Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Bentsen ledes: pukey!

I really don't like the ledes on the Bentsen obits. (I didn't write one, incidentally, so I am just complaining.) Everybody focuses on his dressing down of Sen. Quayle as "no Jack Kennedy" - but the really pukey ones do it right in the first graf, and the pukiest in the headline.

To me this is the ascendency of image over reality, style over substance. If we are the first draft of history, then the first draft is going to be savagely rewritten because summing up Bentsen's career - and I carry no brief for him - with this one quote is like summing up Churchill's with that old chestnut (told so many ways I suspect it never happened) "Bessie, you're ugly. And tomorrow morning I will be sober.""

Back to Bentsen's line - let's not forget that it was ineffective politically. The Bush 88 ticket was elected in a landslide, although of course Quayle was ever after considered a political lightweight. (Bentsen did not start this - his doubtless carefully rehearsed mot merely put an exclamation point after.) So all this, in the end, was a mere entertainment, a sideshow to both the furtherance of the Bush dynasty and to the career of somebody who had a substantial 20+ year career in government at the highest levels.

Here's LAT:

Lloyd Bentsen, 85; U.S. Senator Zinged Quayle in '88 VP Debate
By Dennis McLellan, Times Staff Writer

Lloyd Bentsen, the former four-term U.S. senator from Texas who was the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee and served as President Clinton's first secretary of the Treasury, died Tuesday. He was 85.

This is unfair to McLellan, who doesn't mention the quote til graf 5 - it's the anonymous headline writer who is to blame.

Here's WaPo's Joe Holly, where the hed is at least OK, but Holly has succumbed to rhetorical overkill and news judgment underkill:

Lloyd Bentsen; Texas Senator, Vice Presidential Candidate
By Joe Holley

Lloyd Bentsen was a U.S. senator and a Treasury secretary, but the Texas Democrat will always be remembered for a polemical flick of steel that drew blood in a 1988 vice presidential debate.


Here's AP, atop a 1200-word quote-fest (Prez: "Lloyd Bentsen was a man of great honor and distinction." (yawn))

Former Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen dies at 85
By WENDY BENJAMINSON, Associated Press Writer

HOUSTON - Former Senator and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, a courtly Texan who as the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 1988 famously told rival Dan Quayle he was "no Jack Kennedy," died Tuesday. He was 85.

Etc etc. Honorable mentions to the NYTimes David Rosenbaum (incidentally, another dead NYTimes obituarist with a byline, fast becoming their specialty) and the Telegraph's anonymous obituarist, both of whom at least saved the obligatory quote for graf 2.

Conclusion: I'm really happy I didn't have to write this one. I probably would have put the damn quote up too high for my own liking. And here is the possible riposte to my kvetch-o-gram: maybe there wasn't much there there anyway.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

More on military "heroes"

This one's still alive.
As I recall this was a big topic at the obituary writers' confab in 2004.
Story from Atlanta Journal Constitution

Friday, May 19, 2006

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Obits can get political, says Chris Reed


Obits can get political too. See how my obit on Abe Rosenthal was used in a devastating rebuttal to the "P.T. Barnum" of neo-liberalism, the New York Times's Thomas Friedman's absurd claim that the late Abe did not influence his correspondents' political reporting.

Of the Big Three (WP, NYT, LAT), not one mentioned Ray Bonner's superb reporting from El Salvador, for which Abe cravenly humiliated and demoted him. The NYT now looks stupid for not doing so.

Lesson: Obits are political too.


To read Alexander Cockburn's lead piece of May 15 - which includes an excerpt from Chris Reed's story, go to and scroll down a little

And read Chris Reed's Rosenthal obituary from The Guardian of London.

You should be able to find the New York Times' Rosenthal obituary and Friedman's Rosenthal reflections at, but you have to be a subscriber. You also could go to your library or your newspaper's electronic library.

As an alternative, read Stephen Miller's Rosenthal obit in the New York Sun.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Time runs out for Aussie 60 Minutes reporter

The following obit comes from our own wizard of Oz, Nigel Starck, offshore program director of the School of Communication at University of South Australia.

Richard Carleton
60 Minutes reporter, Australia
(born New South Wales 24 February 1943; died Tasmania 7 May 2006)

Richard Carleton fired off his typically hostile question, shuffled away from the media scrum at a Tasmanian mine where two men were trapped underground, collapsed, and died of heart failure. That heart had twice endured by-pass surgery; each operation was the subject of a 60 Minutes report fronted, naturally, by the patient.

Carleton, 63, brought individuality, eccentricity, and a touch of arrogance to the process of news gathering, blurring the line between journalism and entertainment, on the principle that a story is not a story if nobody sees it. In the earlier stages of his 40-year television career, he was slender and darkly sideburned, challenging Australia’s political leaders with an incisive line of questioning. He soon won a reputation as the press corps man who had the nerve to raise the offensive, the embarrassing and the infuriating probes that nobody else dared to ask.

