When Comedians Become Medical Experts

(An open letter to Barbara Walters)

Dear Ms. Walters,

Hi, my name is Tony. I have a background in journalism, but have been doing social science based HIV/AIDS research for the last seven years (mainly concerning gay/bisexual men of color). Making sure accurate and current information about sexuality reaches the general public is so important to me I am pursuing a masters degree to supplement my media training.With this is mind, I have to tell you I am personally and professionally appalled at the June 22nd episode of The View. What should have been an intelligent discussion about the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on gay/bisexual men donating blood quickly turned into a soapbox for Sherri Shepherd and D.L. Hughley to spew their ignorance.

And Ms. Walters, I blame you.

First the facts:

1. Yes, the rates of HIV infection for black women are rising sharply, but the group most disproportionally affected in the United States (overall) continue to be black gay/bisexual men, has been for a while.

2. Men who identify as being on the “down low” do not engage in greater sexual-risk behaviors with male or female partners; nor are they associated with a greater likelihood of HIV infection. The Center for Disease Control and other reputable scientists have stated this numerous times.

3. Whatever you want to call it (the closet, the “down low”, etc.) the phenomenon of men who have sex with other men, and their female partners not knowing occurs with men of every race/ethnicity not just with African Americans.

Surely Ms. Walters you would agree HIV/AIDS is a serious issue and more than just a “hot topic.” It warrants discussion by trained professionals, especially on television. I’m sure Phil Wilson, founder and CEO of The Black Aids Institute would have been happy to stop by. David Malebranche, another expert on this topic has appeared on numerous television shows in the past, was he not available?

Instead of a public health expert, viewers on Tuesday received misinformed and gross generalizations from Hughley and Shepherd. Since joining the show you hired her Shepherd has made it very clear how uneducated she is. When she told viewers she doesn’t believe in evolution (and the world is flat), the joke was on her. But when she falsely claimed Tuesday men on the “down low” are responsible for the rising rates of HIV in the African American community, the joke was on me.

And I don’t think it’s funny (quite the opposite).

When your panelists present their homophobic opinions as “evidence” it does a disservice to millions of people: in this case to the black gay/bisexual men (like myself) who are open and honest about their sexual behavior and the ones who are struggling with their sexuality due to said stigma and intolerance (as well as their partners).

When comedians become medical experts, the joke’s on those of us in public health who have to deal with the fallout of inaccurate hate speech, especially when it’s broadcast on network television in front of millions of viewers. You have no idea how much damage was done in that five minute segment.

Remember back in the day when Oprah told her audience not to eat red meat and the food industry was so upset she issued an apology? Surely black gay/bisexual men deserve as much respect as the bovine in this country.

Ms. Walters, I have to confess, I don’t watch The View anymore. What started off as a show I could depend on to deliver heated yet intelligent debates has been reduced to uninformed screaming matches. When you chose to replace Lisa Ling and Star Jones with Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Sherri Shepherd (respectively) you made it very clearly you were taking the show in a direction where entertainment was more important than getting the facts straight. If I wanted to watch hate speech presented as fair and balanced debate, I’d head over to Fox News.

I understand Star Jones got out of hand with her wedding and the weight controversy, but she is a brilliant lawyer. When she was on the show, I could always depend on her to accurately brief the audience on the facts of a case. She also had no problem saying, “I don’t know, I’ll have to (research and) get back to you on that.” when she didn’t know something. I wish I could say the same for Sherri Shepherd.

Recently, I read an article where you stated pressing Ricky Martin about his sexuality was the one regret in your long career. If your inappropriate assumptions about his sex life cost him (one man) his career, you can only image the harm the segment on Tuesday did to the larger conversation on HIV in the United States, especially in the African American community.

As you prepare to return for season thirteen, I want you to seriously think about the legacy of The View. The respect and class once associated with the show is quickly waning. Specifically, I hope you and executive producer Bill Geddie find a better way to deal with debates about sexual health. Lives are at stake…and we can do much better.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Tony Freeman

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