Fading black and white images help illustrate “Overlooked,” a recent series of freshly penned obituaries for long-dead women who the New York Times forgot or failed to memorialize in their day. Through a gauzy lens of history and seeming regret, America’s paper of record finally acknowledged the likes of poet Sylvia Plath, photographer Diane Arbus, and the oft-uncredited medical miracle Henrietta Lacks. By way of this ongoing series of richly reported obituaries, the Times seeks to whisk us back to the bad old days of sexism and segregation and set the record straight by belatedly venerating those omitted from its pages.
“We didn’t do it out of guilt. I would say we did it out of curiosity and some desire to recognize people who, for whatever reasons, were overlooked way back when,” Obituaries Editor William McDonald said in a recent phone interview. While “Overlooked” is undeniably an overdue dive into history, it is also a de facto admission that the Times has long under-told the stories of women and minorities, particularly in death.
But amid all those yellowing photographs, it’s easy to miss the way maleness and whiteness persist in the Times’s obituaries section. Though women comprise half of the world’s population, they made up only about 20 percent of Times obituaries in 2017. The number represents a tiny increase over a decade earlier, when women accounted for about 19 percent of Times obits, according to a database created by The Intercept.
In its defense, the Times says that obituaries are a snapshot of the past, not a representation of the present or an aspiration for the future. “Obits are an inherently retrospective genre,” Times obituary writer Margalit Fox notes in the 2016 documentary “Obit.” “We are reporting on people who were in their prime, moving and shaking, changing the world, 40, 50, 60 years ago. However we feel about it now, and however modern society and modern sensibilities have evolved, the harsh reality of our culture is that, by and large, the only people who were allowed to be actors on the world stage 40 and 50 years ago were overwhelmingly white men.”
McDonald echoed that defense in his essay accompanying the launch of “Overlooked,” saying essentially that our major institutions have been bigoted for decades, and editors at the Times have taken no pleasure in reflecting that — they simply had no choice.
“As time moves on, you’ll see more and more women and minorities [in the obits section] because as the decades roll by, more women and minorities are having a seat at the table,” McDonald said. “We’re going to record their deaths more frequently.”
Yet McDonald also told the The Intercept that the “Overlooked” package would not alter decisions about who gets an obit and who doesn’t, making it hard to see how things will change. “We’re still going to apply the same standard of news judgment to who we write about, and that is people who made some mark in the world on a broader scale, in society, made a contribution,” he said, adding that the Times is always looking for underdogs and “stories about people who were sort of in the shadows.”
Venida Browder, the mother of Kalief Browder, who was pressed into activism after her son’s yearslong mistreatment at Rikers Island led to his suicide, fits that description perfectly. Yet Times readers may not know that she died of a heart attack in 2016.
While the New Yorker and the New York Daily News both offered remembrances of Browder, she vanished from this world without so much as a note in her city’s most important newspaper. She didn’t get an obituary, and she was even absent from the Times’s news pages, where black deaths, like that of Timothy Caughman, tend to be written about. Caughman, a 66-year-old black man, was killed last year when a Southern bigot took a bus to New York City and repeatedly stabbed him with a sword. A common New Yorker thrust into the national spotlight, Caughman didn’t merit an obituary, though the Times editorial board offered an outraged remembrance, and his killer earned a slate of stories.
“Caughman was an otherwise unknown victim of a horrible and widely publicized crime in NYC,” McDonald told The Intercept in an email. “It was appropriate that the Metro desk, which was covering the case, would profile him in its coverage.”
The Browder name, however, is well-known to many New Yorkers, and the family became another face of the Black Lives Matter movement following Kalief Browder’s death. Despite health problems, Venida Browder’s devotion to her son — marked by weekly visits to Rikers and never missing a court date — was only magnified after his death. She frequently protested to end the injustice that destroyed Kalief, and her activism played an important part in the decision to shut down Rikers for good.
The documentary “Obit” dives into the Times’s day-to-day operations, giving the impression that McDonald’s department is the best-resourced and most talent-rich obits desk in the business. There is no doubt that to witness this work is to witness a form of excellence: the precision of the reporting is exquisite, the turns of phrase delightful. But this notion stands in stark contrast to the department’s apparent inability to achieve gender and racial parity in its coverage. Despite being the very best, it fails to capture a broad sweep of American experience, instead offering a highlight reel of power and fame.
For years, critics have asked why white men dominate the Times’s hallowed obituary pages, with some throwing their hands up in surrender. In 2014, Amanda Hess (now a Times critic at large) wrote: “I wouldn’t be surprised if all newspapers burn up in an apocalyptic hellfire — or post-gender robots assume control of our society — before we see gender equality in the obituary pages.”
Not everyone is so cynical, but there is plenty of disappointment to go around. Amisha Padnani, digital editor on the Times’s obituaries desk, has been continually surprised to find notable women missing from the archives. As a woman of color, she considers herself especially sensitive to this hole in coverage. Since she started the job in early 2017, she has found opportunities to expand the paper’s sourcing for obits, turning to social media and reaching out to foreign correspondents to contribute. She also began making a list of missing women, at a time when women everywhere were voicing fresh calls for equality.
