The Solomon Scandals
The D.C. newspaper novel, the media,the Washington area, tech and other surrealism: David Rothman at large
Daniel Schorr’s death: Why a mystery? Wouldn’t he have wanted obituaries to report the exact cause?

image Daniel Schorr’s acuity seemed to grow with age, perhaps because he had that much extra history stored in his brain to compare with the news of the day. Sympathy to his family and friends. The photo is of Mr. Schorr with Scott Simon, his colleague at National Public Radio.

Now a question for the media. Few reporters were more dedicated to the full story than Mr. Schorr was. Didn’t that trait help earn him the honor of a place on Nixon’s enemies list? Wouldn’t it serve the Schorr memory, then, for the press to report the cause of death at age 93 beyond the words “short illness”? I did not see the full facts in obits in the Washington Post and in the New York Times or on the Web site of National Public Radio. Is there a reason for the omission, beyond the family’s apparent preference not to provide the information?

image In the past at least—I don’t know about now—Washington Post may not even have published a news obit if the subject was obscure and the obit writer did not know why the subject died. The Post even tried to print the cause of death of people with AIDS. An obituary of J.Y. Smith, head of the Post obit desk, said: “He suggested that those wishing to conceal information or have entire control over content could buy a paid death notice.” The “specific medical cause of death” is at least among the recommended items listed in 2007 for families to include in obituary submissions; also see a current form, partly reproduced here. Has Post policy changed since J.Y. Smith’s retirement from obits?

So what’s the importance of printing the cause? Well, beyond the probability that Mr. Schorr would have wanted the full story reported, suppose he died of a little-known disease that could benefit from more publicity for more money for more  research. And if the cause happened to be something common like prostate cancer (probably not the cause of the Schorr death if we go by “short illness,” the Times’ phrase), then reporting it would also have served society. We’ve long gotten past the point where “prostate” is among the unmentionables.

imageReaders, what do you think? No, I won’t ask for a death certificate or disturb the family—worthy of compassion no matter how they feel about the reporting of the cause. I am just curious why we’re left without an almost certainly innocent fact that I suspect Mr. Schorr himself would have very much wanted revealed. He was a witness to and student of history, after all, not just a reporter. Did the Post gently try such an argument on the Schorr family?

It can be strange, what goes into an obituary and what doesn’t—an issue that arises in The Solomon Scandals—or even whether there is an obituary, period. My late father wanted one in the Post or at least didn’t object. My privacy-obsessed mother—in this respect the inspiration for the like-minded Margo character in Scandals—asked us not to submit an obit to the Post. She declined despite her community activities and her brief career with a business newsletter; so I remembered her on the Web instead, with the approval of my sister.

Pondering these matters, I also think of my friend the late Herman Holtz, a former newspaper reporter from Philadelphia who ended up in the D.C. area and wrote more than 70 books on business. I tipped off the Post, where the obit desk couldn’t have been nicer. Then, in a curious twist, I learned that Herm’s obit would not make the paper after all because his family didn’t want it in. Why? A newspaperman pens dozens of books, including at least one best-seller, and then just vanishes into the mist? I won’t even bother to speculate here; the ways of both families and newspapers can be mysterious.

That said, I’ll email the Post to see if it can enlighten us about its precise policies on “cause” (any factor in whether an obit makes it, at least in the case of nonVIPs?) and about the handling of its otherwise excellent Schorr obit. (Schorr photo credit.)

Update: Adam Bernstein, obituaries editor at the Post, sent a prompt and helpful reply, which I’ll reproduce ahead in its entirety. The gist is that the Post prefers to include the cause of death but does not require it, even in nonVIP obits. One reason appears to be time. The Post publishes 4,000 local obits each year, according to him—more than another other daily paper. That, as I see it, is a major positive, even outweighing the completeness factor. Still, I myself would have appreciated the full story in the case of someone as prominent as Daniel Schorr.

=== === ===

Thank you for writing, Mr. Rothman, whether it’s a compliment or not.

We print the cause of death whenever we can get it. We feel it’s part of the news, whether a person died at 25 or 125.

That said, sometimes there are news stories we have to run regardless of whether the family reveals the cause of death. Usually this is the case when we solicit the story because of a person’s prominence.

Our policy has very little impact on whether a “non-VIP,” as you call it, will rate an obit. My basis for saying this? Our small staff still writes about 4,000 local obits a year, a record unmatched by any newspaper in the world.

Sincerely,

Adam Bernstein
Obituaries Editor
The Washington Post

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