The AIDS epidemic has been widely interpreted as a challenge to the institutions and the values that typify the achievements of modern Western society: science and medicine, respect for the rights and concern for the welfare of all citizens. So far, the record of our societal and institutional response has been mixed at best, possibly because AIDS came upon us in ways that tested our motives and our institutions. By emerging among groups that are largely despised and rejected, AIDS proved once again the truism that the importance of an event may be determined less by what happened than to whom it happened.
The prospect of safer representations of AIDS bodies and panicked sex requires recognizing that media images aid cultural symbols and this as Stuart Hall (1982) has commented: implies the active work of selecting and presenting, of structuring and shaping: not merely the transmitting of already-existing meaning, but the more active labor of making things mean.
In the early days of the AIDS epidemic (at a point when widespread educational efforts might have saved thousands of lives since lost), Congressman Henry Waxman of California made this point by contrasting public response to AIDS and to Legionnaire's disease: "Legionnaire's disease hit a group of predominately white, heterosexual, middle-aged members of the American Legion. The respectability of the victims brought them a degree of attention and funding for research and treatment far greater than that made available so far to the victims of Kaposi's sarcoma. I want to emphasize that contrast, because the more popular Legionnaire's disease affected fewer people and proved to be less fatal. What society judged was not the severity of the disease but the social acceptability of the individuals affected with it." (Gayle, 1987)
The first accounts of AIDS in the mainstream media emphasized its apparent link to gay men's sexuality (there were also at that time two other outsider "risk groups," IV drug users and Haitians, and the first "innocent victims," hemophiliacs). The first story on AIDS aired by NBC News appeared in June 1982, and Tom Brokaw framed the issue in a fashion that remained constant throughout much subsequent coverage: "Scientists at the National Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta today released the results of a study that shows that the lifestyle of some male homosexuals has triggered an epidemic of a rare form of cancer." (Sara, 1987).
The media alternated depictions that distanced AIDS as the fate befalling those gay men in the "fast lane" whose lifestyles have put them far outside the mainstream. Investigators also believe that AIDS is principally a phenomenon of the raunchy subculture in large cities, where bars and bathhouses are literal hotbeds of sexual promiscuity, with stories intimating that AIDS might also threaten the general population. The media's mainstream orientation was reflected in their concern over the fate of the "general population" if and when AIDS spread beyond the deviant "risk groups" in which it mostly appeared.
In a CBS News special titled, appropriately enough, "AIDS Hits Home", correspondent Bernard Goldberg unwittingly spoke this premise when he commented: "For a very long time,