WCBS, Port Authority Cops Stoke HIV Fear, Misinformation

WCBS, Port Authority Cops Stoke HIV Fear, Misinformation

CBS New York and the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association spread misinformation and stigma about HIV/ AIDS following the arrest of a man who allegedly spit in an officer’s face at LaGuardia Airport.

HIV/ AIDS advocacy groups and LGBTQ folks, among many others, roundly ripped CBS New York for publishing a news article and series of insensitive tweets that were deleted and repeated multiple times on January 8 regarding the man, who happens to be HIV-positive.

The man was originally busted on larceny charges for stealing yogurt from a store, and he allegedly spit on a Port Authority police officer while in custody at the airport, prompting further charges. A judge subsequently released him.

A spokesperson for the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association not only blasted the suspect’s release in reference to the current debate over cash bail reform, but also used an interview with Gay City News to push more false narratives about the epidemic, saying it was a “problem” that the suspect allegedly committed the attack while knowing he was HIV-positive.

It is important to clarify that HIV is not spread through saliva.

The first spark in the social media frenzy was prompted by CBS New York’s first tweet, which read, “RELEASED AFTER HIV ATTACK: A judge has let a suspect back onto the streets after police at LaGuardia say the attacker spit into an officer’s mouth knowing they had HIV — sparking more outrage at another bail reform controversy.”

CBS’ tweet and description of the incident as an “HIV ATTACK” in all capital letters was reminiscent of the kind of hysteria on display during the earliest days of the epidemic. But even after deleting that tweet, the article remained, and then CBS refused to back down, posting further problematic tweets.

The additional tweets included the final one published at 4:46 a.m. on January 9, which read, “‘Absolutely Ridiculous’: HIV-Positive Suspect Released By Judge After Attacking, Spitting In Port Authority Officer’s Mouth.”

In yet another twist to the story, CBS claimed PBA officials told them that “the suspect told police they were HIV-positive and tests later confirmed that diagnosis,” raising another serious ethical issue — the release of a person’s health status by officials, especially for an irrelevant purpose.

The CBS New York article itself, with no byline attached, was just as egregious.

“That suspect admitted they spit into an officer’s mouth knowing they had HIV,” the article noted, making a clear and false insinuation that saliva could put someone at risk for transmitting HIV.

In a written statement, Port Authority Police Union president Paul Nunziato initially expressed outrage over the case in the context of bail reform, describing the man’s release as “absolutely ridiculous!”

“The number one responsibility of government is to protect the people; bail reform relinquishes government of that responsibility,” Nunziato said.

But then, when reached by Gay City News for comment, Port Authority PBA public information officer Bob Egbert tried connecting the man’s HIV status to the attack.

“We understand the risk and we deal with individuals with infectious disease,” Egbert said. “The problem is when a person with an infectious disease has a weapon, we have a problem with that… a guy who knowingly has an infectious disease — that’s a problem.”

Numerous advocates and organizations tore into CBS New York and the union, with many individuals demanding retractions and apologies — to no avail. Organizations including ACT UP NY, Bailey House, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Housing Works, and VOCAL-NY are planning to bring their cause directly to CBS Headquarters at 51 West 52nd on January 10 at noon.

“‘Absolutely ridiculous’ is THIS article and tweet @CBSNewYork ,” wrote Samy Nemir-Olivares, a Democratic district leader candidate in Brooklyn. “This fear-mongering article: — Discloses HIV status of someone not convicted of any crime — Stigmatizes HIV calling it an ‘HIV attack’??? — Spread false misconception HIV can be transmitted via saliva! UNACCEPTABLE.”

Housing Works, which works to eradicate homelessness and HIV/ AIDS, reacted to the news with disgust.

“How dare you come after HIV+ people to create hysteria around cash bail reform,” the organization wrote on Twitter. “HIV is not transmitted through saliva. Someone exposed to HIV can receive a 30 day course of medication to keep from becoming positive. Cash bail reform reverses injustices of the system — an injustice that killed #LayleenPolanco. You’re fear-mongering at the behest of the PAPD. You owe a lot of folks an apology for this trash.”

Sean Strub, who founded POZ magazine after becoming the first openly HIV-positive to run for federal office in 1990, cast blame on both the union and CBS New York.

“It is a disappointing reality that HIV stigma is alive and well,” he said. But when HIV stigma is perpetuated by law enforcement leadership, as in the comment from the PBA spokesperson, it is not only disappointing and irresponsible, but dangerous. Just as bad was the CBS stations’ tweet headline referring to an ‘HIV attack.’ That newsroom needs some serious remedial education, starting with a basic science course about what the actual routes and risks of HIV transmission.”

CBS New York did not respond to requests for comment.