Sunday, June 08, 2008

Obit stirs controversy

I wrote an obituary for former Cleveland building commissioner Carlton Rush (published in The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, on June 6, 2008) that the family and some readers called disgraceful, insensitive, unacceptable, tabloid journalism.

Here's how Ted Diadiun, the PD's reader rep, addressed the controversy in his June 8 column titled Headline on Carlton Rush's obituary did a disservice to his accomplished life.

Ted wrote: While Mr. Rush was building commissioner in Cleveland in the late 1970s, he became embroiled in what was widely known as the "carnival kickback case" -- an accusation that then-Cleveland City Council President George Forbes and others had accepted payoffs from a local carnival operator. Mr. Rush, Forbes and 16 others were indicted on a variety of charges. It was a story that dominated Cleveland's front pages and local television for much of the summer of 1979.

Mr. Rush won a motion to have his case separated from the others and was granted a separate trial. The charges against him were ultimately dismissed. In what appeared to be a case of prosecutorial overreach, the other defendants were acquitted.

After Carlton Rush died last Sunday, reporter Alana Baranick, the wise and sensitive woman who writes most of our obituaries, faced a decision: Could she write an honest obituary about a man whose life and accomplishments clearly rated one, without including the carnival case?

An obituary is a news story, not simply a tribute, and in summing up an overall worthy life, it's not easy to decide how much weight to give the bumpy spots.

"He was too well known and too important to the community to not do an obituary on him," she said, "but the event was too major to not include. Even though it was a long time ago, it was a daily happening in the news for more than a year."

I started the obit with information about Rush serving as the building commissioner, working as an electrical engineer and executive with the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., and developing energy-efficient, environmentally friendly homes.

I deliberately inserted the carnival kickback case several paragraphs into the obit, so copy editors would not include it in the headline. No such luck.

Not only did the headline focus on that case, it indicated Rush was "acquitted." It didn't say the indictment was "dismissed."

It's odd how words take on connotations. Nowadays when we say someone was "acquitted," many people take it to mean that the person got away with something. They don't even consider that a person might have been innocent.

Likewise, many folks equate "indictment" with "guilt."

I hope those people consider this little bit of history about Cleveland's carnival kickback case and realize that just because someone in authority (prosecutor, police, politician) makes an accusation, it doesn't mean it's true.

I'm sure other obit writers have had to deal with similar issues. Please share your thoughts.

I hope the Rush family and their friends will read this and comment as well.

9 comments:

Kathy Ewing said...

I was quoted in Ted Diadiun's column on Sunday. My objection was to the headline, not the obit itself. Most of us who were upset objected, like me, to the headline, but not everyone knows that the headline writer is not the reporter...

Alana Baranick said...

Thanks, Kathy.

I've received a few more e-mails and voice-mail messages from friends of the Rush family since Friday.

Although they seemed to agree with you about the headline, they also didn't understand why I included it at all.

I doubt that no explanation will be adequate for most of the people who loved him.

Anonymous said...

An obituary is written for the readers, not for the family. Is it accurate? Is it truthful? If the answers to these are yes, then you've done no wrong.

Your job is to enteratin the readers; if the family don't like it, too bad.

I wrote an obituary in today's London Daily Telegraph which mentioned his "second wife". She rang me up in a rage this morning - "Why did you say I was the second wife? I married him in 1964. He was only mentioned to that floosy for six weeks." I had to explain that a. it was the truth; and b. he'd written about the incident in his autobiography, so it was public knowledge.
Your journalism training must come first!
Tim Bullamore

Jim Lissemore said...

I was one of the people who wrote to you objecting about the headline and I accept Ted Diadiun's explanation and am grateful that he extended an apology to the Rush family in his column last Sunday. I can certainly understand the sensitivity of the Rush family to any mention of the kickback allegations, but I thought it was fair for it to be mentioned, given the magnitude of the story at the time. Carlton Rush was a wonderful, exceptional man as the rest of your obituary laid out and that is certainly how I and many others will remember him.

Ruby Fett said...

I appreciate Ms. Baranick's attempt to lead the headline reporter to a different headline than the one that was used. I hope this is a lesson to that individual to have accurate information when creating the next headline. It is an unfortunate fact that the titilating headline is usually what sells newspapers.

For those of us who attended Mr. Rush's funeral, it was clear how well he was repected and loved.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about your experience, Alana, but it sounds like you and the obit were right on the money.

I had a similar reaction to an obit I wrote in the Sacto Bee about a former school board member. He was a vocal member of the majority on a bitterly divided school board that was controversial for firing the superintendent behind closed doors, spending millions of dollars on a new headquarters and other issues. The board generated lots of news coverage for several years in the paper, especially after our mayor organized a slate of reform candidates who defeated the obit subject and other board members.

The objections came from family members, who accused me of writing ill about a dead man who was no longer around to defend himself. I tried to explain the purpose of an obituary as a news story, not a eulogy or tribute to the deceased, but they were clearly to upset to understand the difference. I certainly don't feel good upsetting people who are mourning, but I decided that sometimes there's just no getting around it.

Cheers,
Bob D.

Miriam Ortiz Rush said...

Alana,
We appreciated Ted Diadiun's article and also the letter from Editor Golberg. The headline was deeply offensive and the several paragraphs referencing the carnival kick back charges were not newsworthy. If you felt compelled to include it- you could have done it in a manner where it did not become the focus of the obituary. That situation was a footnote in his life. Carlton was a warm, caring and special person. He was a family man of strong faith. As Mr. Diadiun pointed out- he did not deserve this. This goes way beyond the family objecting to the content and headline. It addresses the issue of relevancy and newsworthy information. The hundreds of e-mails and calls that we received indicate that people agreed that this was not newsworthy information and should not have been included. It is my hope that a lesson was learned and careful thought will be given when writing about about someone's life. This will spare another family from experiencing the hurt that we did.

Bob Chaundy said...

I remember my TV obit of Bobby Moore, one of England's most famous ever footballers. In 1970, in Mexico, he was falsely accused of stealing an item of jewellery from a store in the run-up to the World Cup there. It turned out to be completely false and he wasn't charged. But I considered it worthy of inclusion because it dominated the headlines for several days at the time. The family didn't like it being mentioned for obvious reasons, but had to accept the fact that it had been a a major news story and couldn't be omitted, especially as we reiterated that he'd been set up.

Bob Chaundy said...

I remember my TV obit of Bobby Moore, one of England's most famous ever footballers. In 1970, in Mexico, he was falsely accused of stealing an item of jewellery from a store in the run-up to the World Cup there. It turned out to be completely false and he wasn't charged. But I considered it worthy of inclusion because it dominated the headlines for several days at the time. The family didn't like it being mentioned for obvious reasons, but had to accept the fact that it had been a a major news story and couldn't be omitted, especially as we reiterated that he'd been set up.