and pump the light of empathy and compassion in.

- Danny Schechter is executive editor of MediaChannel.org. His latest book is News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics 1960-2000, from Akashic Books.

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