Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Censoring obits for political content

When a 93-year-old Bush-bashing woman penned her obit in advance, she included some political comments that kept the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union from printing the piece for three days. And it was a paid obit!

Protests from members of the First Unitarian Universalist Society, who apparently knew the woman, prompted the paper to publish a slightly altered version (with the consent of her daughter) and do a story about the incident.

In the story, which ran Nov. 3, 2006, reporter Paul Grondahl shared the portion of Helen Sharpe's auto-obituary that "ran afoul" of his paper's guidelines:

She left strict instructions that there be no schmaltzy sentimentality of mourning, urging that in lieu of expressions of grief people should send urgent messages to their legislators to force U.S. signing of the Kyoto Protocol, then vote in such a way as to send Bush a strong message of disgust with his policies and politics.

At first, newspaper ad reps tried to get Sharpe's daughter to "tone down the political rhetoric," but the daughter declined. She was prepared to take out a half-page display ad (which apparently would not have gone through such scrutiny) with a $7,100 pricetag, in order to publish her mom's own words.

According to Grondahl's article, the daughter said: "It's not about the money. It's about the principle."

In the end, it was amended to say that Sharpe hoped that people who wish to remember her continue to support the Kyoto Protocol and oppose the Bush Administration.

Grondahl added some nice touches to his story. He pointed out that Sharpe, a self-described born-again atheist, frequently wrote letters to the editor advocating euthanasia for humans, as well as respect for atheists and agnostics. She decided she was ready to die and took prearranged steps to end her life on Monday.

It was unclear what prearranged steps Sharpe took.

Grondahl wrote: In her final hours, Helen Sharpe struggled to rise from her sickbed to make her daughter jelly tarts, "So you'll have sweetness in your mouth, instead of bitterness."

He described a planned celebration of her life and ended his piece with her last words:

She left instructions for that event, as well: a case of good wine and a selection of gourmet cheeses. A pianist will play Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

Helen Sharpe's final words to her daughter were these: "We're so lucky, aren't we?"

Well done, Paul Grondahl!

I have to give credit to Pam Vetter for forwarding this story that's been circulating among funeral celebrants.

And I must confess that I too engaged in a form of censorship regarding this. I waited to post this item until after the Nov. 7 elections were over. I know, I know. Shame on me.

1 comment:

Tim Bullamore said...

Smacks of a paper trying to have its cake and eat it. If you charge for an obituary (or death notice), then you hand over all rights to control the content. If the editors write obituaries as news items, then they can report her views.
And as for delaying posting until after elections in some back-water called the US - surely this is the type of debate that should take place before an election, not after it. In any case, this is the WORLDwide web, an most of the world did not have elections on November 7!