The view from nowhere on the obituary page

Most news obituaries are pretty straight forward. Person dies, what made him noteworthy, bio information, telling positive quotes from a friend or relative, more bio info, survivors and funeral information.

Negative information is downplayed, if mentioned at all. Editors prefer not to speak ill of the dead. It’s unseemly and unnecessary. I know because I said the same things to my staff. The dead can’t defend themselves and the living don’t need all the bad stuff rehashed.

This week’s news obituaries are a case in point.

The Associated Press obituary of Vaclav Havel is glowing, as it should be. In the Associated Press obituary of Kim Jong Il, it took 26 paragraphs before the writer addressed the dictator’s brutality. And the “axis of evil” reference didn’t appear until the 28th paragraph. “U.S. President George W. Bush, taking office in 2002, denounced North Korea as a member of an “axis of evil” that also included Iran and Iraq. He later described Kim as a “tyrant” who starved his people so he could build nuclear weapons.

Then there is the AP obit of Christopher Hitchens. It seems to sprinkle the good with the bad in a balanced way. Eloquent and intemperate, bawdy and urbane, he was an acknowledged contrarian and contradiction — half-Christian, half-Jewish and fully non-believing; a native of England who settled in America; a former Trotskyite who backed the Iraq war and supported George W. Bush. But his passions remained constant and enemies of his youth, from Henry Kissinger to Mother Teresa, remained hated.

People said nice things about him, in the dispatch sent by the AP. His longtime co-worker Katha Pollitt wasn’t quoted. She takes him apart for his drinking, his bullying and his views on women and women’s issues, and his lack of self-examination. Compare it with Kathy Parker’s tribute. Could be two different people.

I suppose that’s normal. People are complicated, much more than straight-forward obituaries let on. That complication argues for writing with more texture and from a stronger point of view. Writing from a point of view makes newspaper editors — myself included — uncomfortable. It is what Jay Rosen calls “The view from nowhere.” It’s a knotty issue for traditional journalists like me to think through. And I’m still working on it.

But if we’re trying to get to the core of an issue or a person — as in the obits above — then the view from nowhere often gets in the way of the truth.