New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz and his longtime friend Dr. Elissa Brown were driving to their kids’ bowling play-date in February when Brown casually mentioned a family friend who pirates DVDs for the troops.
“I don’t remember why he came up,” Schwarz said in a phone interview, “but as soon as she said, he’s a 92-year-old guy bootlegging DVDs for the troops, I knew it would be on the front page of the New York Times — that is, if he was willing to go public about it. I think people in this business know, it’s like pornography: you can’t define [a front page story], but you know it when you hear it. I knew this would be on the front page.”
Schwarz was right. His story, “At 92, Movie Bootlegger is Soldiers’ Hero,” appeared on the Times’ A1 on Friday.
“It wasn’t exactly gumshoe journalism,” says the reporter. “It was luck on some five-year-olds’ play-date.” (Schwarz and Brown — friends since high school get together about once a year — both have kids that age.)
Before meeting 92-year-old Hyman Strachman, Schwarz had a conversation with bootlegger’s son, Arthur, a tax accountant.
“He told me everything that his dad did, with the understanding it was completely between us. I said, ‘This is a perfect story.'” Schwarz also pointed out to the son that it would be “the worst PR ever” for a movie studio to go after a 92-year-old man who appeared in the New York Times for sending pirated films to U.S. soldiers.
“I told him that the story was going to acknowledge it was illegal, but that I would have some fun with it because it’s a fun story.”
(He adds: “I did this story to keep sane because the thing I’m doing now is very unpleasant.” Schwarz is working on a major project about health problems with children.)
About six weeks ago, Arthur Strachman gave Schwarz permission to talk to his dad; the interview was a month ago.
Hy Strachman, says Schwarz, “welcomed me in. He was nothing but a delight. He was charming, he was a fun story teller. He acknowledged what he did was illegal — he wasn’t oblivious to that.”
“He was somewhere between flattered and starstruck. The photographer [Todd Heisler] had won a Pulitzer Prize and when he found that out, he started to grasp that, oh my — this is the big leagues.” (Strachman also learned that Schwarz was a Pulitzer finalist.)
“He was flattered that somebody would care and he was very sweet.”
The reporter has yet to hear from his story subject, but “I emailed with his son because I knew on Friday the phones would be blowing up. I told him it was a lot of fun and I’m getting lots of calls wanting to interview Hy — ‘The Colbert Report,’ the BBC, and lots of other places. I forwarded [the requests] to his son.
“I know what a story does to a household: it turns it upside down. I got a note back from his son, saying thank you for a great job, basically — we had fun. Hy is taking lots of calls and getting tired.”
Schwarz has received about 100 emails about the story, many from other journalists praising him for the piece. He’s modest about what he wrote and reported, and pooh-poohs the fact that it made the most-emailed list.
“There are 365 of those a year,” he says.
“If I don’t want to get blamed for the unpleasant stories I do, I think I have to forgo credit for the fun ones.”