Back in the day, Jeff Schmalz was a rock star reporter at the New York Times. He was in charge of the paper’s Metro coverage while still in his 20s. He was a closeted gay man.
And for good reason, recalls Schmalz’s friend and colleague Samuel G. Freedman, now a columnist at the Times, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, and the author of seven non-fiction books. “The newsroom in the ’70s and ’80s was a homophobic place,” he told me. “Journalists who came out saw their careers stagnate or even nosedive.”
In 1990, Schmalz stood up at his desk, then collapsed. Though up until that moment he’d felt fine, he learned that he had a brain infection caused by AIDS. And he was outed. Not only did he have to process the fact that he had the disease, but also symptoms that often killed people within four months.
Schmalz nonetheless went back to work. He covered the 1992 presidential campaign. Then he asked if he could cover AIDS. It was an unheard-of thing: A reporter creating his own beat and convincing his bosses to let him cover it despite his having the disease himself. But Schmalz had proved himself a brilliant reporter, and top brass trusted his ability to do his job. He spent the last 18 months of his life doing groundbreaking reporting (and beautiful writing) on the epidemic, while helping to change the culture of the newsroom. He died in 1993, at 39.
Now, Freedman is creating an audio documentary and book about Schmalz’s life and work. “I felt I owed no small amount of my career at the times to Jeff,” he said. “He was my rabbi! He taught me Times style; he fought to get me good assignments. How can I thank him enough? I was one of a group of young reporters Jeff felt safe about being open with; he saw that reporters like us could be part of changing the Times. To have a friendship with a gay man who was open about who he was—that was an enlightening, broadening, sensitizing experience for me.”
Many young writers today have no clue about the amount of homophobia and bias gay journalists faced not that long ago. “I have gay and lesbian students at Columbia, and they’ve grown up in a world in which there’s little penalty for being out,” Freedman said. “It’s hard for me to explain that just 20 years ago gays literally got married in order to hide their sexual identity, or that Rich Meislin, an established reporter, was punished and brought back from a foreign bureau and stuck back on Metro with beginners because [Times editor] A.M. Rosenthal found he was gay.” He continued, “In the 1960s, articles called gay people ‘deviants.’ It was pervasive. Even in theater. When I covered theater for the Times in the ‘80s, people talked about the ‘gay cabal’ block-voting in the Tonys.”
Freedman worried that Schmalz’s work and importance would be forgotten. He started writing a book about his friend even though he didn’t have a contract. “I thought, ‘If I die without having done this I’ll regret it,’” he said. “This is something I was meant to do. If I don’t, it’s a moral failing.”
Freedman eventually sold the book to CUNY Journalism Press, but decided he wanted to do an audio documentary on Schmalz for public radio as well—and to do it in time for World AIDS Day on December 1st, 2015. A J-school colleague, Betsy West, who’d used the online fundraising service Kickstarter to fund her documentary The Lavender Scare (about the persecution of LGBT citizens during the McCarthy era), gave Freedman a Kickstarter-for-Dummies tutorial. Freedman launched his own Kickstarter campaign on Thursday.
He aimed for $20,000 to hire an audio editor, a marketer and a publicist to work on the documentary with Kerry Donahue, the director of the radio program at Columbia Journalism School and a longtime independent radio producer. In only five days, he raised $21,781. (You can still donate, though! Freedman plans to use excess funds to create journalism school grants supporting LGBT projects.)
Given Schmalz’s pioneering work and bravery, and the fact that so many Times reporters are Jewish, and, you know, Schmalz’s name, I’d assumed—wrongly—that Schmalz was Jewish. Freedman, laughed, “And his sister is a literary agent! How much more Jewish could his family be?” More seriously, he noted. “Jeff wasn’t Jewish. But doing this work is a Jewish act for me. Someone says Kaddish every day in synagogues all over the world; every Shabbat, the names of the Yahrzeits from the preceding week are read aloud. Remembering those who’ve died is a Jewish thing to do, a godly thing to do. We talk as Jews about bearing witness.”