Hank Plante is a familiar name and face to Coachella Valley residents who follow the news. He’s a political analyst for NBC Palm Springs, and recently stepped down from The Desert Sun editorial board after a five-year stint.
Despite that familiarity, most people don’t realize how much of a trailblazer Plante has been throughout his career. The Detroit native has worked in print, radio and TV, and is best known for spending 25 years at KPIX-TV in San Francisco. He retired from the station in 2010 and later moved to the Coachella Valley.
Here’s where the trailblazing part comes in: Not only was Plante one of the first openly gay TV reporters in the country; at KPIX, he helped tell the world about the horror and pain of the burgeoning AIDS epidemic. The station’s “AIDS Lifeline” project, done in the early days of the epidemic, was honored with a Peabody Award in 1996—one of journalism’s highest honors. Plante and his work were featured in the film 5B, a recent documentary about the first-in-the-world AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital in the 1980s.
It’s because of this work that Plante is being honored by the Desert AIDS Project with the Arts and Activism Award at the Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards, on Saturday, Feb. 8. Plante recently spoke with the Independent about the award, his career and the state of journalism in 2020.
Congratulations on the award from the Desert AIDS Project. What was your response when you found out you were going to be honored at the Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards?
I was absolutely thrilled. It’s a big deal to me. The thing about being a reporter, as you know, is that when you do a story—even if it’s a great story that you’re proud of—it’s forgotten, because the news changes the next day or the next week. My AIDS reporting—I’m proud of it, but it was a long time ago, so to have it acknowledged again 30 or 35 years later, it really means the world to me.
Tell me how you first started covering the AIDS epidemic. Did that begin when you started at KPIX?
I did a few stories before then, but at KPIX—that’s where I worked for 25 years. San Francisco was ground zero of the AIDS epidemic, with more cases per capita than any spot in the Western world. I wanted to cover it, because it was more than a story to me. I was one of the first openly gay TV reporters in the country. These were my friends who were affected. Covering AIDS was a way for me to channel my anger and my grief over the disease. I didn’t feel quite so powerless. I felt like I could do something.
I’ve found that it’s difficult to cover something in which you have a personal stake. How did you balance that difficulty—covering a topic that had such personal meaning to you—with the fact that it needed to be covered?
You’re absolutely right. It wasn’t easy. There were many times when I would be at San Francisco General doing a story, and I’d have to go out in the hallway and compose myself, because I started to tear up. Or I’d be in somebody’s apartment who was dying, and I’d have to go out and compose myself—because I’m not there to cry. I’m not there to be an advocate, and I didn’t want to lose any credibility. … I hate the word “objective,” because I don’t think there is such a thing.
Thank you! Me too.
I mean, we see things through our own eyes. So that’s always going to be there, but still, I had to be a professional. I had to be a professional. So, yeah, it was difficult. It was very difficult.
Now, 30-plus years later, being HIV-positive is not a death sentence. Yes, people still die from the disease, but in most cases, it can be managed. Tell me about your perspective after covering this for so long—and how the AIDS world, for lack of a better term, has changed over the years.
I have to tell you, I am really, really thankful that I have lived long enough to see the beginning of the end of the disease. The worst of the epidemic, as you know, went for about 15 years—from 1981, when it was first reported on in the medical journals, through 1996, when protease inhibitors came along.
Since then, it’s been mostly good news medically. Now we have so many wonderful drugs, like Truvada, also known as PrEP, which pretty much prevents people from getting HIV if they take it regularly. Truvada is made by a California company, Gilead Sciences. Merck, another pharmaceutical company, is now developing an implant under the skin that dispenses similar drugs so that people don’t even have to take the pill. You just need the implant changed occasionally. That’ll be especially helpful in Third World countries, where taking medicine on a daily regimen isn’t always possible, for a lot of reasons.
Johnson and Johnson, which financed the film 5B that I’m so proud of, this year is testing a potential AIDS vaccine in the U.S. and in Europe; they’ve already had great results testing it in Africa. So we are seeing the beginning of the end of the epidemic, at least in America. There are serious problems and challenges for communities of color and in the Third World, so we can’t let our guard down. But this has been all good news for the last several years.
You’ve done a little bit of everything, working early in your career at The Washington Post, and doing both TV and radio. What are your thoughts on the state of journalism today, given the fact there have been so many job losses?
You caught me on the right day to ask that question, because I just learned that the chain of weeklies where I started as a reporter is shutting down. … They were around the beltway in D.C., and in Maryland and Virginia. This was a great chain of weekly publishing. Bob Woodward began there. I worked there. Ron Nessen, who became a White House press secretary, worked there. They turned out a lot of very successful people—but you know, this is the age we live in. It breaks my heart, and I don’t think that the readers understand what it’s costing them.
When it comes to the public arena, reporters are the only friends you’ve got. These politicians are not always looking out for your interests. … You think about the stories not getting covered. I had a political consultant in Sacramento tell me, “We love to see fewer reporters here in the state capital.” He said, this is a quote: “It’s like driving down Interstate 5, and there’s no California Highway Patrol.” The reader and the viewer—they are the ultimate losers in this.
What is going to save journalism?
I don’t know. So far, what seems to be working best is when these private, rich people buy newspapers. We’re seeing this in Los Angeles. Jeff Bezos of course, bought The Washington Post. We need angel investors to really step in. It’s not something that the government’s going to do, nor should they. I don’t know.
I do think that the tech companies have an obligation to help in some way. They’ve got to start paying somehow for the news that they, as they call it, “aggregate.” I call it plagiarize. You know, Google and Facebook—they call themselves tech companies, which is B.S. They’re not tech companies; they’re media companies. They’re in the advertising business, and they’re not paying for the content that they’re getting rich on. So that’s got to be fixed.
Is there anything that you’d like to add that I haven’t asked about?
I just believe in supporting local journalism. I’m really happy to talk to you. I like the work that you’re doing, and it’s not easy. I love community journalism. I think that local journalism, like what the CV Independent is doing, can be more impactful than national journalism. I saw this at The Desert Sun. We did editorials on issues that changed things. If we had done the same type of editorial in a bigger paper in L.A. or San Francisco, it wouldn’t have had any impact. When you get closer to the stories that are right here, you can make a big, big difference.
The 26th Annual Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards take place at 5:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 8, at the Palm Springs Convention Center, 277 N. Avenida Caballeros, in Palm Springs. Tickets start at $500. For tickets or more information, visit www.desertaidsproject.org/steve-chase-humanitarian-awards-2020.