ABC News: Out of Control: AIDS in Black America

Jun 4, 2007  •  Post A Comment

African Americans make up 13 percent of the population but account for more than 50 percent of new cases of HIV infection, a rate eight times that for whites. African American women are 23 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than white women, and they make up 70 percent of all women newly diagnosed as HIV-positive. These shocking—and largely unreported—facts are the focus of the ABC News “Primetime” special edition that was the late correspondent Peter Jennings’ last project.
Begun shortly before Mr. Jennings’ cancer diagnosis, the one-hour special was reported by Terry Moran and aired in August. “The facts are so extraordinary,” said Tom Yellin, executive producer of “Out of Control: AIDS in Black America.” The longtime executive producer at ABC News formed PJ Productions with Peter Jennings five years ago.
“In white America, HIV is a problem, but not an epidemic, where it is spreading like wildfire in the black community. The answers to why are interesting, incredibly provocative and not necessarily politically correct,” Mr. Yellin said.
The making of this special took a tragic turn when Mr. Jennings was diagnosed with cancer. “It took much longer to make than a normal program because of those circumstances,” Mr. Yellin said. “Peter really wanted to do this show, and we shot one day with him, in March 2005 in Atlanta. That was the last shooting he did for one of my projects. Three weeks later, he announced he was sick and couldn’t do any more on-camera work.”
When it became apparent that Mr. Jennings would be unable to continue his participation, Mr. Yellin said he, along with producer Elizabeth Arledge and senior producer Kayce Freed Jennings, had to decide whether to stop production or go forward. “We were reeling from Peter’s news,” Mr. Yellin said. “But he said, keep going, keep going, you have to get someone else. It ultimately wasn’t a hard choice to keep going. It was just hard to do.”
Mr. Yellin brought in Terry Moran, whom he praises for doing “a fantastic job.” “He has incredible journalistic skills,” he said.
After Mr. Jennings died, Mr. Yellin tried to cut out the footage in which he interviewed a group of gay black men in Atlanta who had all engaged in sexual activity with women. “Leaving it out was impossible,” Mr. Yellin said. “The editorial content was so compelling, he forced his way back into the program. And that’s the ultimate sign of respect. It was the very final original piece of reporting that Peter did, and a wonderful tribute to him.”
The reporting led the producers into sensitive areas involving sexual practices of black America as they differ from white America. “I think the biggest challenge was convincing everyone involved, including ourselves, that it’s OK to talk about this,” Mr. Yellin said. “And it is OK, if you want to understand how this disease is spreading, and the failure among black leaders to speak out against the epidemic. That was the hardest part—not gaining trust, but convincing ourselves that we’re allowed to do this.”
That issue also raised questions for Mr. Moran. “I said, this is AIDS in black America and I’m a white guy,” he said. “But [the producers] said, this is something we want to awaken the country to and it’ll require tough questioning of people, and I guess they thought I’d be able to do it.”
That didn’t make the questioning any easier. Mr. Moran—who credits his “high comfort level in asking tough questions as courteously as possible” to his five-year stint as a White House correspondent—noted it was difficult to ask those questions of Rev. Jesse Jackson, someone he admires.
A highlight for Mr. Moran was a conversation with a group of African American women, including some who were HIV-positive and some who were activists. “It was a real learning experience to hear their sense of the place of black women in this debate, and how society at large and the black community are tilted against their interests,” he said.
He also pointed to an interview with Rev. Eugene Rivers, a Boston activist. “He says some very tough things about the state of the culture in parts of black America, and those are difficult things to say,” Mr. Moran said. “I think we sometimes give the culture a free pass when it comes to social issues, so I enjoyed hearing him and thought he was provocative.”
Did “Out of Control: AIDS in Black America” create any changes? Mr. Yellin said the producers have looked very hard at the impact. “We found there have been material changes in the leadership positions, political and religious, in the black community,” he said. “I think we can feel we moved the needle a little bit, and that’s the best you can say. I hope that others will pick up on these questions. There’s a lot of work to do, and more attention will save lives.”


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