When Gay Journalists Were Closeted: A History of AIDS Coverage at 'The Times'

November 23, 2015

Days after New York State approved marriage equality in 2011, Samuel G. Freedman, a School of Journalism professor and former reporter for The New York Times, mused to friends about how the world had changed since he had worked at the paper in the 1980s.

Samuel Freedman Journalism AIDS Columbia UniversitySamuel G. Freedman

Now an enthusiastic proponent of gay marriage, The Times was then a place where gay reporters feared being exiled to obscure beats and watching their careers wither. Freedman’s musings centered on his friend and mentor, Jeff Schmalz, a brilliant Times reporter dying of the disease who in 1992 and 1993 produced groundbreaking articles about people living with AIDS.

“Jeffrey who?” people often asked. Out of those encounters has come Freedman’s eighth book, Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz and How it Transformed The New York Times.

Produced as an oral history of dozens of Schmalz’s colleagues and friends, the book and an accompanying radio documentary focus on how journalism responded to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and early ’90s, when many gay and lesbian journalists felt tremendous professional pressure to remain closeted, and discrimination against them was widespread. It also recounts the moment AIDS became a full-fledged health crisis, breaking out of the gay and IV-drug communities into the larger population.

“Jeff’s reporting played a real role in starting to turn opinion, certainly within The Times, but also within the broader public, from fear, suspicion, finger-pointing and blaming gays, to empathy and acceptance,” said Freedman. The 60-minute radio program will be broadcast on some two dozen public radio stations as part of events marking World AIDS Day on December 1. That same day, Freedman will host a panel on Dying Words at 6 p.m. at the Journalism School.

Schmalz was a rising star at the Times in the 1980s, a consummate journalist and skilled newsroom politician and mentor to younger journalists. When Freedman arrived at the paper in 1981, he soon was among those taken under Schmalz’s wing.

Though out of the closet to close friends at the paper, Schmalz kept his orientation hidden from higher-ups such as Abe Rosenthal, its executive editor from 1977 to 1986, and then-publisher Arthur Sulzberger.

“Abe Rosenthal hired me and promoted me, and I owe him a lot, but in doing this research I became very aware of his antipathy toward gay staffers at The Times,” said Freedman. “And it also became apparent that, in a less visible way, Punch Sulzberger also had a blind spot about gays.”

Critics inside and outside the newsroom accused the paper of being late to cover the AIDS crisis.

In December 1990, Schmalz, then deputy national editor, suffered a seizure in the newsroom. The diagnosis was full-blown AIDS, then a death sentence. For Schmalz, the closet was no longer an option. “Jeff commanded tremendous authority at the Times. So for him to come out had a tremendously sensitizing effect on the paper,” recalled Freedman.

When Schmalz returned to the paper in mid-1992, he was sick but determined to report on AIDS. By then, the paper had a new editor and publisher and, Freedman said, was more accepting of its gay and lesbian employees.

Book Dying Words about Jeff Schmalz by Samuel G. Freedman and Kerry Donohue

Over the next 15 months, Schmalz captured the many faces of AIDS, gay and straight, in some three dozen articles. He profiled Magic Johnson, the Los Angeles Lakers forward who quit basketball when he was diagnosed as HIV-positive, and AIDS activists Mary Fisher and Larry Kramer. “In a weird way, the diagnosis set him free,” recalled his sister, Wendy Schmalz Wilde. “He found a new empathy for other people who were sick and dying.”

Schmalz’s reporting took AIDS “from a medical story, a public health story, a science story, and made it a deeply human story,” said Freedman. “He got on the beat right when this was a disease crossing the lines of race, class and sexual orientation.” His articles also raised the bar on the paper’s AIDS coverage, setting a standard for other news organizations. His last story, which decried growing public complacency, appeared several weeks after his death in November 1993.

Freedman teamed with veteran radio producer Kerry Donahue to produce the radio documentary, which will be distributed by the Public Radio Exchange. Funds came from the Journalism School and a Kickstarter campaign that raised $28,000. A significant backer was current New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who contributed his own reminiscences to Dying Words.

Schmalz’s death still haunts Freedman. “Jeff was an example of a supremely talented person who died at 39,” he said. “The world is still losing incredibly talented people at young ages. It’s a reminder of the continuing need to do the research that will cure the disease and of the role that journalists need to play.”

— By Mark Frankel

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