Dying Words 500

Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz and How It Transformed The New York Times

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Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz and How It Transformed The New York Times
March 16, 2016 7:00 PM
March 16, 2016 9:30 PM
Suggested donation of $5 to benefit the Bureau. No one turned away for lack of funds.
212 620 7310 ext. 300
February 4, 2016
Bureau of General Services—Queer Division @ The Center
212 620 7310 ext. 300
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208 West 13th Street, Room 210, New York, NY, 10011, United States
Dying Words 500


Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz is a multi-media project consisting of a book and public radio documentary about the New York Times reporter who covered the AIDS epidemic in the early 1990s as he was dying of the disease. It is also, in part, the story of The New York Times and, by extension, American journalism, during a much less tolerant time for LGBTQ journalists in major news organizations.

This presentation by Samuel Freedman and Kerry Donahue, collaborators on the book and radio documentary, will include a a Power Point of historical photographs and audio excerpts of Jeff talking about and reading from his most famous articles.

This independently produced and financed radio documentary was released on December 1, 2015 to honor World AIDS Day. It was distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange and aired on more than 140 public radio stations in the United States between November 16, 2015 and December 27, 2015. A lengthy excerpt of the hour-long documentary was also carried by NPR’s On The Media show, which is syndicated to more than 400 member stations. It is expected that even more stations will air the documentary for Pride Month in June 2016.

The book, published by CUNY Journalism Press, has hailed by such significant gay figures as Barney Frank, Andrew Sullivan, and Terrence McNally. It was excerpted in Poz and Columbia Journalism Review online.

As for the story of Dying Words:

Jeff Schmalz was a prodigy. Born in 1953, he grew up in a lower middle-class, single-parent home in suburban Philadelphia. In his first year at Columbia University, he started as a copyboy at the Times. In early 1973, he dropped out of Columbia to work full-time as a copy editor. He rose through the ranks of the Times quickly, from copy editor to deputy metropolitan editor, from general reporter to bureau chief in Albany and then Miami to deputy national editor, all by age 37. All the while, Jeff was open to peers, subordinates, and friends about his homosexuality, yet, he stayed closeted to newsroom management, especially A.M. (Abe) Rosenthal, the brilliant editor of the Times from 1977-1986, who was also known for his homophobia.

Jeff’s life changed on a Friday afternoon in late December 1990. He had a seizure at his desk in the newsroom. When he was diagnosed weeks later with AIDS, the prognosis was dire — his T cell count was just two and he had PML, a AIDS related brain infection often fatal within months. To everyone’s astonishment, Jeff responded well to AZT, the primary treatment available at the time.

Jeff returned to the Times in the fall of 1991 on a mission: to report and write a series of articles about the human toll of the AIDS epidemic. The self-described “consummate Timesman” broke away from the formula. He wrote deep and searching profiles of people living and, like himself, working with the disease — AIDS doctor Marcus Conant, basketball star Magic Johnson, Republican AIDS activist Mary Fischer, authors Randy Shilts and Harold Brodkey, and others. The Times standards all but forbade use of the first-person in its news columns, yet Jeff wrote a wrenching essay about having AIDS while covering the disease. In his final year, he despaired not only that AIDS remained uncured, but that it was falling off the national radar. His posthumous essay, “What Ever Happened to AIDS?,” appeared in the New York Times Magazine on November 28, 1993, just weeks after his death.


Samuel freedman

Samuel G. Freedman is the author of seven non-fiction books prior to Dying Words, a columnist for the New York Times, and a professor for more than two decades at the Columbia Journalism School. (Earlier in Freedman’s career, he worked for Jeff Schmalz as a metro desk reporter for the Times.)



Photo by Rebecca Castillo []

Kerry Donahue is a former executive producer at WNYC and is the current director of the radio program at Columbia Journalism School.