The Most Dangerous AIDS Reporter

By Richard Berkowitz

POZ April 2000

Her renegade coverage had the AIDS world screaming bloody murder. Now, writer Richard Berkowitz gets Celia Farber to answer a decade of charges -- and level a few of her own.

Celia Farber "penetrates the ostensible," probing and asking questions long after other big-name AIDS reporters file their stories and head home. She first made her mark in 1987 with her monthly Spin column, "Words From the Front." Over the next decade, her sacred cow -- skewering reportage became an AIDS must-read, with investigations into such controversies as whether HIV causes AIDS and whether AZT kills, ground-breaking coverage of long-term survival and a platform for even the most extreme HIV dissidents. Farber may have made enemies in high places, but pioneering PWA Michael Callen, in his will, called her "the best AIDS reporter in the country."

And she has paid the price for her renegade style: a barrage of personal and professional attacks culminating in 1995 with a high-profile sexual-harassment lawsuit against Spin and its publisher, Bob Guccione, Jr., during which Farber testified as exhibit A, said by the prosecution to have earned her job because of her romantic involvement with Guccione rather than her journalistic skills. After a bruising battle, the jury found that there had been no sexual favoritism. Soon afterward, Guccione sold Spin, and "Words From the Front" was picked up by the on-line magazine Iron Minds. Farber, 34, lives in New York City with her husband and son. She continues to make waves in her renamed column, "Welcome to the Machine".

POZ: You're billed as the most controversial AIDS journalist around.

Farber: I don't think of myself as controversial at all. I think what others perceive as controversial is that I've lent gravity to large questions that most mainstream AIDS reporters have felt comfortable ignoring entirely. The biggest of all being, Does HIV cause AIDS? I've never said that it does or it does not -- I'm not really equipped to know. But when I look around and see legions of respectable scientists arguing that it does not, then I cannot see why I shouldn't report it. It's not only news -- it's great human drama. It's Shakespearean! And I for one really want to know how it's going to end, and what the moral is going to be.

It has driven me nearly bananas. It is my private hell, but also my great Sisyphean challenge. My labyrinth...

How did you get started writing about the epidemic?

I was working nights at my late father's radio show, The Barry Farber Show, screening calls from listeners in 1986, when he had a guest on, Michael May, who was convinced that AL 721 was the cure for AIDS. I became enthralled with this man and his story and began a yearlong research project into these egg lipids and access and all that. It was a crash course in AIDS politics. I had this burning sense of right and wrong, and this fear that people were being -- not murdered exactly, but threatened. Not kept alive.

I was also working as a research assistant at Spin, and I brought the story to Bob Guccione, Jr. Eventually he published the AL 721 article as the first installment of a monthly AIDS column.

Why a monthly AIDS column in a straight music magazine?

Bob said AIDS was the Vietnam of our generation.

You'd known Guccione for a long time.

Yeah. My father introduced us the first time when I was 9 years old, and he was 19. He was publishing a rock magazine called Poster, and he gave me a great poster of David Bowie.

How did you get drawn into the debate over whether HIV causes AIDS?

I read about [HIV naysayer] Dr. Peter Duesberg in The New York Native in 1987, and then interviewed him. My editor at Spin refused to even read it. I snuck the interview onto Bob's desk, which was really very cheeky. He went nuts. He called me that night and said, "This may be the most important interview I ever publish."

Bob believes in old-fashioned journalism values, in fighting evil through words. The AIDS column nearly destroyed us before it was all over. But I still think it was worth it.

What were your goals with "Words From the Front?"

To generate copy that Guccione would publish [laughs].

Nothing loftier?

The real, unvarnished truth is I was driven by a tremendous quixotism. I had this terrible sense of dread about AIDS. It felt so very unfair. I wanted to save people. To crack the mystery. To break new ground.

