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Jul 24, 2015 2:20 PM ET

Archived: Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz: An audio documentary and companion book about the brilliant journalist who covered the AIDS epidemic as he was dying of the disease

iCrowdNewswire - Jul 24, 2015

About our subject

Jeff at his high school graduation.
Jeff at his high school graduation.

Jeff Schmalz was a journalistic prodigy. He was hired by The New York Times while still a college student, and he was essentially running its metropolitan coverage by his mid-20s. From his crisply pressed trousers and shirts to his unerring sense of how to structure a feature story, he was a consummate Timesman. People in the newsroom speculated that someday he could be “on the masthead” – the list of the top editors on the world’s most important newspaper. All the while, though, Jeff was struggling with his identity as a gay man. He came out to many friends and peers on the Times, but he kept his sexual orientation secret from the newsroom management, the people who had control over his professional life. Under the executive editor A.M. Rosenthal, the Times newsroom of the 1970s and 80s was a homophobic place, and journalists known to be gay or lesbian were stalled or even demoted in their careers.

Then, one day in December 1990, Jeff collapsed in the newsroom with a brain seizure. It was the first evidence that he had full-blown AIDS – a death sentence in these years before drug cocktails were available to victims of the disease. With AIDS, Jeff was endangered and he was outed. Yet he was also cracked wide open in positive ways. He found his calling in writing about HIV and AIDS, doing memorable portraits of Magic Johnson, Mary Fisher, and Harold Brodkey, among others, and chronicling his own experience reporting on the most personal beat imaginable. As Jeff himself said at the time, having AIDS stirred an empathy in him that he had long obscured beneath a witty, cynical, hard-driven exterior. 

Who Jeff was and what he did deeply changed The New York Times, sensitizing it as never before to the humanity of gay people. The Times of today – publishing same-sex wedding announcements, editorializing in favor of marriage equality – is the fruition of changes that Jeff helped set into motion but never lived long enough to fully see.

And now, 22 years after Jeff died at age 39, his contributions have been largely forgotten. “Dying Words” will restore his name and work to the annals of gay history and journalistic history. 

About our project

Jeff with his mother.
Jeff with his mother.

The project has two parts – an audio documentary and a book about Jeff Schmalz. Both the documentary and the book will draw upon our extensive interviews, existing recordings of Jeff himself, and excerpts from his AIDS coverage. Over the past year, we have interviewed such major journalists as Anna Quindlen, Adam Moss, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and Elizabeth Kolbert, as well as the AIDS activist Mary Fisher and the LGBT historian Eric Marcus. We have original recordings of Jeff’s interviews with Magic Johnson and Bill Clinton, among others. Our project has the full and enthusiastic support of Wendy Schmalz, Jeff’s sister, who is his closest living relative.

The audio documentary will be produced by Kerry Donahue and edited by Ben Shaprio, both award winning journalists and then distributed by PRX to public radio stations around the country, and be available as a podcast. The companion book is already under contract with CUNY Journalism Press, an imprint that has done fine books on topics such as the Pentagon Papers case and the columnist-critic Nat Hentoff. The book– about 60,000 words of text, including excerpts from Jeff’s work–will be released as both an original paperback and ebook. Our goal is to have the audio documentary broadcast on public radio stations and the book published to coincide with World AIDS Day on December 1, 2015.
We have been working on the project for almost a year already, interviewed colleagues, friends, and family members of Jeff’s, and rescuing original audio recordings of the interviewed he conducted as an AIDS reporter. We have been happy to contribute the first $10,000 to this labor of love. Now we are at the point where we need outside resources to finish. Our expenses are about to significantly mount in the coming months as we hire an audio editor, a marketer who will pitch the program to stations and a publicist to help us get the word out. We believe we are telling a vitally important story that will be lost if we didn’t tell it. We need your help to do this work.
Jeff with friends and family for the 1993 AIDS Walk: Back row left to right:  Lynda Richardson, Rich Meislin, Jeff Schmalz, Roy Finamore Michael Wilde; front row left to right: Ben Kushner, David Dunlap, Hendrik Uyttendaele, Wendy Schmalz
Jeff with friends and family for the 1993 AIDS Walk: Back row left to right: Lynda Richardson, Rich Meislin, Jeff Schmalz, Roy Finamore Michael Wilde; front row left to right: Ben Kushner, David Dunlap, Hendrik Uyttendaele, Wendy Schmalz

For “Dying Words,” we have assembled a team of highly accomplished journalists, producers, and designers. The project was initiated by Samuel G. Freedman, the author of seven acclaimed books, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, and a columnist for The New York Times. 

Kerry Donahue directs the radio program at Columbia Journalism School and is an independent radio producer with more than two decades of experience. Her work’s been heard on PRX, WNYC, WBGO, Audible, and Marketplace.

Ben Shapiro is an award-winning radio producer and documentary filmmaker. His projects have aired on many NPR programs, PBS, and the Sundance Channel, among others, and include a documentary film about photographer Gregory Crewdson.

Kristofer Ríos is a producer with Univision Documentaries and a visual journalist at Fusion.

Chris Blomquist is a visual communications professional with thirty years of experience providing graphic design and marketing support to educational and non-profit organizations such as Columbia University, the University of Minnesota, and Minnesota Public Radio.

Tim Harper, a longtime journalist, author and editorial/publishing consultant, is a professor and writing coach at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where he is the founding editor of the CUNY Journalism Press, which will publish “Dying Words” in paperback and ebook later this year.

Contact Information:

Samuel G. Freedman
Kerry Donahue

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