When news broke last week that Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, had died, the world learned something new about the pioneering astronaut: that Dr. Ride was in fact a lesbian, survived by her partner of 27 years. Bob speaks to The New York Times obituaries editor Bill McDonald about how much obituaries should explore the private lives of public people.
Michael Linnen - Cantus for Bob Hardison
BOB GARFIELD: With the death last week of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, the world learned something new about the pioneering astronaut, that Dr. Ride was, in fact, a lesbian, survived by her partner of 27 years, a woman by the name of Tam O'Shaughnessy. This previously unknown detail of Ride’s life was mentioned in one line at the end of a lengthy obituary in The New York Times. Reaction to The Times’ obit ranged from criticism for posthumously outing Ride, to criticism for not outing her enough, raising the question of just how deeply an obituary should delve into the private lives of public people.
Bill McDonald is the obituary editor at The New York Times. Bill, welcome to On the Media.
BILL McDONALD: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the obit didn’t reference her sexual preference. It just simply made reference to her longtime partner, who happens to be a woman.
BILL McDONALD: That’s right. When we were trying to find out who her survivors might be, the only information we could go on was a statement released on her website, which described Dr. O’Shaughnessy as her companion of 27 years. And, of course, we reported that.
You know, in the best of all worlds if we had some more time to do it, we might have tried to reach Dr. O’Shaughnessy and, and talk to her about their work together and about the relationship. But we had a very difficult time trying to reach anyone. It was simply a matter of deadline pressure, the logistics of newspapering, and nothing more than that.
BOB GARFIELD: The reason we’re having this conversation is because the question of sexual preference, in many ways, for public figures, is not a personal matter; it has been heavily politicized.
BILL McDONALD: Uh huh
BOB GARFIELD: There’s some pressure from gay rights organizations for people living in the public eye if they’re gay, to let the world know, to not be closeted. If you’ve chosen in your private life to remain private, should that be respected upon your death?
BILL McDONALD: We don’t go out of our way to describe or talk about sexuality, unless there was a reason to, unless the person involved made an issue of it. Hypothetically, you know, if a politician had said some homophobic things or had supported some legislation that would penalize gay Americans and then we find out that that politician had been gay himself or something like that, then that’s fair game. That’s an issue then that, that person was very public about. So, in that case, we would have no qualms.
BOB GARFIELD: Historically, The Times and other newspapers have had a sort of, a vocabulary of euphemism –
BILL McDONALD: Uh huh –
BOB GARFIELD: — for describing the domestic arrangements of people who are not publicly out. Can you give me some examples of the phraseology that would be employed?
BILL McDONALD: “Longtime companion” was one. And probably when I started at this newspaper in the late eighties, early nineties, that era and before, the paper was less comfortable and probably did use those kinds of locutions, which are clumsy. And I think the news industry has evolved.
BOB GARFIELD: You don’t see “confirmed bachelor” in the pages of The New York Times anymore?
BILL McDONALD: [LAUGHS] You don’t see “confirmed bachelor,” exactly. We don’t have to use those now. Where people were much less inclined to be public, now they are. And, and we can be, therefore, more public because we are essentially reporting what’s on the public record. There’s always a, a line you have to navigate between privacy and public information and public interest.
BOB GARFIELD: I suppose we should actually mention here the difference between an obituary and a, a death notice.
BILL McDONALD: A death notice is an advertisement. It’s paid for by the family or someone close to them. And it is their take on the individual, and it’s often a tribute, really. But what we’re doing is journalism.
BOB GARFIELD: When you’ve just died, there tends to be respect and delicacy lent to your memory. But journalism, strictly speaking, does not have to participate in that convention either.
BILL McDONALD: No, it doesn’t. And we do not withhold information that we think is useful to help portray a person. Families often request that we don’t report this or that, and if it’s on the public record and it’s part of that person’s life, we can’t respect that. That runs against our conventions of journalism.
BOB GARFIELD: Can I ask you one hypothetical?
BILL McDONALD: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: Let’s just say that I’ve been living for 35 years with not one spouse but two, just for argument’s sake. And let’s say that I’m a complete civilian. Nobody knows me, except for 38 years ago I invented artificial cork. So the reason you’re writing about me in the obit section is ‘cause I am the inventor of artificial cork, but I had just had that one brief moment in the public spotlight and have lived in obscurity ever since. What do you do about the living arrangements that I have assiduously worked to keep private for decades?
BILL McDONALD: We have many obituaries like that, in fact, you know, where someone had their moment many years ago and became essentially private citizens afterwards. I think Sally Ride, in many ways, was that kind of individual. In this hypothetical example, we would write about that invention, we would then ask the family who the survivors are.
Now, if that family member discloses that the individual was living with two other people from the opposite sex and wanted to leave it at that, we would report that. But I would suspect that if it were a very private matter, that someone wouldn’t even be telling us that.
BOB GARFIELD: Bill, thank you very much.
BILL McDONALD: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Bill McDonald is the obituary editor at The New York Times.
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