All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level. – William Bernbach
These words resonate with me today when I think of the case of Ryan White. The responsible media coverage exposed during the horrible plight of this young man exposed the discrimination experienced by people living with HIV and AIDS.
Ryan White would have been 43 this year. But he died at age 18, after a too-short and difficult life in which he battled HIV and the prejudice that surrounded it – as well as the somewhat unwelcome place in the spotlight his condition thrust upon him. He was infected with HIV from a contaminated blood treatment in 1984, AIDS was still a new disease at that time, not fully understood and carried great stigma. He found himself shunned by classmates and their parents – when he was finally allowed to return to school, that is. After a prolonged absence due to his illness, White was denied re-admission to school, forcing his family into a months-long legal battle with the school board. He began to discuss his story with interviewers and local coverage yielded to national attention, White became a poster boy for AIDS awareness. He effectively used the media to aid his goal. To get back to into school! Celebrities rallied to his cause and he became friends with luminaries from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Michael Jackson to Elton John.
Although he eventually won a court battle to return to his school, the family experienced ongoing intimidation and harassment. This included bricks being thrown through his windows, graffiti on the walls of his home and being made to use plastic utensils in the cafeteria when in school so not to infect the other students. Ryan and his family eventually moved from Howard County to Cicero, Indiana in 1987, due to the harassment where Ryan became an honor roll student. He became the most unlikely advocate of this horrible disease and was interviewed on many television programs including the Phil Donahue Show and it was Mr. Donahue, who became an advocate for Ryan as did Elton John and Michael Jackson, who assisted Ryan during his life with his medical expenses and his move to Cicero due to harassment. Michael delivered to Ryan a beautiful red mustang and their friendship lasted a lifetime. Others generously gave of their time and support. He appeared on the cover of People magazine twice before his death and his story helped change the attitudes of many who had previously been unsympathetic to people living with the disease.
On March 3, 1988, Ryan spoke eloquently before the National Commission on AIDS. He spoke about his illness, the discrimination and urged the need for education and compassion to all who were living with HIV/AIDS. Ryan had contracted his disease through blood products, however, he never tried to separate himself from others who had contracted the disease via sexual contact, or intravenous drug use. He stressed that AIDS was not a gay disease but a human disease and one that must be fought together. Please read Ryan White’s Testimony below a true champion for the cause at the tender age of 16.
Ryan White died in 1990 and friends and celebrities continued to support his family, turning out for the funeral – Michael Jackson who was sat next to Ryan’s mother, Phil Donahue, Barbara Bush and 1500 others. Elton John performed a special tribute to the boy who touched his heart. Elton specifically commented on the 20th anniversary of Ryan’s death as “Ryan saving his life”. He has been sober for 22 years because of the attitude and strength of Ryan’s fight and started the Elton John Aids Foundation. He was with Mrs. White when Ryan passed. Michael Jackson wrote a beautiful song for Ryan called “Gone too Soon” and it has become an anthem for people who have passed too young including Princess Diana and Michael himself.
In this case the media in its entirety both broadcasters and journalists felt that this young man was being targeted by a biased community and unfair school system. Ryan decided to step up to the plate and use these people to his advantage to educate millions of people about the facts of the disease and its transmission, and spoke out for the rights of people living with AIDS. A brilliant and honest move!
Perhaps the media should look back at this story and see what they are broadcasting 20 years on. One can only hope the tides will turn and the airwaves will return to help people like Ryan White and begin to support the innocents and the less fortunate and remember “there are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.” Buddha
Michael Jackson Life – Clinton Presidential Inauguration Gala 1993 – GONE TO SOON