Every so often a story comes along that seems to embody the essence of the journalistic enterprise, that reminds us in an especially poignant way of the reasons we embarked on this profession. Our cover story this week is one of them.
The idea was assistant picture editor Maddy Miller’s. “I thought a piece needed to be done that showed how AIDS was affecting the heart of the country,” she says, “that showed it wasn’t just ‘the gay disease’ or an exclusively urban problem.” Miller was among the photojournalists chosen to shoot the best-selling book A Day in the Life of America, and she suggested we explore the tragedy of AIDS using that book’s “time capsule” method.
We began, eight weeks ago, by asking about 30 of our U.S. correspondents to suggest possible subjects in their territories. The response was prodigious: 118 pages of suggestions. After a wrenching process of selection, we assigned 40 correspondents and 22 photographers to go out on the date we had chosen, June 19, to cover the country from dawn to dawn.
Senior editor Dick Lemon, who had led a similar one-day-in-the-nation story on the crack epidemic (Nov. 17, 1986), was assigned to the piece, along with senior writers Jack Friedman and David Van Biema. From the time the reporters’ files began pouring into our wire room, the story inspired an extraordinary degree of commitment—a feeling like proprietorship—from all who were a part of it. “It took me 10 hours just to read through the reporters’ files the first time,” Lemon says. Like Friedman and Van Biema, he found that first reading emotionally exhausting—especially the file on 15-year-old Ryan White, a hemophiliac who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. “I deliberately put that one down in the pile, saving it for later,” says Lemon. “I had been warned it would be one of the toughest.”
Correspondent Bill Shaw, who interviewed White and his mother in Cicero, Ind., found the experience “excruciating—it’s the most intimate, personal reporting I’ve ever done.” Jack Friedman, who wrote the Ryan White segment, says, “I couldn’t read Bill’s files without choking up. On this story, though, a lot of them were like that.”
Of all those who worked on the AIDS story, New Orleans correspondent Johnny Greene had the most personal stake in it. He has been exposed to the AIDS virus and now suffers from the pre-AIDS condition, ARC. In PEOPLE (June 17, 1985), he detailed his experience with the disease. The next week his employer, a Louisiana construction firm, fired him. “Stories like this are my lifeblood,” Greene says. “They help me to overcome my own fear of AIDS and show what strides can be made through education.”
He covered both dawns in New Orleans in our 24-hour day and quite a bit in between; the fact that the piece begins and ends with his reportage is a testament to both his talents and his dedication to the story.
While Lemon and his staff—including reporters Mary Huzinec, Benilde Little, Tina Johnson and Denise Lynch—worked on the text, Miller and picture editor M.C. Marden were poring over the 215 rolls of film. “We got the best photographers around,” says Miller. “Some of them canceled other assignments. Some of the newspaper photographers we used took a day off just to work on this project.” When it was over, several of the photographers called Miller just to thank her for letting them work on the story—which, she says, “is pretty much unheard of.”
Lemon says he spent more than 30 hours editing the story and even wrote a few segments himself, “just because I wanted to,” he says. “I’ve never cared so much about a story. I hope it affects our readers the way it affected us.”
That, of course, is the point. There are stories that galvanize. Reporting 24 hours in the lives of our fellow citizens who have been touched by AIDS has deeply affected the people who write and edit this magazine. Our goal is nothing more and nothing less than to communicate what we’ve seen and heard and felt to you.