I didn't grow up with my father close by, but I admired him very much from a distance. And still do. He was one of the pioneers of talk radio and, as a journalist, a real role model for me. During the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, he stood in the Danube in the middle of the night and pulled refugees across the border and fought to get them into this country -- this kind of thing. Anyway, one day I asked my father what advice he could give me about journalism. He said: "All my advice is summed up in three words. Penetrate the ostensible."

How were you treated as a result of your reporting?

I was attacked, of course. My motives were impugned, my character, morality. People have tried to have me fired. I've been sabotaged. All kinds of bizarre things. I have been guilt-tripped since day one: "You're homophobic!" "Spreading dangerous theories!" "Scaring people away from AZT!" "Murderer!" But in that atmosphere, I did learn a lot about my favorite subject: mass hysteria.

I no longer give a damn about credit or respect from my peers. Why do I need acknowledgement from a bunch of whores? Little do-gooders. I am astounded by the legions of crisp-shirted AIDS reporters at the major newspapers who churn out this right-sounding, "responsible" babble. Why doesn't the possibility that the HIV paradigm is wrong worry them? The fact that no proof exists for HIV being the causative agent, that there are thousands of HIV-negative AIDS cases, that the disease is spreading according to a wildly different pattern in Africa than anywhere else. That AZT was killing people never worried them. That the pharmaceutical industry has us all tightly wrapped in its tentacles. Shall I go on?

What were your biggest successes and failures?

My biggest achievement was to expose what went on behind the scenes at the FDA before AZT was approved and to sustain the very necessary critique of that awful drug amidst so much hype and hysteria. And to put out the Sonnabend-Callen-Berkowitz message about both multifactorialism and long-term survival and hope.

My biggest mistake? AL 721. I was simply wrong about that treatment.

You've written about the question of an AIDS reporter's "responsibility."

It struck me last year at the World AIDS Conference in Geneva. I was suffering through one of these "Media Responsibility in AIDS" panels, featuring Miss America and God knows who else. I bolted out of my chair and said: "This is the whole problem! The fact that you all have some elevated, wooly 'responsibility.' That you see yourselves as agents of some greater good." That is the disastrous turn AIDS reportage took. It absorbed the "responsibility" assigned to it by some composite of Elizabeth Taylor, Mathilde Krim and ACT UP or whomever.

In my view there is only one responsibility, and that one has been abdicated: To investigate. To question. One has a responsibility to the facts, period. Just tell me whether I was right or wrong. That's all that matters in the end.

What have your years at the AIDS front taught you?

I began writing about AIDS out of a sense of urgency about the illness itself. But that broadened over the years to an even deeper worry: Can truth survive in the so-called Information Age? What is the nature of "facts" in a world where the pharmaceutical industry has flat-out bought the clinical trials and the doctors and journalists and even activists?

In the press room in Geneva, I watched the pharmaceutical reps lay out these envelopes each morning for the reporters at all the major newspapers. They picked them up, went right to their laptops and just wrote straight from that. These Pulitzer Prize-winning AIDS reporters -- they have very close "relationships" with drug company PR people. It seems to me they're the ones who have some explaining to do. Not me.

We have a mind-set now that it's primitive and passé to malign the drug companies, especially since the miracle of cocktail therapy. But we need a critique now more than ever. Yes, the drugs have saved some lives, but they are also killing people in their tracks. And David Ho's HIV-eradication stuff is mired in hype and falsity. If an investigation were ever done into viral load, and what precisely is being "measured," the entire edifice would come crashing down. It's a mess.

Who has inspired you in your writing about AIDS?

Michael Callen was an enormous inspiration to me. Incalculable. He had the rarest thing of all, a truly open mind. But more important, he had love in his heart. A love for truth. No matter how much it hurt.

I am inspired by my mother, Ula Farber, who died recently and who always taught me to listen to my "inner voice." I do actually follow something that comes from inside. That's where a story starts, with your instinct.

And I am a huge George Orwell fan. His writings apply beautifully to the problems in AIDS, with the subversion of the language and so forth. I had a dream once that I called him up and asked him, "Am I on the right track?" And from beyond the grave he said, "Yes, you are. Keep going." It was a great dream.