’60 Minutes’ producer discusses covering AIDS in news

Students gathered Thursday night to learn about international media efforts and performance to cover the problem of AIDS in Africa from David Gelber, executive producer of the Ed Bradley Documentary Unit of “60 Minutes.”

Having worked for news networks such as NBC, ABC and currently CBS, Gelber asserts that American journalism does not report enough coverage on foreign news.

To commemorate World AIDS Day, students met in the New Library Auditorium to watch “Death by Denial,” a documentary produced by Gelber and Helen Malmgren on the AIDS epidemic in South Africa that aired on “60 Minutes II” in 2000.

Gelber documented the lives of several South Africans living with AIDS in countries such as Zimbabwe and Uganda. Interviews with Robert Mugabe and Yoweri Museveni, presidents of Zimbabwe and Uganda respectively, contrasted the varying efforts that these countries are taking to fight the AIDS epidemic.

“We had three strikes against us when we started this piece,” Gelber said. “It’s about black people, it’s depressing and it covers a foreign country.”

CBS executives were not thrilled to air a documentary that did not appeal to a large audience base. Gelber explained to the audience that CBS has a product to sell. That product’s purpose is to deliver an audience to advertisers, and executives did not want to spend a lot of money on something they thought would not have a great payback.

“Without correspondent Ed Bradley’s persistence, this show would have never aired on CBS,” Gelber said.

In 2000, the HIV virus infected 1,600 South Africans each day. One in three mothers passed the virus on to their children.

One woman named Mercy told Bradley how her husband abused her and eventually kicked her out of the house after it became known that she was HIV positive.

However, in South Africa, people deny they have AIDS because of potential physical abuse by their communities. South Africans do not want their reputations to be tainted by AIDS patients.

Now a prominent AIDS activist, Mercy said, “I cannot keep quiet. Why should we lose all of these opportunities for young Africans?”

To appeal to their audience, Gelber knew that it would become a problem of casting. Stories like Mercy’s were integral to attract a lot of viewers.

“We had to choose people that could penetrate the cultural divide,” Gelber said.

“The most impressive part was the casting,” Tom Hipper, junior communication studies major, said. “The people made it hit home. They were able to attract viewers who aren’t aware of the devastation of the disease.”

Bradley called Zimbabwe “a house on fire where the landlord sees the flames and does nothing.”

President Mugabe refused to accept the fact that HIV causes AIDS. Mugabe denied AZT, a drug that prevents transmission of AIDS to unborn babies, because the drug is toxic and cannot be disposed of properly. Three clinics were able to gain access to AZT but do not have support of the government.

Lucky, daughter to a woman named Mandy, was born HIV negative after Mandy was given AZT. Gelber documented the day that Mandy went to the doctor’s office to hear the results of Lucky’s test.

The story of Lucky and Mandy gave light to the AIDS pandemic and showed viewers that access to drugs is one of the greatest problems facing South Africa’s fight against AIDS.

While prevention efforts in Zimbabwe have been scarce, Uganda President Museveni has taken a matter-of-fact attitude toward reducing the AIDS death toll in his country.

“I attacked by making the loudest alarm,” Museveni said. “I talk about AIDS at public rallies and warn children about sex and the spread of HIV.”

Catholics in Uganda were not happy about Museveni’s approach toward prevention. However, when it came down to it, ignoring the Catholics was what he had to do to see numbers go down.

With “Feels Good” condom advertisements posted at youth athletic games, on billboards and virtually everywhere, the spread of AIDS has been drastically reduced since Museveni became president in 1986.

On the other hand, treatment efforts in Africa remain a tragic problem. Less than one-tenth of one percent of Africans with HIV are getting the drugs they need. Museveni has attended several U.N. conferences in an attempt to pressure Western drug companies to reduce costs of drugs.

Averaging $600 per month, South Africans, who earn $5 to $10 per month, cannot afford the cost of medicine to treat AIDS.

Gelber documented the story of one man who was taken home from the hospital by family members to die because he could not afford the drugs he needed.

Major U.S. drug companies like GlaxoSmithKline, who manufacture AIDS medication, refused interviews for “Death by Denial.”

Though drug companies have lowered the price of drugs in the last five years, “generic drug companies over in India can manufacture the same drugs for one-quarter of the price,” Gelber said. “American drug companies are not willing to give up intellectual property rights.”

Sadly, even if drugs were cost-free, education, testing and delivery of drugs would still remain a problem in South Africa. Citizens with AIDS have been reduced to starting their own prevention efforts due to lack of help from the government.

In Zimbabwe, HIV-positive women who were once prostitutes set up an organization where women, even with children, could make money without selling their bodies. They pass out condoms in their local communities and ensure that women find suitable work without resorting to prostitution.

When asked about what American news networks can do to address the issue of pleasing advertisers as opposed to reporting foreign news, Gelber said, “Write letters to the president of CBS. I don’t know what else to tell you.

I was watching the news in Boston the other day and there was not one frame of foreign news. Executives want those ‘what about me’ stories. I worked for ABC and we did four stories that were all relatively similar on plastic surgery.”

This presentation was sponsored by the communication studies department, the dean of the School of Culture and Society, the International Business Alliance and the committee on Cultural and Intellectual Community.

Gelber has won several Emmy awards for his work in journalism. “Death by Denial” won the Peabody Award. “60 Minutes” airs Sundays at 7 p.m.