Less than two weeks after New York’s new bail laws took effect, the city’s police unions are wasting no time stoking panic about the imminent return to the Bad Old Days of the 1970s. And while it’s still too early to know the reform’s impact on crime, the public health narratives of decades past are apparently making a comeback at some local media outlets.
On Thursday, CBS-NY published a story that advocates say helped propagate a long-debunked, “dehumanizing” myth about the spread of HIV. Adding to its rapidly growing portfolio of alarmism on the new state law, the story focused on a larceny suspect who allegedly spit on an officer during an arrest at LaGuardia, then was released by a judge without bail.
Based on a quote from Port Authority Patrolmen Benevolent Association President Paul Nunziato, the headline originally read: ‘Absolutely Ridiculous’: HIV-Positive Suspect Released By Judge After Attacking, Spitting In Port Authority Officer’s Mouth.
Nunziato, who is the only person quoted, goes on to warn that the officer and his family “will live a life of worry about the possibility of further harm.”
An accompany tweet from CBS shrieked: “RELEASED AFTER HIV ATTACK.” (This was subsequently replaced with “SPITTING ATTACK,” which was also later deleted).
Hi @CBSNewYork, your third attempt is just as vile. HIV CANNOT be transmitted via saliva. Stop keeping outdated and debunked stigma alive.
You are contributing to the spread of misinformation. It is harmful to people living with HIV and it’s a detriment to public health. pic.twitter.com/OPhNy97gGs
— Jason Rosenberg (@mynameisjro) January 9, 2020
So, apparently @CBSNewYork has deleted this recklessly irresponsible and shameful tweet. It is well known that HIV CANNOT be transmitted via saliva. But yet, the article is still up, which perpetuates both the stigma and the fearmongering over bail reform. Shame on you. pic.twitter.com/hdYCvhqZTz
— Eliza Orlins (@elizaorlins) January 9, 2020
The backlash on Twitter was swift, with many pointing out that scientists have long known that HIV is not spread through saliva—and that suggesting otherwise in service of stoking fear about bail is both bigoted and harmful. During the height of the epidemic, false narratives about how HIV and AIDs is transmitted played a major role in stigmatizing the gay community and allowing the virus to spread.
“For a news agency to produce this is incredibly inappropriate, particularly in New York City, the epicenter of the epidemic,” Jawanza James Williams, director of organizing at VOCAL-NY, told Gothamist. “It’s just incredibly dangerous and heinous on multiple levels.”
Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar weighed in as well, tweeting: “I cannot believe that we need to tell CBS this in the year 2020. I learned this in my 7th grade, public middle school health class.”
The original headline was eventually revised to take out any mention of the suspect’s HIV status. The article now includes a sentence from the National Institutes of Health noting that the virus is not transmitted by saliva, though the story still centers on the police union’s complaint.
Inquiries to the Port Authority PBA and CBS were not returned.
Williams said the article illustrated not just ignorance about HIV, but the consequences of rushing to spread panic about the bail laws.
“There’s clearly an intention to use every political opportunity to roll back bail reform,” he said. “This is just the latest dehumanizing gaffe.”
It’s not just Republicans and the police unions who have jumped to criticize bail reform, however. Both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo have called for changes to the new law, citing a string of anti-Semitic attacks in which the alleged attackers were released.
But lawmakers like Sen. Michael Gianaris say the law is working as intended, and have urged New Yorkers to focus on the bigger picture of leveling the playing field for poor defendants, rather than the sensational stories.
“This law is six days old,” Gianaris told the Daily News earlier this week. “It is way too premature to be drawing that conclusion after six days.”