The obituary minefield

One of the great things about National Public Radio is it’s still willing — and enthusiastic — about employing an ombudsman to respond to questions about some of its news stories.

And today, Alicia Shepard got the job of sifting through the furor caused by this David Horowitz quote that was included in an obituary of Howard Zinn:

“There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn’s intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect,. Zinn represents a fringe mentality which has unfortunately seduced millions of people at this point in time. So he did certainly alter the consciousness of millions of younger people for the worse.”

Yeow! That brings back memories of the time I wrote an obituary on a former governor of Minnesota and included the factoid that his detractors once referred to him as “Governor Goofy.” Accurate? Yeah. Tasteful in an obit? No way.

Shepard’s ruling:

Writing an obituary can be a challenging assignment because it is often the last thing that will be said about someone, and the subject can no longer speak on his own behalf. It must be fair. It must provide context and it must tell warts and all — all in a limited space.

Critics are right that NPR was not respectful of Zinn. It would have been better to wait a day and find a more nuanced critic — as the Washington Post did two days after Zinn died –than rushing a flawed obituary on air.

Here’s her column. And here’s the original obit:

  • John P.

    It seems to me that an obituary is not the place for a critique. They’re dead, can’t defend themselves, and the family probably feels pretty bad. Serious criticisms of a dead public figure have their place, but they should go somewhere else after the body has cooled. I suppose the world is full of obituary writers who want to say something pithy, but this should be a place to list a person’s accomplishments and positive contributions. If you can’t say anything nice …