[published: February 13, 2009]
For more than two decades, investigative journalist Celia Farber has doggedly pursued the stories about HIV/AIDS that the medical establishment didn’t want people to hear. We talk with her about the ups and downs of being on the “wrong” side of a story, the demise of investigative journalism and the new model offered by her website, The Truth Barrier.
Your book makes it seem as if your 20 years spent covering AIDS was almost accidental, that the subject pulled you forward. Is this still how you feel about it?
That’s accurate. I did feel that way. But actually I don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve become very recently a convert to this idea that people have been talking about recently, that things are magnetized, and things are meant to happen a certain way, and that we’re all used. That’s how I now feel about it, because I’ve seen it come to fruition. The dissident so-called movement has been fantastically blighted in recent years, by attacks, by a whole new pogrom culture, by deaths, and unresolved questions and an inability to put a total answer or shield up against the question of why people die in the context of immune deficiency, whether HIV caused it or not. So if you had asked me that question a year ago, I would have probably expressed something very bitter about the whole story and my life in it. And now I suddenly feel very at peace with it and very convinced that it’s going to be taken care of by the people who need to now take over, and are taking over, and by the technologies that they have, obviously the internet. People just really connecting from all around the world and forming communities where they exchange information about what’s working and not working, about their true stories. The dictatorship [of the medical establishment] is still in place, kind of having a meltdown on the kitchen floor like a big toddler, not wanting people to be able to communicate freely about AIDS and about treatment choices and about what the antibody status means. But it’s all happening, so I’m seeing that and finally just calming down and realizing that it is all going to be OK.
What does being on the “wrong” side of a story do to one’s career, both for worse and for better? It couldn’t have all been bad, right?
It destroyed the shell of my career — my reputation, my name, my income, my chances to have an easy life, or a life in journalism that would have felt on the surface and immediately like I was succeeding. That’s putting it mildly. What it gave me was a much more specific and private identity, an identity that is specific to me, where I now feel that my voice, for those who do trust that voice, is very clean and intact. And for those who hate me, what else is new? That’s part of the dialectic of this whole thing. And they have their outlets where they scream and throw blood and so forth. What I have found is that as traumatic and terrifying as it can be to have your “reputation” assailed, and mine has been totally firebombed many times, including with utterly fraudulent manifestos claiming that I made wild errors in articles, and these manifestos served the purpose of putting an reputation stain out there without anybody taking the time to see what’s in them.
My experience basically has been that this experience of being simultaneously destroyed and created, you might say, they, the attackers, stripped me of everything I once thought was very important and once thought I wanted — to be accepted, to be palatable, to be included, to be one of some kind of journalism community that I really wanted to be part of when I started out when I was 21. My dream was a very feverish dream, to be an investigative journalist. To be expelled, to be cast out is very painful. Exile, as many ancient cultures have told us, is possibly the worst punishment. So you come through exile, and somehow you are still there at the end of all this, and what I have found is that there is this strange beauty, and that comes from the relationships that I form with readers, people out there who get what I was saying. I didn’t always get why I was saying it, or why it was coming through me, but they in a way fertilized it. They go way out of their way to get in touch with me, and they tell me how it affected them at a time in their lives when they felt hopeless, in most cases about having just tested HIV-positive. So that gave me a huge sense of meaning. Otherwise it would have just been chaos.
And in terms of me and the media, I guess I’m looking at the media and saying, you are not exactly in great shape, are you? I might be in better shape than you. Because of this bullshit, because they have not spoken to people. They formed this tower for themselves and really just didn’t pay attention to what was happening on the street among actual people in a very long time.
Much of your reporting is as much about how the media works as how medicine works. Do you think the herd mentality of journalists, as you call it, is at all diminished by the internet, or has it just given people more places to “scream and throw blood”?
The internet is a total revolution in communications, media and information. And I think what it’s done is to mortally wound the very thing that kept media aloft, and that was authority, and authority was always random if you bothered to study it. What gave these guys — overwhelmingly guys — the prerogative to sit at these magazines and these newsrooms and elect themselves the authorities of what people should know and how people should think about what they are permitted to know. I’m very inspired to see that breaking up, and to see the terror among the media elites as that breaks up, because that’s the product that they sold before the internet. That’s how they sold it, and nobody needs that product anymore. Nobody needs Andrew Sullivan to tell them how to think about something. They probably run their own blog. And then they say, yes, we can’t just have everybody in the world running their own blog. The old cliche is freedom of the press is limited to those who own one. It used to be a very big deal to own one, and now of course it’s literally free. So, as an old anarchist, this is all very thrilling to me, and I was a late convert to grasping the internet because I’m so technically moronic. But lately it’s like I can barely function I’m so excited. I see the possibilities. It’s staggering what’s going to happen, how much things are going to change, largely for the better. I had a conversation last night with a writer who I have pulled into my new website, The Truth Barrier. He’s Greek. He said, “Don’t be so utopian about the internet. The dark forces haven’t figured out how to take it over, but they will.” And I basically said, “I can’t think like that. I can’t function. I don’t think they can, but it remains to be seen.”
I was intrigued that the title of your new website, The Truth Barrier, was the same as the preface in your book. Can you explain what this phrase, taken from Tomas Transtromer’s collection, means to you?
