Fanning a spark of change at The New York Times
When Jeffrey Schmalz collapsed with a brain seizure at The New York Times national desk in December 1990, he was in the closet and in denial.
Like most gay people whose careers overlapped A.M. Rosenthal’s tenure as the Times’ top editor, Schmalz had hidden his sexual orientation from most of his superiors as he rose for nearly two decades through the newsroom ranks. And like a large number of gay men at that time, he had guarded himself from suspecting that he might have contracted the AIDS virus in his pursuit of an unbuttoned New York nightlife, the antithesis of his button-down, career-driven existence at the Times.
But his seizure—the result of an AIDS-related brain disease that nearly always killed its victims in months—abruptly altered that. Within weeks, all of the newsroom knew Schmalz was gay and had AIDS, and his days of hiding were over. His long-term career ambitions became irrelevant against his immediate struggle to live. And his resulting personal transformation changed Schmalz, his colleagues at the Times and society’s view of AIDS.
Schmalz spent a year fighting his way back from the brain disease and other complications, a struggle that easily could have entitled him to live out his unknown number of remaining days at a slower pace. But he needed to work; he came back to the newsroom in April 1992 and, at the suggestion of then-managing editor Joseph Lelyveld, became part of the reporting team covering the presidential campaign.
It’s not clear precisely when Schmalz, who knew and loved a great story when he saw it, realized that he had to tell the one he was living. He returned to reporting in late February 1992; his first article about AIDS came in June. It recounted a session in San Francisco with Dr. Marcus Conant, and it began: “‘If’ is a fragile word to hang a life on, but the hundred people infected with the AIDS virus who gathered in an auditorium here on a recent night do exactly that every day: If only a cure for AIDS can be found. If only they can hold on until it is.”
At that point, few beyond the Times knew Schmalz was writing about himself as well as others. Gradually, more of his articles dealt with issues of AIDS and the politics of gay life, showing up among more general filings from the campaign trail, and in the newsroom, the obvious questions of appropriateness and conflict of interest were quickly in play. In his memoir, Max Frankel, then the executive editor, called Schmalz “the agent of our ultimate enlightenment” in determining the balance.
“I concluded that Jeff was taking his readers deep into the world of gay politics and AIDS in forthright and revealing ways that no healthy reporter could match,” Frankel wrote. “His scoops were the rarest kind, looking at the scourge from the inside out and also from the outside in.”
In fact, the number of Schmalz’s articles dealing with the issues of gay people and AIDS numbered only a few dozen. But his sharply drawn and humanizing portraits of the struggles and feelings of such people as the author Randy Shilts, the athlete Magic Johnson and the Republican stalwart Mary Fisher, as well as his powerful telling of the physical and emotional struggles he faced himself, resounded in the newsroom of the Times, the communities of people fighting the disease and people who might not otherwise have paid attention at all.
When the political campaign ended, Schmalz returned to New York and settled into a desk along a well-traveled aisle to the side of the newsroom. For many of his colleagues it was the first time they had worked side by side with—or even knew personally—someone fighting AIDS, and the scorecard of the battle was frequently evident in his personal appearance, or his presence or absence. He was an unlikely yet most obvious symbol of the changes that had come to the Times, and his presence and the nature of his work were ongoing encouragement for gay people in the newsroom who had only in recent years begun to relax.
Schmalz was not the first member of the Times’ news staff to be afflicted with AIDS; that came in mid-1987, less than a year after Frankel had succeeded Rosenthal as executive editor, and only a few months after Arthur Sulzberger Jr. had become assistant publisher, bringing a more socially conscious and liberal voice to the senior executive ranks. Their compassionate treatment during the six-month illness of Robert Barrios, a promising young copy editor trainee, quietly established an encouraging precedent for those aware of it. In the years that followed, Times executives treated the handful of other AIDS sufferers on the news staff with discretion, concern and generous care.
Schmalz himself noted it, in a speech to gay journalists in San Francisco in June 1992. “The policy and atmosphere had begun to change under Arthur and Max long before I got sick,” he said. “I was not the reason for the change; I was a beneficiary of it. It enabled me to come forward and say I was gay and had AIDS.”
He credited as well the gay people who, he said, during “the scary, horrible Rosenthal years, spoke out and said they were gay at a time when people’s lives at the paper were being ruined for it.” They were, he said, “genuinely courageous and I’m ashamed to say that I was not one of them.”
But Schmalz knew he could have a different and larger impact. He was an insider—a skillful writer, extraordinary editor, avid protector of Times standards and traditions and masterful office politician—whose career was born and bred at the Times, and who was clearly headed for greater things in the paper’s power structure. He had attained a level of trust from his editors that few others in a similar situation could possibly match. And he was determined to use his “dual identity,” as he called it, to spotlight the challenges, hopes and fears of the community of AIDS sufferers that he inhabited both publicly in the pages of the Times and privately among its editors, prodding the latter to improve the paper’s coverage as a public policy issue, not just a medical or human interest issue.
“For 20 years, I had been a by-the-book Timesman, no personal involvement allowed,” he wrote in an intensely personal account in the Week in Review in December 1992, two years after his collapse. “But now I see the world through the prism of AIDS. I feel an obligation to those with AIDS to write about it and an obligation to the newspaper to write what just about no other reporter in America can cover in quite the same way. And I feel an obligation to myself. This is the place—reporting—where I am at home. This is the place where I must come to terms with AIDS.”
In the same article, he told of drawing the line between activism and journalism, of feeling out of place at an AIDS funeral after another reporter asked whether he was there as a reporter or a gay man with AIDS. Having responded “reporter” to the dismay of activists, he added: “Some people think it is the journalism that suffers, that objectivity is abandoned. But they are wrong. If the reporters have any integrity at all, it is they who suffer, caught between two allegiances.”
After the onset of the disease, Schmalz—not previously one to overindulge himself in moments of self-reflection—became less focused on the Times, less defined by it, more philosophical. He wrote that his spirituality had increased. He told one group of young students that he had been given “time to get my life in order; my life is more together now than it ever was.” Indeed, after years of solo existence, Schmalz began a relationship with a man he met in a support group; after inhabiting a series of spare apartments that served mostly to hold his carefully selected wardrobe and piles of newspapers, he purchased a small penthouse on the upper west side of Manhattan, whether in a quest for comfort, an expression of confidence or an act of denial.
Schmalz’s last article was written as his health went into its final decline, and appeared in The New York Times Magazine on November 28, 1993, a few weeks after his death on November 6. It reflected an anger and desperation he had withheld from earlier reports. “Once AIDS was a hot topic in America,” he wrote, “promising treatments on the horizon, intense media interest, a political battlefield. Now, 12 years after it was first recognized as a new disease, AIDS has become normalized, part of the landscape.
“It is at once everywhere and nowhere, the leading cause of death among young men nationwide, but little threat to the core of American political power, the white heterosexual suburbanite. No cure or vaccine is in sight. And what small treatment advances had been won are now crumbling. The world is moving on, uncaring, frustrated and bored, leaving by the roadside those of us who are infected and who can’t help but wonder: Whatever happened to AIDS?”
The words echoed at least as far as the White House, where President Clinton centered his World AIDS Day speech around Schmalz’s article, answering his blunt question—“I am dying. Why doesn’t someone help us?”—by responding, “I have to say that I think that is a good question and a good challenge.” And they reverberated at his memorial service a few weeks later, where grief-struck friends and colleagues, including Sulzberger and Lelyveld, spoke to mark what would have been Schmalz’s 40th birthday on December 6.
These days, more than six years later, AIDS appears only sporadically as a cause of death in the paper’s obituaries. Where sophisticated medical care exists, the advanced, multidrug treatments that came a few years too late for Schmalz are prolonging the lives of many of those who now have AIDS; in the United States, at least, new infections have slowed. The Times is covering AIDS developments—advancements and setbacks in treating the disease—and has done a particularly good job of telling the stories of countries where modern care is out of reach. But with the urgency diminished, so too is the frequency. The politics of AIDS and the mechanics of the disease are skillfully described, but the human stories that Schmalz told with such clarity and passion are more rare.
Being gay at the Times, meanwhile, has become unremarkable, and being gay in the pages of the Times is perhaps even more so. Gay people serve comfortably in the newsroom and the executive ranks. The new Times stylebook prefers gay to homosexual, a linguistic turnabout unthinkable 15 years ago when the word gay was largely banned from the paper’s pages. There is no longer an individual reporter assigned to cover gay or AIDS issues—a fact that activists lament—but coverage of gay issues is frequent and prominent in the paper, and the lives of gay people appear routinely among the lives of others. As Schmalz asserted, the spark of change may have begun before him. But he knew how to make it burn.
Richard J. Meislin, a friend and colleague of Jeffrey Schmalz’s
for 18 years, is editor in chief of New York Times Digital, the new media arm of The New York Times Co.