“Amid all of these conversations [in which] people were coming out of the shadows to talk about injustices they faced … I wondered, ‘What can I do?’” Padnani told The Intercept.
Eventually, Padnani presented her rather long list of missing obits to McDonald and came up with the “Overlooked” project, which Padnani oversaw with the Times’s new Gender Editor Jessica Bennett. Four months into the job, “Overlooked” marks one of Bennett’s first major efforts to team with a newsroom department to revise the paper’s approach to and treatment of women. The project will be a weekly fixture of the obits section.
“The way I see it, gender is a lens through which we view our journalism at large,” Bennett wrote in an email, explaining that that means staying on top of stories dealing with gender, engaging a female audience, and reconsidering newsroom fundamentals like sourcing, staffing, and representation in photos. “I’m not an internal ombudsman, I want to make that very clear — but I definitely have my eye on these things, as does the leadership who hired me.”
Bennett notes that in 2017, 60 percent of newsroom hires at the Times were women and 35 percent were people of color. But it takes time to transform a newsroom, and McDonald’s department lacks diversity. Of the 1,055 solo-bylined obituaries in 2017, nearly 88 percent were penned by men, according to The Intercept’s analysis.
Since moving to the obituaries department in the beginning of 2015, Sam Roberts has become the section’s most prolific writer, penning 212 obituaries published in 2017 alone. About 75 percent of Roberts’s obits focused on men. By comparison, the top female byline was Margalit Fox, who penned 20 published obits, of which 60 percent focused on men. (McDonald explained that Roberts works the daily news beat on the obits desk, and Fox mostly writes obits prepared in advance of prominent deaths, hence the difference in their output. Even so, hers is the most frequent female byline in the department.)
While The Intercept could not independently confirm the race of every past obituary we examined, it appears that the overwhelming majority of Times obituaries are about white people, who made up about 900 of 1,112 obituary subjects in 2017.
“Overlooked” may benefit women and people of color by raising the profile of the obits desk internally at the Times. Padnani says that more than 50 writers inside and outside the newsroom contacted her after the launch with notes of support and interest in contributing to the effort. Getting broad newsroom buy-in can offer the project longevity and lead to a more inclusive culture.
There’s another facet of the project that McDonald and Padnani hope can drive diversity: user-generated pitches. With the March 8 launch of “Overlooked,” readers were invited to tell the Times about obituaries they’ve missed in the past.
Within a week, the paper received thousands of responses.
The Times has been a key contributor to the revealing reporting about gender inequality that inspired the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, both of which demand immediate action and change. A generation of women is demanding greater equality and expressing less patience for the status quo.
While the passage of time will undoubtedly mean more women and minorities “creep onto” the obituaries page, as Fox puts it in the documentary, McDonald cites competitive pressure from other news organizations as one reason to keep covering former power brokers. “You have to do the people who really demand to be done. If you get a United States senator who’s a white man, but he was a United States senator and he, you know, enacted or proposed legislation that affected people’s lives, you have to do that obit and if you don’t do that obit, you will be criticized.”
That may have been the logic behind the Times obit last week of former Alabama Rep. John H. Buchanan. One might say a Southern member of Congress with an unmemorable record isn’t worth the resources, especially considering the people the Times has missed — not in the distant past, but in the last year. Days before Buchanan’s obit was published, University of California, Berkeley professor and groundbreaking Muslim feminist scholar Saba Mahmood died, but no obituary appeared for her in the Times.
A few of those overlooked by the Times in 2017 were civil rights activist Edith Savage-Jennings, 93, an influential NAACP member and friend of Martin Luther King Jr. who “helped integrate a school in Mississippi and struck up a friendship with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt” and Betty Bone Schiess, 94, who first made the Times’s pages in 1974 as one of two women who got in trouble for being ordained as Episcopalian priests “in defiance of church laws.” There was also Gloria Johnson-Powell, whose family recognized that as the first black woman to become a tenured professor at Harvard Medical School, among many other achievements, she deserved an obituary in the New York Times — so they bought a paid notice that went up on the site for a day. The obituaries desk ignored her death, even though the paper’s beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Halberstam had written of Johnson-Powell’s profound activism in Nashville during the civil rights movement in his book “The Children.”
That’s not the only way in which Fox and McDonald’s references to historic constraints, while artful, fail to explain the persistent lack of gender parity in Times obits. It’s clear that there have long been at least two ways onto the Times obits page: be very important or be very whimsical or unusual. There was the white man who played bass guitar on “Rock Around the Clock,” for instance, or the white man known as the grandfather of American cheerleading, or the white man who was a skilled matchmaker at a Catskills hotel.
While those obits may be pleasurable reads, they seem to have arisen from a different definition of “news judgment” than the one that supposedly led the Times to leave out so many women and people of color. Venida Browder, Kalief’s mother, did not slap a bass 50 years ago or invent the pom-pom or set up dates for horny vacationers. She died advocating against a system that laid waste to her son’s life, and the lives of so many other people of color.
McDonald expressed surprise and regret upon learning that the Times had missed Browder’s death, saying it “may have fallen through the cracks.”
“That’s exactly the kind of obit we would want to do now,” McDonald said. “She would have been worthy, so I’m sorry we didn’t.”