Over here at the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic (a.k.a. the AIDS Commission) there were belly laughs all around when we read Jack Anderson's Feb. 11 column, "AIDS Panel Cloaked in Secrecy." We all ran out to buy trenchcoats at lunchtime.
Joking aside, the piece did live up to Anderson's controversial reputation: the real story is not what he wrote but what he omitted. Let's start at the top of the list of cheap shots.
Anderson wrote, "The commission has been beleaguered by two resignations, a lawsuit and a congressional investigation." True enough, but that was nearly six months ago. Anderson failed to report how those dated issues have been resolved and how the commission's reputation in the national community of AIDS specialists has grown since then. Let's call that journalistic violation No. 1.
First, the two commissioners who found the commission too hot a spot were replaced by two new members, Dr. Beny Primm, a black physician and intravenous drug abuse specialist, and Kristine Gebbie, the Oregon public health director, both of whom were widely praised for the depth and breadth they added to the commission.
Second, the lawsuit by the ACLU over the makeup of the commission is almost a dead letter. What Anderson failed to report is that after the Primm and Gebbie appointments, the ACLU pulled its brief for a rewrite. Still, on Dec. 16, U.S. District Judge Oliver Gasch issued a preliminary ruling against the ACLU. It said in part, "Plaintiff's selective attack on some of the commissioners betrays the surrealistic nature of the standard they have fabricated. . . . Plaintiffs are not likely to succeed on the merits of their complaint. . . ."
We gave Anderson's "investigator" -- and we use the term loosely here -- a photocopy of this ruling. Oddly it was not mentioned in the column. Journalistic violation No. 2.
Let's talk about the "congressional investigation" conducted by the General Accounting Office, which consumed many, many hours of our staff time. All the issues investigated occurred before the current chairman, Adm. James D. Watkins (Ret.) and Polly Gault, executive director, took those posts. What was the GAO's most damning finding? That instead of the 15 days' requisite notice of meetings in the Federal Register, the commission had met the standard for only four meetings. Once we gave only 14 days' notice and another time 8 days', "with no explanation of the reason for the short notice." We stand accused. But so should Anderson for branding us with this probe without reporting its completion two months ago. Journalistic violation No. 3.
Anderson also took a hack at our preliminary report of last Dec. 2 (filed five days early), which he said was filed "without a discussion by the full group." In fact, every commissioner and senior staff person contributed to that report.
What was the response to this report, considering the expectations created by the roasting we took in our early days? "Few had thought that the commission would get so far so fast" (Time); "The AIDS commission's first report was something of a surprise . . ." (San Francisco Chronicle); "Excellent," said Dr. Mathilde Krimm, chairperson of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, on CBS Dec. 3. What are we up to, journalistic violation No. 4?
We have to stop somewhere, so let's close with Anderson's silly "secrecy" charge. Too bad he failed to attend the hearing he quoted from, where Adm. Watkins testified before Sen. John Glenn about the federal law that governs our operation. He would have heard wide agreement that no public body in Washington operates in as much "sunshine" as our commission.
In fact, we have had days and days of testimony and so far heard from more than 300 witnesses, all in public session, well covered by the media. Our offices are public and anyone is free to look at our files and our methods. I wonder how Anderson's investigative techniques would hold up under similar scrutiny, judging from this latest result? -- Thomas D. Brandt The writer is director of communications for the Presidential Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic.