Remembering a Journalist Who Defined AIDS Reporting

Randy Shilts died Feb. 17, 1994.

AndTheBandPlayedOnCoverOn this, the anniversary date of the death of Randy Shilts Feb. 17, 1994, one of the best ways to honor the reporter’s legacy’s is to listen to a 2006 podcast recorded by several of his colleagues at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Shilts was already a local star when he joined the newspaper in 1981, thanks to his coverage of Harvey Milk, which was later the topic of his book The Mayor of Castro Street. But as investigative reporter Susan Sward remembered, he wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms in the Chronicle newsroom:

“It was very, very interesting to watch,” says Ward. “Because you would think that this would be a person that would be accepted readily. This was a city that is known worldwide to be so liberal. But, especially the men in the City room, were nervous.”

“This was an era in which gays were not as open and accepted as they are, I believe, today. Randy wore wildly flowered ties. He had suspenders. And initially, you could just feel a nervousness when many people in the City room dealt with him.”

Bit by bit, thanks to Shilts’ sense of humor and talent, that nervousness in the face of the openly gay journalist disappeared. Sward also relates how later on, upon Shilts’ return from Africa, the paper was running ads about his resulting, forthcoming article series:

“This like was like on the Wednesday of the week before [the series was scheduled to start running Sunday],” she remembers, “and I said, ‘Randy, you’ve still got two main bars to write and a couple of sidebars!’ He said, ‘Yeah.’”

“I gather that when he was writing And The Band Played On, for example, and I watched this on the Africa series, he would write almost straight through, with minimal corrections. It was a phenomenal thing to watch. I’ve watched many dozens of reporters in the City room over the two-plus decades I’ve been here, and I have rarely seen a talent, and at that speed.”

Sward was one of the few Chronicle colleagues who knew Shilts was diagnosed as HIV-positive. Science editor David Perlman, who joined Sward and medical writer Sabin Russell for the podcast, goes on to share a great story about paying a visit with Sward to Shilts at the ailing jouralist’s home in Diamond Heights, where he was battling major complications from the virus. Another great look back at Shilts was shared on this date in 2004 by Chronicle staffer Mike Weiss.

Previously on FishbowlNY:
San Francisco Chronicle 94-Year-Old Science Editor Still Going Strong

[Jacket cover courtesy: St. Martin’s Griffin]