Monday, August 15, 2011

How harsh should an obit be?

Its ordinarily an honor to merit an obituary in the New York Times, but it didn’t work out that way for Sherman White, who was treated rather roughly in his sendoff for a 60-year-old mistake.

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.


Blogger Steven Herbert said...

Have you contacted anyone at The New York Times for a response? If not, you should.

5:18 AM  
Blogger Reid Magney said...

You're right -- the NYT should have shown some more sensitivity in the case of the basketball player.

Back in the late 1980s I was still something of a cub reporter in Mason City, Iowa, writing a story about a crime victim who died several months after getting punched during a street fight and cracking his head open on the curb.

I looked in the morgue for background on the crime, only to find out that in the 1950s the same guy had been arrested for bank robbery, and later recaptured after escaping from Leavenworth prison in Kansas. I couldn't help but include those facts in the story, though I can't remember how far into the story. But I do remember vividly the dead man's relatives calling the paper and threatening to beat the hell out of me. Luckily, they never followed through.

That experience, and a lot of others in a 25-year journalism career, made me more careful when writing about the recently departed.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Erstwhile Editor said...

When a prominent businessman died during my tenure as editor of a small-town newspaper, I immediately remembered that he had made statewide news 10 or 15 years earlier as one of several businessmen caught up in a state bid-rigging scandal. Several, including the local businessman, served time in prison. The front page obit extolled the great business career he had and recounted all his accolades. The crime and prison sentence was buried in the last paragraph on the jump. Still, his family reacted angrily, and the publisher wrote an effusive apology. My argument at the time was that when Nixon died (he was still alive at that time), no obituary would fail to mention Watergate. None of Nixon's obits buried Watergate at the end of the jump.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Janet DeGeorge said...

At least the NY Times mentions his inner city work with kids in some detail. The association press gave that part of his life only 10 words. See link below.

6:56 PM  
Blogger DANIELBLOOM said...

Good points and I love this kind of analysis, bravo....but one note, story was an obit , the other was a news article, so different animals no? and therefore also different headlines for different newsroom animals, no?

6:58 PM  
Blogger DANIELBLOOM said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:13 PM  
Blogger stephenmiller said...

I have no problem with highlighting the cheating angle and getting the redemption later in the story - just like in real life. Do we really have to get the whole story in the lede? Maybe we can trust readers - the lucky ones anyhow - to read to the end and get the treat of a well-lived life. As for posthumous reputation and the power of the Great and Terrible Times, screw that. I vote for a well-told story with a slick ending every time.

Which is sadly not what we get with this obit. The redemption is a limp add-on after a misplaced litany of survivors. This was clearly a missed opportunity but the sin was not omitting the redemption in the lede.

7:18 PM  
Blogger Practical Bioethics said...

Years ago I attended a media conference where a speaker insisted that the cause of death be included in an obit, including HIV/AIDS. The aim? To personalize the disease and reduce fear. Thought that a bit extreme. Obits are not the place to advance social policy ... is it?

7:26 AM  
Blogger Barbara Selvin said...

Sullivan's column was lovely, but as Dan commented, a column is a different animal from an obit.

Interesting reactions overall, especially when compared with that of my mother, 81, who went to Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, N.J., with Sherman White. She found the NYT obit touching and poignant; she felt the writer emphasized White's naivete rather than any culpability in the scandal and that it showed the contributions he'd made in its wake.

She and her classmates always grieved for White's thwarted career. He had been the one who was going to go places. For years, she said, people begged him to come to their reunions, but he never would. She figured he felt he'd let them down, and her heart, she said, always ached for him.

8:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good article. Very good poins.

8:44 AM  

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