Charlie Sheen and HIV: Why the interview shouldn’t have happened

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
November 19, 2015 /

Click here to view original /

The tone was different, sure, and there were fewer references to tiger blood and Adonis DNA, but Charlie Sheen divulging his HIV status to Matt Lauer was actually quite similar to his 2011 #winning rant.

In both interviews we were watching a thoroughly desperate man. In 2011, Sheen was in a state of mania, in line, perfectly, with what looked like the shaky highs of bipolarity. This week he was at the other end of his mood spectrum. Down, if not depressed to the point of flat affect, and while it was certainly less theatrical than in 2011 – and while, thankfully, there was less of an imminent-train-wreck feel – it certainly wasn’t less gruelling.

In both cases, an unwell man’s suffering was offered up as entertainment by a news media who has long forgotten its remit to inform. In both cases, a man was pushed – be it via the coercion of mental illness or, on this occasion, the impetus of his extortion exhaustion – to consent to a situation that was not in his, nor the public’s, best interests.

And somehow NBC managed to gussy it up as news.

I asked the question back in 2011 and it’s one worth repeating now: just because Sheen agreed to do such interview does it mean it should happen? Do networks not have some kind of duty to ask whether any of this is a “good idea”? Is there not, in principle, something ethically repugnant about interviewing a man in such a state?

If I’d planned to conduct an interview with Sheen with my academic hat on, my request would have been rejected by my university’s ethics committee. Had such an application come across my desk as a member of one of these committees, I’d equally shake my head.

How can a non-psychologist possibly sell the case that interviewing a man in such turmoil serves the public interest? What good could possibly come of it? What position of competence is a morning news show in to aid Sheen’s post-show navigation of the untenable highs or foetal-position lows that will follow such a spectacle?

Of course, questions about the ethics of such stories are by no means restricted to celebrity interviews. The same probity-concerns plague me each time a public act of violence is reported on and a journo points a microphone at a victim – on the very worst day of their life – and asks for lurid details.

Just because people – in all their panic, shock and despair – are seemingly willing to describe the bodies and the blood and the bullets doesn’t mean any of it should be broadcast. And just because I, as part of an insatiable audience, want to hear this content doesn’t mean I have any rights to. It doesn’t mean that the option shouldn’t be completely taken from me.

Interviewing people off the back of something awful – getting them to emote live to air – isn’t good journalism, it’s just gratuitous.

Sheen spent millions of dollars trying to keep his diagnosis under wraps. He did the interview – he revealed his status – because the National Enquirer story loomed large.

Sheen did the interview under duress. And it showed. And none of this is OK.

Questions about what he knew when, about who he told and who he had sex with are all juicy scuttlebutt, sure. But it’s completely egregious that a network like NBC is willing to get into the gutter with TMZ and the National Enquirer and air an interview with a broken man, all the while pretending it is news.

© Lauren Rosewarne