A tale of two obituaries—plus wisdom from J.Y. Smith, first official editor of the W. Post obit desk

image You regulars already know my complaint. For whatever the reason, Washington philanthropist Robert H. Smith enjoyed a free ride from the Post’s usually stellar obituary desk as well as from the editorial page. His family’s paid obit at Legacy.com was rather redundant.

Ahead I’ll compare the Smith encomia with a more balanced write-up of Indianapolis philanthropist Ruth Lilly, shown to the left, and I’ll also share some wisdom from J.Y. Smith, the desk’s first official editor.

The Robert Smith write-up, dated Dec. 31, 2009, ends with a soaring quote from its subject: “Life is a two-way street. Those of us fortunate enough to generate more funds than we need have a responsibility to give back. I feel my responsibility is to America.”

Ms. Lilly’s obituary in the Post the next day is still mostly positive, but never a puff job. “Her financial dealings,” concludes the obit, picked up from the Associated Press, “had been handled by a court-appointed guardian since 1981, when she was declared incompetent.

“Ms. Lilly battled depression for most of her life but was helped greatly by Eli Lilly and Co.’s blockbuster antidepressant Prozac, which came on the market in 1988, the [Indianapolis] Star reported.”

So what standards should the Post use for obit writing?

An old friend of mine is still appalled after all these decades by the collapse of a Smith-owned building, where 14 construction workers died and dozens of others suffered injuries, such as concrete chips and other irritants lodged in one man’s lungs. But she says obituary writers should filter out anything negative about the dead, including Robert H. Smith. I myself want slack cut for the dead, but not full-blown PR jobs.

The late J.Y. Smith, the first official editor of the Washington Post obit desk, as noted, may himself have been tougher than my friend and I on these matters.

“His tenure as The Post’s obituaries editor from 1977 to 1988 coincided with the first deaths from AIDS,” recalled Adam Bernstein, current head of L Street’s obit operation, in a Smith sendoff headlined J.Y. Smith, 74, Raised Standards for Post Obituaries. “Mr. Smith retained a staunch belief that ‘the newspaper has a duty to reflect the world as it really is,’ he wrote in The Post in 1987. ‘That is the whole point of journalism, and it is the single best reason for citing AIDS as a cause of death.’

“He suggested that those wishing to conceal information or have entire control over content could buy a paid death notice.

“’People try to deny painful memories,’ he wrote. ‘In this way death is the enemy of common sense and, unless one is very careful, death always wins. Denying painful memories is to deny part of the life itself.’

“Mr. Smith set a similar standard for himself and declined to deny his own painful memories. In 1989, when Redskins player Dexter Manley was disciplined by the National Football League after he tested positive for substance abuse, Mr. Smith discussed publicly his own addiction to alcohol and his recovery.”

In Robert Smith’s case, I’d have at least briefly included the Skyline tragedy while mentioning the controversies over the cause of the 14 deaths and subsequently favorable legal outcomes for the Smiths (at least pro-Smith as far as I know, despite some people’s continuing skepticism about the verdicts). Robert was the family member running the construction operation in 1973. To my knowledge, the construction workers died without major punishment of anyone. The Smiths blamed others.

Had I been the obit writer, I’d also have mentioned Sen. Abraham Ribicoff’s secret investment in the government-leased and CIA-occupied Key Building in Arlington, apparently a violation of law. It made the NBC Nightly News, by way of a segment from James Polk, a Pulitzer Prize-winning alum of the Washington Star.

Ribicoff sat on a relevant Senate committee and had claimed to have avoided such conflicts. As the guy who originally broke the Ribicoff story, in the Connecticut papers, I would like the truth to come out in the Post. At the time, 1975, nothing appeared in any Washington daily, for reasons still unknown to me.

My novel is isn’t just about a fictitious building collapse and fictitious political corruption: it’s also about fictitious cover-ups at a fictitious Washington newspaper, and I’d rather that real life not plagiarize me. To be more precise, I don’t see any evil conspiracy behind the obit desk’s actions. But I will say that I find the news judgment here to be rather different from the kind that AP and the Post used with Ms. Lilly.

Had J.Y.  Smith been writing about the other Smith—no family relationship—I suspect he’d have mentioned both Skyline and Key while correctly keeping the obit predominantly favorable.

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David Rothman

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