Remembering Jeff Schmalz, Who Reported On AIDS While He Fought The Disease | KERA News

Remembering Jeff Schmalz, Who Reported On AIDS While He Fought The Disease

Nov 30, 2015

“I have come to the realization that I will almost certainly die of AIDS," New York Times reporter Jeff Schmalz wrote more than two decades ago. He died in 1993. 

Schmalz reported on AIDS while he battled the disease. His reporting helped transform coverage of AIDS.

Kerry Donahue is director of the radio program at Columbia Journalism School. She produced the documentary “Dying Words," which explores Schmalz' career and airs on KERA 90.1 FM at 8 p.m. Tuesday, World AIDS Day.

Donahue talked with KERA about Schmalz' life and legacy.

Interview Highlights: Kerry Donahue ...

... on Jeff Schmalz' passion for journalism: "He was a very driven man. He grew up in a small town in Willow Grove, Penn., about an hour north of Philadelphia. He decided somewhere in high school, he worked on the high school newspaper, and he decided when he got to Columbia University that he would get a job at The New York Times. He worked as a copyboy. He immediately fell in love with it, so much so that he dropped out of Columbia and started working at the Times full-time, and he was very very ambitious about it.

... on how being gay affected his career: "He was a gay man and he stayed in the closet to people above him. To his colleagues and people below him, he was very out and open. But there was a consequence at the Times for being gay in much of the '70s and '80s. It was a very homophobic newsroom. Often, for gay staffers, if it was found out you were gay, [there was] a punishment or a sort of setback. That happened to Jeff Schmalz in 1983. He was passed over for promotion and about four months after that he was sent out to be a reporter - what would have been after a significant number of years of being an editor at The New York Times - a very entry-level reporter job - he felt he had been exiled a bit."

... on when Schmalz realized he had AIDS: "He had a seizure while at work on Dec. 21, 1990. He was just at his desk and he collapsed. He had a grand mal seizure, at which point the entire newsroom came running. When he got the diagnosis, it was quite severe. He had PML, a brain infection which typically was very fatal, is very fatal, often killing people within months. He really thought he would die almost immediately."

... on Schmalz' reporting changing after his diagnosis: "When he came back to work, I think he still in some ways was a bit in denial. He wanted to cover the 1992 presidential campaign, which he did - and in the course of that I think he started to find a way ... to cover AIDS. It took him a little while to figure out what angle on AIDS he wanted to cover. He was always a newspaper man thinking of how to make the story the most compelling and he ultimately settled on a series of profiles of people like himself who were living with AIDS and working and being in the world."

Kerry Donahue is director of the radio program at Columbia Journalism School.

“Dying Words," which explores the life and legacy of Jeff Schmalz, airs on KERA 90.1 FM at 8 p.m. Tuesday, World AIDS Day.

Video: Jeff Schmalz on "The Charlie Rose Show" in 1992

Jeff Schmalz on The Charlie Rose Show, November 19, 1992. from Kerry Donahue on Vimeo.