The Last Word

Hello Byline readers.  My name is Taryn, and I’m proud to be The OpEd Project’s newest intern.  At the risk of tainting your first impressions of me, I’d like to make an unseemly admission:  I love to read obituaries.  These condensed biographies of notable people, most of whom I’ve never heard of before, help me to take a few steps back and put my own life into perspective.

That is why I was surprised to come across a letter* to The New York Times’ obituary editor, Bill McDonald, in which he is asked why approximately one of every eight obituaries in The New York Times was about a woman.

Apparently, I’d become accustomed to seeing fewer women represented in newspapers, because I’d never even noticed the disparity.

In McDonald’s gauche response, he cited The New York Times’ “high standards” as the reason for the imbalance, explaining that to be published a person’ death “has to be news to a national and international readership.”  He went on to make the case that the cohort of women and minorities dying today did not have the same opportunities to make news that white men had.  That is undeniable, but it is also true that editors subjectively curate their columns.  As a case in point, a quick search led me to two recently departed women who lived up to the “high standards” of The New York Times, but who were overlooked by the obituary section nonetheless (bio links below).

Newspapers of record such as The New York Times shape our personal perceptions and our culture.  These omissions matter.  To fulfill this responsibility obituary editors might have to broaden their scopes to catch what preceding generations missed.  And so, we return to the wise words, “Whoever tells the story writes history.”

For a look at an innovative obituary, check out this New York Times video obituary of humorist Art Buchwald, which starts with “I’m Art Buchwald, and I just died.”

*“Readers Views: Equality Among the Dead,” The New York Times, September 12, 2010, pg. WK11.

Shirley Eskapa, controversial author.  The Telegraph, 8-22-11.

Debra Evenson, expert on Cuba, professor, author, lawyer, and activist.  Chicago Tribune, 8-28-11.

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