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Charlie Sheen, HIV Stigma and Why the Media Panic Is Ugly

Actor Charlie Sheen appears during an interview, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015 on NBC's "Today" in New York. In the interview, the 5
Actor Charlie Sheen appears during an interview, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015 on NBC's "Today" in New York. In the interview, the 50-year-old Sheen said he tested positive four years ago for the virus that causes AIDS. (Peter Kramer/NBC via AP)

The breathless, lurid speculation for weeks until Charlie Sheen stated in an interview today that he is HIV-positive -- and his revelation that he spent millions of dollars to keep the news quiet, extorted by several individuals -- proves just how far we have to go in talking about HIV and in battling the stigma surrounding it.

Celebrities routinely discuss health issues and often use their stories to educate others. Angelina Jolie discussed her decision to remove her breasts and ovaries, a preventative measure because of a genetic mutation that put her at higher risk of cancer -- surely something about which she might face stigma -- and Rosie O'Donnell discussed having had a heart attack and not realizing it, shocking a lot of her fans.

There could be ramifications to their speaking out, but the upside of being honest with themselves, and connecting with and helping millions going through the same experience or who would empathize with them, is far greater. Not so with HIV, even after all these years and after life-saving treatments have made it a manageable illness and one that shouldn't affect a person's day to day life.

The fact that Sheen felt he had to hide his status, spending millions of dollars to do so, is a testament to the stigma around HIV, which includes moral judgments about sexual behavior. We would later learn from him, as if he was obligated to reassure us, that Sheen never put anyone at unknowing risk and has taken care of his health, despite the reports that insinuated otherwise.

As Tim Teeman asked at the Daily Beast, "Did a time machine come and whisk me away? Is it really 1985 again?... Suddenly, in my mind, Sheen seems like the kind of hunted man Rock Hudson became, as cameras followed him being shuttled on and off planes as he became sicker and sicker."

As the rumors were surfacing in the media, Sheen decided to take the power away from the moralizers and go public himself, thereby scooping the National Enquirer on its own sensational front page coverage this week, headlined "Charlie Sheen's AIDS Cover-Up." The fact that Sheen is not diagnosed with AIDS, has been on drug treatment and has undetectable levels of HIV -- and thus is healthy and, as studies show, extremely unlikely to transmit HIV to sex partners -- was lost on them.

Maybe we shouldn't expect the Enquirer, even in 2015, to know the difference between "AIDS" and being "HIV positive." But I think we should expect a lot more of other media, sensational or not, including Radar Online, where the story began with a blind item a few weeks ago, headlined, "Hollywood Superstar's Desperate Battle With AIDS Revealed."

The "shocking" reality, we were told by an unnamed "pal" of Sheen's in the item, came about because of his "dangerous lifestyle," which included drugs, womanizing and frequenting prostitutes.

"He led a dangerous lifestyle," the "pal" told Radar Online. "He's learned this the hardest possible way."

So, it appears, HIV is retribution for your actions, your "lifestyle" -- and we can assume that is whether your "lifestyle" includes using drugs, visiting sex workers or being gay. Who needs Pat Robertson when we have Charlie Sheen's Hollywood pals supposedly heaping on the moral condemnation and some media recklessly lapping it up.

There's a pattern here. Last week I wrote about most of the political media ignoring GOP presidential candiate Ted Cruz -- and candidates Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee -- attending a rally organized by Pastor Kevin Swanson in Des Moines, who said the punishment for homosexuality is death, something he's said many times before. Only Rachel Maddow had covered it on her MSNBC show -- rightly calling it a "kill the gays" rally -- at the time that I wrote my post, which many people sent to editors and political reporters.

A week later, the Washington Post published a piece filled with excuses as to why Cruz's attendance at an anti-gay hate rally calling for extermination of a people is not a story. The New York Times eventually covered it over a week after the event, in a thoughtful piece by writer Katherine Stewart which, among other things. criticized the media's ignorance. But it was an op-ed, not part of the Times' political reporting on the presidential race, where it should be.

As I said last week, we often think we've come so far, but then we get a cold splash of water in the face that reminds us that even the so-called "liberal" media often still doesn't get it.