The New York Times Just Assigned an Advance Obituary of Bernie Sanders, Says Staffer
Working on an obit long before a famous person dies is a standard newsroom practice, but the timing is … interesting. Also recently assigned, according to a Times reporter speaking at Penn: Nancy Pelosi.
In the news business, it is a rare thing to know a story’s contours before it actually happens. But while all breaking news is sudden, not all of it — like, say, the death of an aging famous person — lands as an unpredictable shock. And in those cases, a writer can do a little bit of anticipatory pre-writing.
In fact, when it comes to obituaries, it’s common practice for publications like the New York Times to get started on the story of someone’s life while it’s still ongoing. (In some cases, a writer will even be assigned the Twilight Zone-esque task of interviewing a subject for his or her own obituary). That way, when a famous person does pass away, the newspaper isn’t just armed with information about the individual’s death, but rather a crafted recapitulation of an entire life.
There’s just one problem: It can be awkward to write about someone’s death when that person is very much not dead. So newspapers typically keep the list of who’s gotten an advanced obit under wraps — even though, when you think about it, to warrant one is really a sort of peculiar compliment.
Which brings us to Monday afternoon at the Kelly Writers House on Penn’s campus. New York Times veteran reporter and obit writer Katharine Q. Seelye was talking to students about — what else? — writing obits. It seemed a fairly run-of-the-mill journalism event at first — Seelye talking about how she manages her time writing daily obits of lesser-known folks alongside writing those longer-term advance obits.
Then she said this: “It might shock you to know that we didn’t have an advance on Bernie Sanders. So last week, I suddenly got assigned the advance on him. Nancy Pelosi we didn’t have an advance on, so I’m working on her, too.”
Two of the most prominent — not to mention among the oldest — lawmakers in the Democratic Party, and the Times didn’t have anything prepared in advance? We’d say that qualifies as somewhat shocking. Sanders, after all, is 78 years old. Pelosi is a year his senior. And it’s hard not to link the Times’s decision to assign the advance Sanders obit now with the news that the senator suffered a heart attack just last week — around the same time the obit was assigned, according to Seelye’s timeline.
So is that why the Times decided to assign the piece now? A spokesperson for the newspaper declined to comment, writing, “We don’t typically discuss the process.”
But then we started getting curious: If the Times doesn’t have an advance obit yet for Bernie Sanders, does it have one for Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Donald Trump — otherwise known as the other septuagenarian 2020 presidential candidates? On that point, the Times spokesperson wrote, “We don’t comment on specific advance obits.” A spokesperson for the Sanders campaign declined to comment when informed of the news, too. And Seelye couldn’t be reached for comment.
So that doesn’t leave us with much information. Except for this: a moving elegy to the paranormal practice of advance obits, written by Margalit Fox, another Times obit staffer. In that piece, Fox provides some clues as to the selection process. “There is no fixed age bracket on which we train our eyes,” she wrote, “though it would be folly for us to ignore major figures in their 80s or 90s.” When the piece was written in 2014, according to Fox, the Times had nearly 1,700 advances waiting in the wings. None of which she would share, of course. “Because we are prohibited from divulging the content of any coming news article in the Times, I could tell you who the subjects are, but I would have to kill you.”
Speaking of killing people, it’s worth keeping one detail in mind: Just because the Times writes an advance obit doesn’t mean the paper’s counting down until the moment the Fates appear to cut the thread of someone’s life. In fact, Fox wrote that the effect is often the opposite: “An advance obit seems practically to guarantee its subject eternal life.” (On rare occasions, a Times obit subject has even outlived the obit writer, which eventually results in a sort of double memorial upon publication.)
So Sanders and Pelosi shouldn’t be too offended by the news. The Times is just pragmatic. It knows everyone dies eventually, and chances are it’s going to outlive you, too — so it may as well be prepared.