The Immersive Journalist

AIDS Reporting by Jeff Schmalz and its effect on the newsroom

In late 1990, reporter Jeff Schmalz had a grand mal seizure in the middle of the New York Times newsroom. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with AIDS. He

Illustrator: Max Smith

Illustrator: Max Smith

spent the next three years reporting on the epidemic, turning stories of statistics into stories about people. In 1993, Schmalz died at the age of 39.

As one of the first to write on the AIDS epidemic from both perspectives—both reporter and a person with AIDS—Schmalz helped pave the way for acceptance within the newsroom.

On Feb. 12, Columbia University professor Sam Freedman gave a lecture based on his latest book and radio documentary, “Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times.” The lecture was presented by the English department and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.

Schmalz was a writer for the New York Times, covering the AIDS epidemic in the early ‘90s. As a gay man who was diagnosed with AIDS himself, he had a unique perspective on the issue.

Freedman, a close friend and colleague of Schmalz, said he began working on the “Dying Words” project because he felt Schmalz’s story needed to be told louder before it was forgotten.

“It’s going back before moving forward,” Freedman said.

In addition to “Dying Words,” Freedman has written several other books on topics ranging from civil rights to Jewish identity. In the fall of 2016, Freedman will be teaching a joint class within the English and journalism departments at the University of Minnesota.

Freedman first met Schmalz within his first week at the New York Times. Shortly after, Schmalz took Freedman under his wing and began to mentor him both in and out of the newsroom.

As the two became closer, Schmalz mentioned that he was gay.

“[Schmalz] was the first unashamedly gay person who was out to me,” Freedman said during the lecture.

While Schmalz was open with Freedman, he wasn’t as open with everyone in the newsroom. When it came to his personal life, he kept quiet around the higher-ups at the Times, especially editor A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal, who was known for letting prejudices seep into the newsroom climate. Rumors held that Rosenthal demoted reporter Rich Meislin after he was outed as being gay.

For years, the Times only used the term “homosexual” and often included a subtle bias within headlines. Freedman said the Times avoided in-depth reporting on AIDS well into the epidemic. The first article, published in 1981, was titled “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.”

After Schmalz was diagnosed with AIDS in 1990, he continued on with a darkly humorous attitude, Freedman said. At one point, when Schmalz was told he had only two T-Cells left (a healthy person typically has 500-1,500), he decided to name them: Frick and Frack.

“What do you do with someone this talented and this sick?” Freedman said at the lecture.

Schmalz took a break. Spending time in and out of the hospital, he took six months off from the Times immediately following his diagnosis.

Upon returning, Schmalz became the AIDS beat reporter for the Times. Previously, the Times was covering AIDS from public policy and medical perspectives, Freedman said. Yet when Schmalz took it on, he connected so well with other people who had AIDS that he made the stories into more humanistic profiles. The profiles focused on a range of well-known people with AIDS, from basketball star Magic Johnson to political activist, Mary Fisher.

Schmalz continued reporting on AIDS until his death in 1993. Just a few weeks after he died, the Times ran his last article, a piece from Schmalz’s point of view as a person with AIDS. The article was titled “Whatever Happened to AIDS?”

“I used to be an exception in my H.I.V. support group, the only one of its eight members who was not merely infected with the virus but who had advanced to full-blown AIDS,” Schmalz wrote. “Now, just a year and a half later, the exception in my group is the one person who does not have AIDS.”

At this time, it was unusual to find articles written from the first person point of view, Freedman said. It was more even more unusual for the Times to run those pieces.

Two memorials were held for Schmalz. One was formal, and one was a gathering of friends at Schmalz’s favorite restaurant, Freedman said. Freedman later said he found out the more intimate memorial was originally supposed to be Schmalz’s 40th birthday party.

“Dying Words” was also turned into a radio documentary with the help of Kerry Donahue, a friend of Freedman’s who is involved with the radio program at the Columbia Journalism School.

The hour-long radio documentary of the same name includes recordings taken from an interview with Schmalz recorded in late 1993.

“We wanted to give [Schmalz] some permanence, some immortality,” Freedman said, discussing the choice to include Schmalz’s own voice in the documentary. “We want to steal the victory from the grave.”

Listen to the full audio documentary here, or check out dyingwordsproject.com