Media

Editorial Discretion or Censorship at The Street.com? And is it Harder or Easier to Kill Stories Now Than in The Days of Yore?

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A journalistic kerfuffle unfolded last week at TheStreet.com, the website spearheaded by CNBC's Mad Money host Jim Cramer. Reason contributor and Washington Center for Politics & Journalism head Terry Michael authored a piece that questioned the link between HIV and AIDS that ran at the site's opinion section for about four hours before being taken down and scrubbed from the site.

The piece used various statements from French medical researcher Luc Montagnier, who won a Nobel Prize for his role in connecting the retrovirus HIV with AIDS, to argue that the iconic HIV=AIDS equation is mistaken. In a recent documentary on the same theme, Montagnier says that individuals with healthy immune systems can be exposed to HIV repeatedly without becoming infected. Michael says that Montagnier believes the number of AIDS deaths in Africa is heavily inflated and is more likely attributable to lack of clean water and other issues. And Michael says that the drug cocktails increasingly prescribed to HIV-positive individuals who are not presenting other AIDS symptoms are dangerous in and of themselves (he singles out drugmaker Gilead Sciences as a major culprit). In the brief time that Michael's article was live, the first comment came from Jim Cramer himself, who wrote, "This article makes it sound like [Gilead] is a fraud. That's ridiculous. The franchise is important and helpful. I don't think there is support for this position.. None."

Shortly after that, the piece was taken down. Curious about the speed with which the story was redacted, I contacted TheStreet.com's editor about why it was removed and received the reply, "There were factual errors in the piece, so we ran a correction and then took it down." He did not elaborate on the errors, but Michael cops to some minor errors at his website. Michael has posted the original piece as a screen grab at this site, along with Cramer's comment and his own take on the issue. He says his article was "Kremlin-ized" and that its removal demonstrates the reach of corporate power, which strikes me as a stretch absent any sort of clear evidence. In any case, you can read all that here.

I bring all of this up not because of the issue Michael discussed—I think the connection between HIV and AIDS is established (as does Montagnier) and a major reason for the decline in full-blown AIDS cases in the past 20 years or so are precisely the therapies that Michael rejects—but because of a point he makes at the end of his post on the matter:

In the old days, a publisher bowing to corporate or political pressure could not send his minions out to confiscate all the ink-stained dead trees thrown on your porch by the paperboy. Today, the digital deliveryboy—the web master—can be ordered to erase content when an unscrupulous publisher decides to withdraw some inconvenient truth.

Let's leave aside any specifics about this particular case. Does that argument ring true? It seems to me that, if anything, it's far harder to squelch stories than ever before. Not because publishers, whether scrupulous or un, won't try, but for the very reasons that Michael was able to save cached versions and repost them at his own site. There never has been and never will be a guarantee that anyone will care about your version of the truth (or of the past, or of the present or future, either), but it seems undeniable to me that individuals and small-time actors have more tools by which to tell their stories. Which is a good thing, regardless of the stories they choose to tell.