Sunday, February 03, 2013

The NYT obituary department has further thoughts about Mayor Ed


Joe Cutbirth identifies himself on his Twitter page as "Texas expat, journalism professor, Longhorn fan and Democrat."

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones,
So let it be with Caesar. . . ."

-- Shakespeare's Mark Antony, in Julius Caesar

by Ken

It must be a number of years now -- even though it feels "recent" -- that I reread Julius Caesar, having maybe seen a production or film or two along the way but not read the thing since high school -- and was blown away by it. I could still see why professional curriculumographers think the play is suitable for infliction on high schoolers, even as I was overwhelmed by the unlikelihood of any but the most precocious teen having more than the tiniest glimmering. But my goodness, the precision and intensity and depth and heat of the characterizations and the characters' human stakes in it all -- just staggering.

If you believe that characters in plays always speak the truth, or even the truth as they see it, then Mark Antony's funeral oration is as flat and purple as it always seemed when we were urged/forced to memorize a chunk of it. (Just about every comment on every version of the speech posted on YouTube makes reference to this agonized circumstance.) But once you factor in that people always have reasons for saying what they do, and that Antony has enormously powerful stakes indeed for couching his case in this seemingly simple platitude, then my goodness, how fascinating the rhetoric and the manipulation become! Able rhetorician and rabble-rouser that he is, a good half of what he says is the opposite of what he means, and means for the crowd to register.

Because as we all know, as a general principle he is stating it backwards. Yeah, sometimes the evil that men do lives after them, and sometimes the good is interred with their bones, but in public life it's just as likely, if not more likely, for the opposite to happen, especially when it comes to political figures.

In all the e-commotion I've tapped into regarding the general whitewash of Ed Koch which set in as soon as his death was announced, leading to what Noah dubbed "Eulogize an Asshole Day" in our joint remembrance on Friday night, I've actually encountered the suggestion that it's unseemly because of the timing, that now is apparently the time for respectful remembrance, and there will come a time for raising the uncomfortable questions.

Except that that time never seems to come. I think back to the deaths of those superheroes of the Republic Nixon and Reagan, and I'm still waiting. If the stock-taking that takes place immediately post mortem is given over to omissions and outright lies, reality has a mighty hard time catching up.

All of which is a prelude to the surprising news (surprising to me at least) reported this afternoon by HuffPost's Jack Mirkinson: "New York Times Revises Ed Koch Obit To Include AIDS." Jack's report begins (links onsite):
The New York Times revised its Friday obituary of former New York City mayor Ed Koch after several observers noticed that it lacked any mention of his controversial record on AIDS.

The paper's obituary, written by longtime staffer Robert D. MacFadden, weighed in at 5,500 words. Yet, in the first version of the piece, AIDS was mentioned exactly once, in a passing reference to "the scandals and the scourges of crack cocaine, homelessness and AIDS." The Times also prepared a 22-minute video on Koch's life that did not mention AIDS.

This struck many as odd; after all, Koch presided over the earliest years of AIDS, and spent many years being targeted by gay activists who thought he was not doing nearly enough to stop the spread of the disease. Legendary writer and activist Larry Kramer called Koch "a murderer of his own people" because the mayor was widely known as a closeted gay man.
Jack notes that "the Times' omission did not go unnoticed on Twitter," and reproduces a bunch of tweets to this effect. "In response," he writes, "the paper's obituary editor Bill McDonald told New York magazine that the issue was being 'addressed.' "
A few hours later, three paragraphs were added in. The meatiest one read, "Mr. Koch was also harshly criticized for what was called his slow, inadequate response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Hundreds of New Yorkers were desperately ill and dying in a baffling public health emergency, and critics, especially in the gay community, accused him of being a closeted homosexual reluctant to confront the crisis for fear of being exposed."
"Even there, the Times got it wrong," Jack writes, "as journalism professor Joe Cutbirth noted," and he reproduces the tweet I've put at the top of this post.

Brando as Mark Antony


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At 7:16 AM, Anonymous hockthai said...

Leaders may die, but their speeches live forever.

At 12:29 PM, Anonymous pluky said...

Tribunes, with their tongues, damn men to death.


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