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'Dying Words' Radio Documentary Remembers Pioneering Journalist In AIDS Coverage

Ben Kushner

For a while in the late 1980s, Jeff Schmalz was the Miami bureau chief for the New York Times. That was before he was completely out of the closet, and Miami was one of the places in the country where he felt comfortable as a gay man.

Later, Schmalz was back in New York when he had a grand mal seizure in the newsroom. When Sam Freedman, one of his former reporters, heard about it, he hoped it was epilepsy. Epilepsy was treatable. But Schmalz had AIDS, and after that, Schmalz felt an imperative to cover AIDS, from the personal perspective of someone living with the disease. He became one of the pioneering voices reporting on AIDS.

Jeff Schmalz died in 1993 at 39. Sam Freedman, the reporter, author and Columbia University journalism professor, has a new radio documentary and book out about his editor and friend. "Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz and How it Transformed the New York Times" is co-produced by Kerry Donahue.


The documentary airs on WLRN on World AIDS Day Tuesday, Dec. 1, at 11 a.m. You can also listen to  it and find out more about the project here. 


Below, you can listen to or read an interview with Sam Freedman about why he felt so strongly about making sure Jeff Schmalz's work and life are remembered. 


AZ: How did you find out Jeff was gay, and how did you find out that he had AIDS?


SF: I was having lunch with Jeff probably in early 1982. I was a baby reporter on the New York Times. Jeff, with the title of regional editor, in many ways was my rabbi. And Jeff had this way of sizing up, I think, which straights in the newsroom would be accepting. And I just remember chatting and him mentioning he was gay, and it was so liberating because people I worked with on previous newspapers, some of them came out decades later. And here's Jeff, he'd talk about going to the dance clubs. He would talk about what kind of guys he liked. It was so amazingly, wonderfully ordinary. And I had actually assumed while we were working on the documentary that Jeff had been out to everyone. It was a real startling discovery that he had this very bifurcated life. All the top editors who controlled his destiny, he was very closeted to. It was really being stricken with AIDS in 1990 that outed him.

"One of the things that happened when I got AIDS was that I made the decision that I was not going to be timid ... and I was going to use my position to help both those causes." - Jeff Schmalz (Listen above to hear his voice.)

One of the things Jeff would do to sensitize the Times, even before he could come out, is he would have these reporters who were straight but who were allies, and he would give us assignments that if his fingerprints were on them would be suspicious. So Jeff got a terrific reporter named Michael Norman to do a long feature story about gay life in New York during the beginning years of the AIDS epidemic. Mike was a Vietnam vet. Mike was straight. Mike lived in the suburbs with his wife and two kids. And that story got in the paper with Jeff stealthily guiding it. But it aroused enough suspicion about his identity, his sexual identity might have been, that very soon after that story ran, he's sent up to Connecticut. He's sent to what's basically a beginner job.


AZ: Since Jeff died in 1993, I was surprised by how much of this documentary is driven by Jeff himself.

SF: It was hard for me to hear just voice. Hearing his voice made him so close to me that it was really unnerving and deeply, deeply saddening. And so the effect on me and I hope on the listeners is this kind of shattering immediacy of Jeff and really this voice from beyond the grave.


AZ: Clearly the story of Jeff Schmalz and your time working with him left a pretty big imprint on you. In what ways has that stayed with you?


SF: I owe a lot of my career to Jeff. And the other thing, which goes way beyond journalism, is what he meant in  my enlightenment about what it meant to be gay, or now it's LGBTQ. You have to anchor that in a person. You can have the ideals abstractly, but until you know someone and care about them and have them edit your copy and party with them after work  and then be at their bedside reading to them  and then go to the memorial service that was supposed to have been a 40th birthday party -- that's what changes you as a person.


"Until you ... go to the memorial service that was supposed to have been a 40th birthday party -- that's what changes you as a person." - Sam Freedman

  AZ: There was a lot of criticism from the AIDS activism community that the New York Times was being irresponsible by not reporting enough on AIDS. It was 1987 when the Times was allowed to use “gay” instead of “homosexual.” What do you think the analogous story is today? What story are we misunderstanding?


SF: I hope I could actually give a historical parallel instead. I don't make Holocaust analogies lightly, especially being an American Jew who lost many members of my extended family in the Shoah. But if you look back at what the New York Times did in the 1940s with the initial stories about what we now know as the Holocaust, they were tucked way inside. There was a concern at the highest level of the Times that this would look like special pleading on behalf of the Jews.


AZ: Because it was a Jewish family-owned newspaper.


SF: Right, exactly. And when the first stories about AIDS began to be reported in the Times, not only was the Times already late, but their first big story, which is in 1981 I believe, gets put on page 20. And I think maybe we don't have the perspective right now to know what's around us that we're missing.




Alicia Zuckerman is Editorial Director at WLRN, where she edits narrative and investigative audio journalism. In 2020, she was named Editor of the Year by the Society of Professional Journalists Florida chapter.
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