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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL140.PRB - And the Band Played On«MDNM»
"And the Band Played On" was a book written a few decades ago about government's refusal to address the emergence of AIDS.
The book's title refers to the music said to have been played on the Titanic to calm passengers as the ship sank into the ocean.
I wonder if it is something akin to seeking calmness that explains Missouri government's concealment of its efforts dealing with Ebola.
The book "And the Band Played On" was written by a person whom I consider to be one of the most significant journalists of recent years -- Randy Shilts.
Shilts wrote about the emergence of AIDs and the refusal of officials in both health and government to address the growing threat from the disease.
Like Ebola, there were a lot of unknowns about AIDs. How was it transmitted? From where did it originally come? How was government going to deal with a growing health crisis?
Like what my own reporters are experiencing in Missouri's statehouse today, journalists back then encountered silence from government. It simply was not something public officials wanted to discuss.
When Randy Shilts wrote his book about AIDs some 25 years ago, political attitudes made it a disease easy to ignore. For the most part, the victims were homosexuals. It came from Africa. So, for many, it was considered a "gay" or "foreign" disease.
I wonder if there is not a similar attitude today that Ebola is an "African" disease unlikely to come to Missouri.
Despite the attitude that "it can't happen to us," Randy Shilts persisted in his coverage.
He was driven, I think, by a realization that there was something more dangerous about AIDs that health and government officials at the time did not understand about its potential spread.
His writings stressed that diseases can affect all of us, regardless of sexual orientation or national origin.
In remembering his writings, I've wondered how Shilts would react to our Missouri government's refusal to publicly answer questions about the issues raised by Ebola.
Shilts demanded that our government respond to a health care threat.
And in reaction to the limited response from those in charge, Randy Shilts wrote what became his national best seller -- "And the Band Played On."
It was an inspirational book for me as a reporter. And a couple of decades later, I've wondered, how would he react to the Missouri Health Department whose director refused to talk to my reporters?
How would Randy Shilts respond to an administration which refuses to allow a government medical expert to talk with one of my reporters about the plans for a potential medical emergency?
What would he write about the Missouri Health Department calling a statewide meeting of health professionals on Ebola without notifying reporters to let Missourians know what was being discussed?
How would he respond to a governor who has yet to respond except to issue a news release days later that a state health lab had been designated as an Ebola testing lab?
I suspect his response would be "And the Band Plays On."
As for Randy Shilts, there is more to this story.
This journalist for whom I have so much respect was gay.
I include that aspect only because it helps explain my admiration for his journalistic independence.
He stood up to attacks from fellow gays to write in graphic detail about how the practices in gay bath-houses were helping spread AIDs.
Before his death, Randy Shilts refused to be informed about his own HIV test results until he had finished his book "And the Band Played On."
He did not want, he said, the results to affect his objectivity in writing the book.
Ultimately, Randy Shilts passed in 1994 of complications from AIDs at the age of 42.
What a journalist!
I hope that independence is an inspiration to my journalism students.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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