The crime, the unforgivable, heinous crime, was that when penicillin became available as a standard, successful treatment for the disease, the scientists withheld it and any knowledge of it from the men in the study. It only ended when the whistle was blown in 1972.
The distinction is important because this experiment has forever affected the ways in which African American people view the government and health care. Even now a study has attempted to figure out if memory of this experiment is what prevents more African Americans from participating in medical studies. Let's not make it even worse, or give fuel to the "government created AIDS" conspiracy theory by spreading misinformation!
I wish I had caught the name of the person making the statement so I could write in. I was bouncing back and forth between stations, watching coverage of the Obama speech, so I don't know who it was. It was not corrected on air, either.
I first read about this in the book Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, by James H. Jones, New York: Free Press, 1981 & 1993.
ETA: The mistake was made by Ed Gordon, host of "Our World," as a guest on Hardball with Chris Matthews on 3-19-08. I have written to Mr. Matthews and Mr. Gordon to correct the record.