Friday, September 29, 2006

The Itsy Bitsy Fraud

There's been a lot of ink spilled over the past week about the erroneously-reported death of Paul Vance, the songwriter of "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," a song that idiotically replays itself in my head each time I see it referenced.

I have a small role this drama, which I'll get to below.

It turned into a pretty great story because the corpse - there actually was a dead guy - had been telling friends and family for years that he was the author of the song. Why, nobody knows. Vicarious thrill, maybe.

The real Paul Vance lives in Coral Springs, Fla., and has recently been receiving $100,000 a month in royalties for his song, which is being used in a yoghurt commercial. But now he has been making ominous threats to sue the AP etc., family members are telling the press that they suspect that the fraudulent Paul Vance, whose name was Paul Van Valkenburgh, was trying to steal Vance's royalties, etc. What a bunch of crabs!

The original obit ran in the Danbury, Conn., News-Times on Sept. 26. It was then posted by some excellent person to alt.obituaries, the Usenet newsgroup that many of us monitor.

Here is a link to that original report.

My part in this story was that I then sent it to an editor at the AP who does obituaries, and she got it on the wire on Tuesday night, Sept. 26.

The AP obit ran in papers around the world - in fact some lazy editors didn't even notice the correction - the Birmingham Post ran it in Thursday's paper.

The corrections ran widely, too - the AP produced a good, tight recap on Wednesday, which was substantially recapitulated by the NYTimes. Other news organizations around the country did their own stories, interviewing the relatives and probably everybody they could find who ever heard the song - who could resist? (I leave it to the reader to discover the corrections and follow-ups.)

I am told that the Danbury News-Times ran a front-page story on its error in Thursday's paper. Unfortunately, its website is virtually unusable and it doesn't make it onto Nexis. I have a call into the original reporter, who I am guessing wishes this would all go away. I don't. It goes into the hopper with Mark Twain and Alfred Nobel. And Dorothy Fay Ritter.

And Katharine Sergava, the dancer whom the NYTimes erroneously reported dead in 2003. It happens that the Sergava case comes up in a lengthy, whiggish interview with NYTimes obituaries editor Bill McDonald. Read it


The rest of this little essay is a tangent inspired by the Vance case and McDonald’s interview.

The Sergava case happened before McDonald's watch, but it was a particularly wretched case of journalistic malpractice - it was lifted straight from the London Telegraph, with no checking. Extra bad, because Sergava supposedly died in the USA. On the other hand it was a nice obit, and a lot more extensive than the obit the Times ran two years later when Sergava actually died (apparently!) To its credit, the Times never attempted to cover up this error, although it never quite explained it, either. The correction blamed “reporting and editing errors” and claimed it was just a case of “omitted attribution,” as if the Times would ever print an obit attributed solely to the Telegraph. The Times subsequently instituted a policy mandating that every obit have a graf 2 sourcing the story.

What’s irritating about McDonald’s interview is how much like a public utility he wants his page to be.

The mechanical, boring graf 2? McDonald: “From that day forward it has been ironclad policy at the Times to devote the second paragraph of every obit to answering a simple question about a death that every reader is entitled to ask: How do you know — who told you?”

OK, but are you going to do that with every fact in your story? It could be argued that some facts are more important than others, and death is the ultimate personal fact. But where does it end? We have newspapers and reporters so that somebody will go out and check the facts on our behalf. Yes, we want to be told who sources are, especially of information that could potentially be an opinion or in somebody’s interest. But this feels to me more like ass-covering. As if they are saying, “if this turns out to be untrue, it is not the Times’s fault.” That’s why it feels so bureaucratic and encumbering in the actual obits – it’s like a form you have to fill out, and a way of evading responsibility – almost in this way the opposite of the accuracy that we want in obits.

That original AP obit of Vance had one of those grafs, too: “The New Milford-raised Vance, whose real name was Paul Van Valkenburgh, died Sept. 6 at his home in Ormond Beach, Fla., said his wife of 32 years, Rose Leroux. He had been battling lung cancer for two years.”

The mechanical, boring graf 2 certainly didn’t prevent the error – so what did it accomplish? I guess it allows us to shift blame to Valkenburgh, or to his widow.

Unfortunately, this practice is creeping into obits in general – LATimes does it routinely although the Washington Post doesn’t. The AP does it, but there it is a very good thing because it gives local reporters who want to follow up and expand a story a good head start. In this case it gave reporters a chance to contact Valkenbugh’s widow.

I return to my main point: it is the reporter’s contract with the newspaper and the newspaper’s contract with readers that what is appearing is facts, that efforts have been made to confirm them. But if facts were the only thing at stake, we would not have need for obituarists – just lists of names and facts. We also want a pleasurable read – that’s the whole reason many of us are in this business in the first place. The graf 2 is a real buzz-kill.

One more thing in McDonald’s lengthy (and to be fair occasionally very interesting and smart) interview:

“The 2003 episode confirmed in our minds the need to be as forthcoming with our readers about any given death as we can. That includes reporting the cause. In every obit, no matter how old the subject, we endeavor to give the cause of death, as related to us by reliable sources, like the people we quote in confirming the death.”

But the cause of death is so boring and distracting! Yes, if somebody dies young or in an interesting way. But how is it “information” that somebody died of a heart attack rather than a stroke? And aren’t their different kinds of heart attacks? Why is it “lung cancer” in one obit and just plain “cancer” in another? Often-times somebody has had “terminal” cancer, then dies from an opportunistic infection like pneumonia. In what sense is it a fact that he died of pneumonia? It is a bureaucratic fact – the one that appears on the death certificate. But the real fact may be that the decedent was bed-ridden for years. That might be something worth talking about in an obit – for instance in talking about why a public person suddenly stops being public a few years before death. But such information very seldom appears.

Again, the McDonald interview:

“[S]ome papers, particularly in Britain, still cling to their Victorian sense of decorum by unilaterally withholding the cause of death. We're in the business of reporting what we know, when it's confirmed, not withholding it. And in reporting on a death, which is news, we think the cause is eminently germane. A reporter who writes a story about a train wreck without saying how it happened wouldn't last long in this line of work.”

Oh puh-leez – the self congratulation is hyperoleaginous. If you don’t know five times more facts than appear in your article, you’re not doing your job. The whole craft of writing is as much about deciding what to leave out as deciding what to leave in – like sculpture. Yes, when Edward Albert dies at 55 it is worth knowing he had lung cancer, and more amusingly, in Claire Martin’s great obit last week of Thomas Cook, that the accident-prone guy died by being run over by a car (thought I wanted more details: was it a RED car?)

I recommend everybody go and read the McDonald interview – it’s a peep inside the dusky boudoir of Times obits. But don’t expect to come away terribly stimulated.

As for Vance – all of this could have been avoided by a call to his co-writer, but that might be a bit much to ask on deadline, which is how the story was written. This was tricky one. Sometimes errors happen. You get false positives in statistical studies – five percent of the time with two standard deviations. This is considered reliable in sociology. Obituarists do a hell of a lot better than that reporting deaths – without the mechanical, boring graf 2.


Alana Baranick said...

Whew! That's a whole lotta rockin' treatise there, Stevereno.

I'm going to break this up into smaller bites, so we can all comment on specific portions.

Stand by.

Kay Powell said...

Claire gives us "thin as a wisp of hair."
I give us Hanging Dog Baptist Church.
Steve gives us "hyperoleaginous".
I love this business and the people in it!

steve miller said...

The mechanical, boring graf 2 is missing from RW Apple's obit in the NYTimes online Wednesday. How do we know they know?