The first telephone call came to my office in early September. Another call came two months later, just days after Magic Johnson had stood at a podium in Los Angeles and delivered the shocking news that he was infected with the AIDS virus. Both callers were credible members of the tennis community, and both had the same message: "You know about Arthur Ashe. He's got AIDS." Maybe I should have reacted to this disturbing information strictly as a journalist. After all, I'll wave the First Amendment flag until my arm falls off. And I'll defend until my last breath the public's right to know practically everything about anyone who falls into the category of "public figure."
But now my journalistic instincts were overcome by compassion and concern. I had been well acquainted with Ashe personally and professionally for more than a decade. Long before that, I had admired his athletic skill—and, more important, his dignity. My admiration for him had grown even stronger in recent years as I watched him fight racism, apartheid, and inequities in college athletics, and as he shared with me some of the insights and convictions that made him a respected champion of human rights throughout the world.
So that's why I said nothing. Not to the managing editor of this magazine. Not to my friends. Not even to Arthur. I could have picked up the telephone and asked him. But I didn't. I could have broached the subject during one of the many conversations we had since I received the first tip about him. But I didn't. In November, soon after Magic's announcement, Arthur and I spoke on the phone about AIDS and the backlash that Magic would surely face because of his promiscuous life-style. The questions were on the tip of my tongue: Were my sources right? And, if so, did Arthur feel any compulsion to join Magic as a spokesman in the fight against AIDS? But I didn't ask. I couldn't.
Last month Ashe was my guest at the United Negro College Fund's annual dinner in New York. Magic was one of the honorees. At one point the discussion at our table turned to Johnson's efforts to promote AIDS education and awareness, but by then I had just about put the calls about Arthur out of my mind. I had decided that if he wanted me to know about his condition, he would tell me. Otherwise, it wasn't my business. I had placed his privacy ahead of any desire to break the story in SI—and it wasn't a tough decision.
Last week the editors at USA Today weighed the same options and decided differently. They pursued a tip similar to the one I had received, and USA Today tennis writer Doug Smith confronted Ashe. Though Ashe neither confirmed nor denied having AIDS, he concluded he could no longer keep his condition secret. The next day, he reluctantly went public.
Right away the role played by USA Today ignited a debate. (Why couldn't all this energy have been channeled toward fighting the disease?) While the editors of many other papers said that they, too, would have pursued—and, if they could have confirmed it. published—the story, a rising tide of voices expressed outrage that Ashe's privacy had been violated.
"It's like the press has given up a touch of humanity," said Chris Evert. "It just kills his spirit."
"If the man dies one day earlier because of [stress caused by] this story...then [it] is not worth it," said Mike Clark, reader advocate of The Florida Times-Union.
Terming Ashe's illness "a significant news story," USA Today managing editor for sports Gene Policinski noted that the newspaper pursued the story as it would have had Ashe had cancer or some other life-threatening ailment. "We don't have a special zone for AIDS," he said.
Well, it's time we created one.
Overwhelming public ignorance remains one of the disease's greatest allies. People with the AIDS virus often are stigmatized by those who either stubbornly refuse to accept that the disease cannot be transmitted through casual contact, or who believe that people afflicted with AIDS somehow deserve their fate. Until these misconceptions are overcome, the media should offer most AIDS sufferers the same consideration it gives rape victims, who are ordinarily not identified in news stories.
Admittedly, the line that separates the news value of a public figure's medical condition from his right to privacy isn't always clearly defined. Should the public be alerted that a high-ranking government official has contracted AIDS? By all means. Do we need to know that a health-care worker has been infected? Yes. An athlete who's still active? Probably, because the state of his health is relevant to his profession. The CEO of a publicly held corporation? I guess so; his illness could have an impact on employees and shareholders.
And what if the person isn't as well respected as Ashe? Or doesn't have as good a relationship with the media? Nowadays rumors about the private lives of public figures surface almost daily, forcing reporters and editors to make all sorts of judgments about what is newsworthy. There are no hard rules, no easy answers.
Undoubtedly there are thousands of AIDS sufferers who might be considered public figures but who should be allowed to combat the incurable disease without enduring the added stress of public scrutiny and, all too often, condemnation.
Arthur Ashe was one of them.
Roy S. Johnson is a senior editor at Sports Illustrated.