Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Bring Out Your Dead: N.Y. Times Has A New Obituaries Editor

A Chance For Gray Lady To Reset Her Priorities And Pay Proper Tribute
Word came down earlier this week that The New York Times tapped Bill McDonald, who has worn more than a few hats in the newsroom on West 43rd St., to be its new obits editor. He replaces Charles Strum, who moves to the night desk.
In making the announcement, Bill Keller said writing obits was a "journalistic form in which this paper has always taken special pride."
Which obviously means Keller doesn't read his own paper's obits often enough.
Sure, there's a swell valedictory today by Peter Applebome about Coretta Scott King, with lots of the little details that keep you reading an obit over two-thirds of a page.
She stunned Dr. King's father, who presided over the wedding, by demanding that the promise to obey her husband be removed from the wedding vows. Reluctantly, he went along. After the wedding, the bridegroom fell asleep in the car while the new Mrs. King drove back to Atlanta.
Good stuff, indeed.
The Times obits are also good at remembering those who were captured in a moment of time, then faded from memory but still more than worthy of mention, e.g. Yippie co-founder Stew Albert, who is also mentioned today.
Yet, The Times obit page too often acts like it dirties itself when it has to cover the deaths of movie stars who check out way too early. For them, it's a few inches of wire copy or a brief at the bottom of the page. Chris Penn most recently got that treatment.
Then there's the Times' inimitable practice for the lesser lights that have been granted some precious newsprint to put out the obit days after the person died, when other media outlets have long since disposed of such news. This attitude of "you're dead when we say you're dead" is as baffling as it is arrogant.
We've already taken The Times to task on several occasions for its most grievous obit sin -- virtually ignoring the deaths of its own people. More than anything else, this should be job one for McDonald to fix.
Beyond saying a proper farewell to those deserving of such treatment --- most recently Constance Hays and David Rosenbaum -- it should be a matter of professional pride.
Does Keller and Co. feel even the slightest bit of embarrassment that the most in-depth coverage of Rosenbaum's murder last month as well as the most heartfelt tributes to him -- Rosenbaum was about so much more than his bylines -- appeared in The Washington Post?
Even the Jan. 14 story about the memorial service for Rosenbaum, attended by 700 people including members of Congress, was relegated to the bottom of the obit page. The tributes to Rosenbaum were diluted with information about the murder investigation, a story the Post owned from the start.
Time for The Times to make sure it takes care of its own one last time. If McDonald is looking for his own legacy, there's no better place to start.

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