EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this essay was first published Feb. 19, 2021, as a Storyboard newsletter. That was two days before the tragic news that COVID deaths in the U.S. had topped 500,000. In retrospect, this reflection seems both inadequate and apt.
I’ve written before about my appreciation for the obituary as a journalistic form. When I was in the classroom, I found it an especially valuable teaching tool. There are few vehicles that can teach more about dealing with sensitive subjects (interviewing), following the arc of someone’s life (narrative), capturing the essence of a person’s character (profile), and verifying information (accuracy). In what is often the last story that will be written about someone, it is beyond painful to get it wrong.
I also have written about my continuing struggle to come to terms with the contradictions that are manifest in today’s news climate. Coverage that takes a different point of view or frame on the same subject is one thing; we need to see situations from myriad perspectives. But coverage that devolves into countermanding realities is something else — an unsettled war over who gets to claim the truth, and even the facts.
The death last week of conservative talk-radio dynamo Rush Limbaugh has given me plenty to ponder on both fronts.
For a dizzying dive into the conflicting ways that Limbaugh was characterized in dozens of obits, I will refer you to an excellent roundup by media writer Tom Jones of The Poynter Report. The headline on his Feb. 18 newsletter captured it in perfect shorthand: “Loved and loathed — the death of Rush Limbaugh.” I don’t need to belabor the subject with my own commentary about Limbaugh’s footprint in society and politics. And to be honest, I would probably trip over feelings that date back to Limbaugh’s attacks on people with AIDS. That was one of the banners he waved to build his national platform, at the same time I was writing stories about people facing a mysterious death while surrounded by stigma and shame.
Instead, I urge you to spend some time with the Limbaugh obits for what they teach about the possibility of elegance in journalistic writing. “Advance obits” often are written about prominent people, and updated through the years. Then, upon the actual death, reporters can focus on gathering tributes, and publishing fast and deep. No doubt that was the case for Limbaugh — and especially important because comments that needed to be gathered about his role in life ranged from, as Jones noted, love to loathing.
I haven’t come close to reading all that was published about Limbaugh upon his death. I am tucking obits away as I come across them, hoarding them as excellent fodder for workshops or classes. They hold examples of fine story craft, but also offer an intriguing way to chart a part of American history that is especially pertinent to journalism. Limbaugh’s rise coincided with the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, which for years had required equal time to opposing viewpoints on broadcast channels.
For now, I will recommend one obit, from The New York Times, carrying a lead byline by the unparalleled Robert McFadden. It doesn’t take sides about or cheap shots at Limbaugh, but also doesn’t flinch at describing his outsized and controversial character. Mostly, it is a beautiful piece of writing in the classic McFadden sense: spare and authoritative, vivid and poetic.