Is Rolling Stone's Hiv Story Wildly Exaggerated?

The Feb. 6 issue of Rolling Stone features what appears to be a groundbreaking investigative report, the kind of story that helped establish the magazine as a journalistic force in the 1960s and 1970s. It was exactly this type of reporting that doomsayers feared would disappear after former laddie-mag editor Ed Needham was named the magazine's managing editor last year.

The story is teased on the cover as a SPECIAL REPORT--BUG CHASERS, THE MEN WHO LONG TO BE HIV+. The majority of the piece focuses on Carlos, a gay New Yorker who seeks out HIV-positive partners and purposefully has unprotected sex. "I think it turns the other guy on to know that I'm negative and that they're bringing me into the brotherhood," the article quotes Carlos as saying. "That gets me off, too." For people like Carlos, and for gay men a generation removed from the front lines of the AIDS crisis, getting HIV is seen as the ultimate, nihilistic, erotic adventure, according to the story. "It's like living with diabetes," Carlos says. "You take a few pills and get on with your life."

While the fringe phenomenon of gay men looking to get infected has been known about for years, the Rolling Stone story asserts that "bug chasers" are a significant phenomenon in the gay population. The piece's most eyepopping statistic comes from Dr. Bob Cabaj, the director of behavioral-health services for San Francisco County. The story says that "Cabaj estimates that at least twenty-five percent of all newly infected gay men" are either purposefully seeking infection or are "actively seeking HIV but are in denial and wouldn't call themselves bug chasers."

But Cabaj says that attribution is made-up. "That's totally false. I never said that. And when the fact checker called me and asked me if I said that, I said no. I said no. This is unbelievable." Cabaj said there's no way of knowing what percentage of gay men are looking to get infected but that it's likely very small.

The only other doctor quoted in the piece who agreed that bug chasing is a significant phenomenon is Dr. Marshall Forstein, the medical director of mental health and addiction services at Fenway Community Health, a clinic in Boston. The author, Gregory Freeman, writes in the piece, "[Forstein] says bug chasers are seen regularly in the Fenway health system, and the phenomenon is growing."

"That is entirely a fabrication," Forstein said from his office Thursday morning. "That is ridiculous. I said, 'We have seen a few cases, but we have no idea how common this is. It is not very common'."

Freeman, a freelance writer and the author of "Sailors to the End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It," stands by his story. In a phone interview Thursday morning, he said, "This is shocking. I vividly remember these conversations. From the very start, the article has been a touchy issue for everyone involved. I can only guess that now that it's getting a lot of attention, people are getting worried. It's an unpleasant topic." (Freeman says he did not tape-record his conversations with the two doctors.)

Neither Forstein nor Cabaj had read the article before being contacted by NEWSWEEK. Both men said they are concerned that media attention about the inflated numbers--the article was hyped on the Drudge Report on Tuesday, and Freeman appeared on a Fox News program last night to discuss the piece--will only serve to draw attention away from a very real public-health problem.

"It's an issue, but there's a real fear in sensationalizing it," Cabaj said from his home in San Francisco. "I guess he was trying to make it a better story. The guy [Freeman] said they were going to make it a high feature story."

Questions about the piece within gay circles began before the magazine issue was widely circulated. Online columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote a reaction to the Drudge item on his Web site on Wednesday: "The precis reads like Stephen Glass," referring to an infamous New Republic writer who fabricated stories out of whole cloth. "This urban myth was peddled in the 1990s and couldn't get any traction. Is Rolling Stone that desperate for sales?" Sullivan also points out on his Web site that the piece erroneously implies that virtually all HIV transmissions in the U.S. are between gay men.

Both Cabaj and Forstein say that "barebacking"--unprotected anal sex--and a nonchalance about HIV are real and growing problems that deserve increased attention. Doug Hitzel, an HIV-positive 21-year old who is the only person quoted by his full name in the piece who did look to get infected, said he told Freeman as much. "There are very few people actually looking to get HIV," Hitzel told NEWSWEEK. "But there are a large number of people having unsafe sex, and that's why the number of HIV infections is rising. That's what we really need to look at."

Rolling Stone's Needham says he stands by his writer and his fact checker. "I have 100 percent confidence in the fact checker. I looked at the notes. I spoke with Freeman and with the fact checker, and I have total confidence in the story." Needham said he had no idea why Forstein and Cabaj would say they were misquoted.

Without the Forstein and Cabaj quotes, the other authorities in the story take on a new weight. In the story, Freeman derisively recounts how gay activists tried to dissuade him from writing the story. He quotes Shana Krochmal, a spokeswoman for the Stop AIDS Project, as saying bug chasing is "relatively minor acting out" and that it is "not big enough to warrant a trend story." Freeman writes in his article that "Krochmal ... aggressively encouraged me to drop the article idea altogether ... Krochmal cautioned against focusing on 'just a bunch of really vocal guys who want to continue this image of being reckless, hedonistic gay men who will do anything to get laid. I think that does a disservice to the community at large'."