Two Columbia University professors spoke this week to a packed FIU auditorium about the life and work of a New York Times reporter and editor who gave a human face to the AIDS crisis in the 1990s, before dying of the disease three years later.
Samuel G. Freedman, who formerly worked at the New York Times and authored “Letters to a Young Journalist,” among other books, and Kerry Donahue, director of Columbia’s radio program and an independent producer, gave an emotional talk Tuesday afternoon on the Biscayne Bay campus.
The stop was the first of two in the state, the second occurring Wednesday at the Stonewall National Museum & Archives in Ft. Lauderdale.
The two wrote and produced a book and radio documentary, titled “Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz and How It Transformed the New York Times.” The documentary was broadcast on more than 125 public radio stations across the country, according to a website about the project.
Schmalz collapsed in the newsroom with a seizure on Dec. 21, 1990, and was diagnosed with AIDS shortly after. He spent the last three years of his life and career covering AIDS and its effect on those diagnosed with the disease.
Schmalz mentored Freedman at the paper, where they became close friends.
“Jeff inspired me by totally elevating the standards in my work. He taught me the greater degree of reporting and the responsibility of what you do,” said Freedman.
During the lecture, Freedman said the book and radio-documentary were, for him, a passion project.
“This was a work of memory and debt and moral obligation for me, so that someone who meant so much to my career wouldn’t be forgotten,” said Freedman.
Neil Reisner, FIU journalism professor and adviser of the student chapter of the Association of Black Journalists said Schmalz’s legacy deserved to be remembered. The group and the FIU chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists co-sponsored the event.
“He changed American culture by bringing the coverage of AIDS as a human issue to the New York Times, and as a result, to the world,” he said.
Despite being close with Schmalz while he was alive, Freedman said he learned more intimately about his mentor during the project, especially with Donahue’s help. Freedman said her distance from the subject gave her the insight to ask many questions he would not have considered.
“Two things make an image blurry,” he said during the lecture. “Being too far away from it, but also being too close to it.”
Among the things he learned was that Schmalz was not open about his sexuality to everyone.
“The homophobia at the top of the paper was so toxic that Jeff was reluctant to come out to anyone who held his career in their hands,” Freedman said.
Schmalz was forced to reveal his sexuality due to the seizure, but instead of hiding, he used his diagnosis to bring a compassionate view of AIDS to the New York Times and the larger world.
“I think Jeff’s work really set the tone for the change in the coverage of AIDS in a way that’s hard to fathom today,” said
Freedman in an interview before the lecture.
Donahue explained that change to the auditorium.
“One of the things that was surprising when we started with this was where we are today with gay rights,” she said. “The New York Times is one of the leading papers in favor of gay rights… It’s amazing to think of the progress we have made, and yet AIDS is still killing people in this country.”
Reisner emphasized the importance of students’ understanding the struggles that created the world they live in today.
“It’s kind of like Star Wars. It was in a galaxy long ago and far away,” he said. “Students and journalism students have to have a sense of history. They have to know what went before them. They have to know they stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Jayda Hall, president of FIU SPJ, agreed.
“I hope the young journalists who got to attend today realize that this is something that doesn’t need to die down, talking about AIDS and reporting about AIDS, because the epidemic still affects the LGBT community,” she said.
Whether black, gay, professor or student, Reisner said attendees of the event could learn the importance of “putting humanity into their work.”
“We still live in a society of separate communities,” he said. “And the more we can see and understand about the
communities that aren’t ours, the better we can do as journalists and the better we can do as human beings.”
To listen to Freedman and Donahue’s radio documentary for free, visit http://dyingwordsproject.com.
UPDATE: The story was changed on March 3 at 8:13 pm to correct the affiliation of the Association of Black Journalists at FIU. The group is not currently connected to the national group.