IF you've ever wondered whether irresponsible media can be deadly, consider the sad story of Cosmopolitan magazine and women with AIDS.
A federal report disclosed on July 22 that heterosexual contact, not drug needles, is now the leading cause of AIDS among women in the United States. And figures show more women than ever - 6,642 last year - diagnosed with new cases of AIDS.
For women - who are much more vulnerable than men to infection with the AIDS virus during heterosexual intercourse - occurrences of sexual transmission have more than doubled since 1988. According to the Centers for Disease Control, most of the infected women have been "sex partners of injecting-drug users," with rates highest among black women.
Back in 1988, Cosmopolitan published an article titled "Reassuring News About AIDS: A Doctor Tells Why You May Not Be At Risk." The magazine declared, "There is almost no danger of contracting AIDS through ordinary sexual intercourse."
Written by Dr. Robert E. Gould, the article disputed what it called "the false impression that an IV drug user passes the AIDS virus on to his or her partner through vaginal intercourse."
Enthusiastic about fashion and romance, Cosmopolitan - like many magazines - strives to provide articles in sync with the upbeat mood of advertisements. In Cosmo's case, that means lots of emphasis on sex.
Gould's article decried "the continually mounting fear and false alarm that may make it difficult for any of us to enjoy sex." Soon afterward, the magazine's editor, Helen Gurley Brown, defended the article on national TV.
"We have come so far in relieving women of fear and fright and guilt," she said, "and now along comes this thing to scare the daylights out of everybody forever. And since there isn't too much proof that AIDS is spread through heterosexual intercourse, I think our side should be presented, too."
Brown was speaking on the ABC program "Nightline." Host Ted Koppel zeroed in on the key point during the Jan. 21, 1988, broadcast: "When your readership, 10 million mostly young women, read an article like that, and draw the conclusion that, therefore, maybe they don't need to urge their partners to use condoms, do you feel entirely comfortable with that?"
"I feel quite comfortable with this," Brown replied.
Are we unfairly condemning the Cosmopolitan article now, based on information that Helen Gurley Brown didn't have access to at the time? Not at all.
As soon as the January 1988 article came off the press, medical authorities on AIDS denounced it. "I would characterize it clearly as not based on the known facts," said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health. He termed the article "really potentially dangerous" for claiming that "if you don't have vaginal or penile lesions, you won't catch the AIDS virus by vaginal intercourse."
C. Everett Koop, then surgeon general, singled out the Cosmopolitan article when he told a hearing on Capitol Hill a few weeks later: "It is just not true that there is no danger from normal vaginal intercourse."
Mathilde Krim of the American Foundation for AIDS Research also disputed the article's contentions at the time. "What I find offensive," she said, "is that this was published in a magazine like Cosmopolitan."
Despite all the criticism, since then, Cosmopolitan has devoted scant coverage to AIDS risks. And the magazine continued its don't-worry be-happy approach by publishing a lengthy article in March 1992, "AIDS: The Real Story About Risk," which again downplayed AIDS dangers.
Sometimes, for ideological reasons, political commentators have also denied the reality that AIDS puts most people at risk. In November 1991, Patrick Buchanan wrote a scornful syndicated column about what he called "The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS."
Promoting his political theology of hatred toward gay people, Buchanan complained about those who "want to ignore the traditional morality, but never pay the price." A few months later, campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, Buchanan told radio listeners: "AIDS is nature's retribution for violating the laws of nature."
With AIDS afflicting friends, lovers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, fathers and mothers, it's crucial that we challenge both wishful thinking and bigotry. Then maybe we can concentrate on supporting people with AIDS while fighting the disease.
The author of the CDC's latest report, Dr. Pascale Wortley, told us that past indications of widening AIDS risks were often "the kind of thing that people just didn't want to believe." But instead of telling us what we'd prefer to believe, media have a responsibility to tell us what we need to know.
(Copyright, 1993, Creators Syndicate, Inc.) Syndicated columnists Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon are regular contributors to Saturday's Media Beat column.