Perhaps his most famous moment came in a 1983 encounter with the labor leader Bob Hawke, who was running for prime minister. Hawke had just beaten a decent, diligent but dull political colleague for the nomination – and then he faced Carleton, live on national television. Carleton’s first question rattled the loquacious, nail-hard Hawke. “Could I ask you,” he spat, “whether you feel a little embarrassed tonight at the blood that's on your hands?”

For 60 Minutes, he reported from all the hot spots: Kabul, Bosnia, Jerusalem, Chernobyl, Baghdad, and East Timor. The East Timor report, on an independence referendum, led to an episode – 16 years after the Hawke clash – that might have caused Carleton himself some embarrassment. He was deported by the authorities, for pestering voters at a polling station. After this forced departure, the local police found that Carleton’s hotel room was stocked with gourmet cheeses, caviar, smoked mussels, aparagus spears and quince jams. Rival reporters gleefully filed colour stories on the discovery, for Carleton was not universally loved. Indeed, he had been known to scream abuse at his own camera crews and line producers.

In later life, he became jowly in appearance and pontificating in manner. He would ask long questions in a fruity adversarial quizzing, peering over reading glasses at his interviewees. This interrogation would be spiced too by great slabs of silence, as Carleton waited for the ultimate confession. One television critic found that Carleton “looked at interviewees as if they were pieces of diseased tissue floating in formaldehyde”.

Away from television, he loved fly-fishing in the mountains. He was also an accomplished magician, travelling as far as Florida to learn new sleight-of-hand artistry at an illusionists’ convention. Richard Carleton had a son and a daughter from his first marriage, and a son from his second. He won three ‘Reporter of the Year’ awards.

Even in death, this veteran of Australian television made it to air-time as scheduled. His report, on the Tasmanian mine cave-in, was cobbled together by the production unit and broadcast on the evening of the day that he died. The 60 Minutes watch had stopped on the reporter with the piranha smile.

- Nigel Starck
(with file material from The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald)

AsiaMedia obit for Richard Carleton

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Oxymoronic? Or business as usual?

Patricia Sullivan wrote an obit that ran in the Washington Post May 7, 2006, for Herbert Burkholz, a mystery novelist who briefly was a speechwriter at the Food and Drug Administration in the 1990s.

Sullivan doesn't tell readers, "Isn't it ironic, dontcha think?" She deftly presents the facts of Burkholz' life so that additional commentary isn't necessary.

She writes: Burkholz wrote 10 novels and two nonfiction books, including "The FDA Follies" (1994), an attack on the FDA in the Reagan era that grew out of a series of health-related articles he wrote for the New York Times Magazine.

After the book was published, Burkholz was hired to write speeches for David Kessler, FDA commissioner in the Clinton administration.

The titles of Burkholz' commercially successfuly mysteries and a series that included "The Sensitives" (1987), "Strange Bedfellows" (1988) and "Brain Damage" (1992) add to the weirdness of it all.

It makes you wonder where our government officials find their speechwriters and what their motives are.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Perfume obituaries

An email I received over the weekend from someone called Carolyn (not our one):

"I am looking for information on obits of people connected to the perfume industry, including perfumers (who until very recently were not visibly promoted by the oil companies). and others who were part of developing the perfume industry (like Baron Walter Langer of White Shoulder fame).

I am a retired senior exploring a subject that is dear to my heart - the history of perfumery.

I need to know where to look online and how to "ask " for it.

I know I can go to the local library and check their newpaper resources."

I could only suggest newspaper websites. Can anyone help her with more? You can email her at

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Obituary writing tips

The May 2006 edition of Quill, the Society of Professional Journalists' monthly magazine, features some tips for writing obituaries. The title is Beat Guide: Obituaries.

The chief reason I know about this is that I wrote it. Joe Skeel, Quill Magazine editor, asked me and several other reporters to share tips for covering their beats. My beat, of course, is the death beat.

I'm sure this won't help my fellow obit writers much. It's aimed at those journalists who haven't written much about the dead. And my space was limited.

I know I didn't cover everything. What other tips would you have for fledgling obituary writers?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Write after death

Robert Ballantyne, who calls himself a "popjournalist," put together a short radio documentary called "Write After Death" for CKLN in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

It's a nifty mix of comments from Cathy Dunphy of the Toronto Star, Steve Miller of the New York Sun and me (Alana Baranick of Cleveland's Plain Dealer), intermingled with theme music from HBO's "Six Feet Under" and other bits of sound, including part of John Travolta's opening scene from the movie "Perfect."

Well done, Robert!

Click the title above to get connected to the audio and, at some point, to what should be a longer written version of Ballantyne's look at obituaries and obit writers.