I hope I’m not doing a disservice to Transtromer’s very delicate poem when I try to describe what I think he meant by the truth barrier, which is a nexus between our inner selves and the outer world. So it’s like we each walk around with ourselves as the ultimate camera, and we see the world with that camera. He basically said that the truth barrier is when the camera lens shuts down because we don’t want to see ourselves. The outside world comes toward that self and we just want to shut our eyes and look away. So the media in the past has basically been written I think in a vein and a tradition of people who, regardless of certain outbreaks of gonzo or the New Journalism or first-person narrative, basically weren’t really using themselves in the work. They were just reporting flatly about the world, and judging the world and judging what was going on. And that’s great, as far as it goes. But what intrigued me was having a website where people — it’s not confessional, and it’s not self indulgent — it’s just that I’m going to ask the writers to look at themselves as much as they are looking at the thing that they are looking at. It’s tricky, and one writer has had an almost traumatized response. In the end I said, it’s OK, just back off and write a movie review. I’m not trying to pull down everyone’s goriest stuff here, from childhood and whatnot, I’m just trying to make the reader feel connected to something that’s alive, the way a conversation, the way a dinner party is alive. I want it to be alive in that way, so that people don’t feel alone and alienated, which is how I feel when I read most things, including blogs.
A lot of your first pieces were published in Spin. It’s so hard to imagine Spin magazine of today publishing such serious stuff, much less taking out ads in The New York Times to promote it. I was curious what you’ve seen today that fills that gap, and what it’s been like watching Spin evolve or devolve, as the case may be.
Spin is something, as a product, that is so far from me. I never look at it. I never touch it. I have no idea what it is doing or what it is. I sometimes see it on the newsstand and it is as alien as any magazine. It has nothing to do with my life and my memories or anything. It’s a completely different thing, and that happened right after Bob (Guccione) sold it, after our little court trial. They were so ready. It was so interesting. They were so ready to have a Bob-free Spin that just wouldn’t be problematic, that wouldn’t have all this tension, like this AIDS column. And the new owners just took it back to the shop and cranked it out and turned it into the perfect pop rock music vehicle. It succeeded because it’s a formula. It’s going to work. It just became an industry rag. So good for them. Fine. And it’s like you don’t even have feelings. I don’t think Bob has feelings. I don’t think anybody who has ever worked there had feelings about that thing that’s out there now called Spin. It was alive at one time. It was a very disturbed place, in terms of the dynamic of the workplace and everything. But it was a alive, and now that i look back on those days, it seems it’s absolutely incredible what we were able to do, what we were allowed to do, what Bob urged us to do, and how he wanted all this kind of long-form investigative journalism in the magazine. I guess I came into the profession at a time when long form journalism was actually in its death throes. And I know it still goes on in certain periodicals that have money, but its less and less. But sometimes I haven’t been able to distinguish between what’s happening with my life/career, and what’s happening in the media. And I realized a little while ago that not only do I not do these kinds of stories anymore — where you spend a year, and its a 10,000-word piece and you fly all over the country doing interviews and getting quotes — but I but don’t ever talk to anybody who does that kind of thing anymore either. The whole idea of “I’m working on a piece”, a magazine piece. And I’ve thought about that, why would the magazine piece die? Well, because it’s kind of a production, and there’s a lot of necessary of stage managing and almost falsity that goes into it. And again, I don’t think that anybody really needs that anymore. The idea that there’s a lead that casts a spell where you have some rock star sweeping through a lobby and sitting down in his chair in a certain way. All that stuff that’s the whole ethos of magazine writing, I think is going to become anachronistic very fast.
Because what you can do now is — I’ll give you a quick example of how The Truth Barrier would work, how I want to flip everything. I was having drinks several years ago now with a writer who was in the literary world, unlike me a darling of the literary world, and he had a book review to write. It was about a writer who I feel I shouldn’t mention, but the writer was not Caucasian, it was a black writer. My friend was tortured because this writer’s first novel had been a big hit, and he had been assigned to write the second novel and he didn’t think it was very good. And I said, “So say that.” And there was all this anguish that had to do with political correctness. And I said, “Didn’t we have a civil rights movement in this country? Didn’t he earn the right to write a shitty book?” So the review comes out in the Village Voice, and it was very polished and very well written, but I had no clue how he felt about that book, certainly not that he didn’t like it. In The Truth Barrier, what I would do is, I would put the scene in the bar into the article, which happened to be where the truth jumped. Media is structured so that by the time anything makes it to the surface, nine times out of 10 it is already dead. It’s depleted. It’s not alive and complex and true anymore, and that’s to do with all the values that the media consciously or unconsciously cultivated. Very WASP-y, you might say, or very just terrified of real expression. Very male.
What I’m trying to bring out is the kind of warmth that you get from reading poetry, or in some cases literature. The thing that horrifies the journalistic ethos is the idea of self, and I believed that about Hunter Thompson until I actually started reading him. When I finally read him I thought, Jesus Christ, he’s not writing about himself. He’s giving something so huge, so much more than what the rest of them give. No wonder he had to take so many drugs. It’s really hard work.
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