Illuminating the Past: Interview with Reporter Covering the AIDS Beat in New Orleans During the 1980s

When I defended my master’s thesis in the spring of 2011 I knew the work was far from perfect. What is that they say? A shoddy thesis is a done thesis. I’m not saying my work is shoddy just far from perfect. But one of the things that was missing was an interview with reporters who were covering the AIDS epidemic in New Orleans (at both the mainstream and gay and lesbian newspapers). A couple of weeks ago I conducted the first interview on the road to perfecting my research.

The following are highlights from my interview with John Pope, who was the AIDS beat writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune beginning in 1985.

John Pope became the AIDS beat writer for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans in the summer of 1985. Before Pope began working the beat, the newspaper relied on wire news stories and a few local written pieces, which were picked up by other, randomly assigned reporters. Pope began working for the Times-Picayune in 1980 when the newspaper merged with the city’s evening daily, the States-Item, where he was a general assignment reporter. Pope, a native of New Orleans, recounted his first AIDS assignment as well as the events that led to him covering the disease on a full-time basis.

On Memorial Day of 1985, my city editor asked me to do a story about the impact AIDS was having on the gay community. Pegged to a Memorial Day service for people who had died of AIDS. And I realized there was a lot more to this than just one story. So I got my city editor’s permission to develop it into a beat. And I wound up talking to . . . oh geez . . . I learned about epidemiology some microbiology and I learned a lot about human nature.

Because Pope had no previous experience covering a medical beat, he said he spent a lot of time in the beginning bending the ear of the Louisiana state epidemiologist, Louise McFarland, who helped him to understand enough about the disease to be able to accurately communicate to the public the dangers and the nuts and bolts of the disease.

“It was just learn as you go,” he said. “I mean I had chemistry and biology in high school and college, but I had basic reportorial curiosity, which helped. I had some very good and patient mentors. Dr. McFarland who I mentioned and whole bunch of MDs who, I like to think, they appreciated my curiosity. And were willing to help me understand what I needed to know to get the message out.” Developing the AIDS beat, for Pope, was like developing any other beat for a newspaper. He said he got to know a lot of people not only in the medical community but also in the gay community and from people living with and dying from AIDS. “Back then they were voices in the wilderness,” Pope said about the people living with AIDS in the mid-1980s, “People were scared silly but they didn’t know where to turn.”

Evolution of Coverage

Pope’s early goal was to get as much information out about the disease as possible, but covering the story was not always easy. He recounted the first series of stories he wrote about AIDS and its impact in the gay community and how his coverage of the disease and those living with it evolved in the first year:

I met a lot of people with AIDS. I did my first series on the disease in the spring or summer of 1985 and it was really awful that all of my sources with AIDS died within months. That’s the way it was back then before AZT with the average lifespan between diagnosis and death was less than six months. So I started out doing anonymous then I tried pseudonyms then just first names. After about a year, I realized this was not going to work. I was doing the dance of the seven veils with leaders, and I’d also read an OP/ED piece in the Wall Street Journal. The headline “Need We Ask Why These Young Dying.” It was written by a man, who I think was an out gay man. And he talked about how awful AIDS was but no one seemed to be dying from it because no one wanted to confront that fact in obituaries. I felt emboldened. And then I started asking around in this network that I had started to develop to find someone with AIDS who would be willing to let me follow him or her with a photographer, [use] first and last names, pictures the whole bit. It took a while and I found a young man named Paul Rozier. A photographer and I followed him and his wonderful mother for two months until he died. I’d like to think that story and my other reporting were kind of educational. I always made a point in every story I did to put in basically a boilerplate paragraph telling how AIDS is transmitted through, through, a very gingerly wording back then, sexual contact to the exchange of bodily, body fluids and then we just, I kept on that it wasn’t transmitted by casual contact.

Pope's 1986 story on Rozier. Click for full story with jumps and additional images.
Pope’s 1986 story on Rozier. Click for full story with jumps and additional images.

The Toughest Part

The deaths of those he met through his AIDS coverage became common place and speaking at funerals became almost as much of his job as reporting the stories of the people affected by the disease or the latest medical information about AIDS. Pope said the deaths were the toughest thing about the job.

I wound up going to a lot of funerals also. And I also wound up being a reader the two times the AIDS quilt was unfurled here. The fist time in 1988 I sat next to another reader who had been my first source for AIDS here. He had come from New York. It was tough on him especially because he was hearing names of dead people that he did not know had died. It was tough but I felt that I was, I like to think that I was doing important work. It got good play.

Covering Death

Pope said as the disease began to claim more and more lives in New Orleans he began to see the need for obituary notices to proclaim the cause of death—especially in AIDS related deaths. He said:

I started out with anonymity then I realized I have to be credible. And by that time I think people realized I have to be credible about obits. There was a restaurateur named Marty Scihanbra. He died of AIDS. I knew he died of AIDS. And I put that as his cause of death in the obituaries. His family went nuts. But he died of AIDS. And you just have to develop a very thick hide about this. And then as I started writing more obits I realized this is a newspaper. This is journalism not hagiography. We’re not doing lives of the saints here. And I said, we need to put everybody’s cause of death . . .

. . . That’s, it’s truthful. I said we have to be. People are scared silly but how can they know what is going on unless we tell them who is dying. If you’re going to have a plague you’re going to have victims. They have to be real people. These are not some faceless horde. They’re real folks.

Illuminating Coverage

Pope’s insights illuminate what might have been going on at the Times-Picayune during the early years of AIDS epidemic into the late 1990s when the threat of HIV and AIDS was minimized by breakthroughs in treatment. Pope claimed that he had the support of his editors and other TP staff members. He said, “I think my editors appreciated the initiative. They also knew we were reaching out to an audience that needed to be reached out to, people who might not have turned to traditional media otherwise.” He also said the public response was not completely negative, “I never got any threats.” He never mentioned negative reactions or accounts from readers or from inside the newspaper, but, overall, his insights aid in understanding how and why the coverage began and evolved over nearly 20 years.

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