How harsh should an obit be?
The obit for the former college basketball star pubished on Friday underscores the need for sensitivity and balance when journalists try to squeeze a lifetime into a few hundred words – especially when some sort of wrongdoing has characterized that life.
Unfortunately, discretion took a holiday at the NYT after Sherman White died at the age of 82 on Aug. 4 in New Jersey.
As the Times reported in considerable detail in a 634-word obit, White was an all-American forward at Long Island University who was destined for a promising professional career when he was convicted in 1951 of shaving points in a betting scandal. After serving nearly nine months in jail, he was banned for life from the National Basketball Association, though later played for the Eastern Pro League.
It is not until the 13th paragraph of the 16-paragraph obit that the Times reveals that White was more than a disgraced basketball phenom. In fact, the Times reports, he spent a considerable amount of time in the last 60 years working with kids in the hardscrabble community where he grew up to keep as many as he could on the straight and narrow.
Contrast White’s portrayal in the NYT with a column about him published earlier last week by Tara Sullivan of his hometown newspaper, The Record in Bergen County, NJ. While Sullivan doesn’t mince words in recounting the scandal, she provides a full and inspiring account of what White did for the next six decades.
“Rather than dissolve into a sad, post-prison life,” wrote Sullivan, White “found his place on the playgrounds — talking, mentoring or coaching the young players in his shadow.” And she quoted one of the youthful athletes he once coached, who called White “a giant of a man” who “helped develop so many young boys into men.”
Not surprisingly, the tone and emphasis of the two articles led to two entirely divergent headlines, which, as we all know, heavily influence the way stories are remembered.
At the NYT, it was “Sherman White, Star Caught in a Scandal, Dies at 82.” At The Record, it was, “Sherman White rebuilt a life and left a legacy.”
While both versions of White’s life indisputably contain the essential facts, The Record provided readers with a more authentic picture of the man than the New York Times. As such, The Record deserves our gratitude and the Times owes its readers – and White’s family – an apology.