Obits: Closing the gap between good and great

To sum up a life, you must improve your sense of focus and authority

A question to tape on your computer:

WHAT’S THIS STORY ABOUT?

It’s a way of reminding yourself that a story has to have a sense of urgency to reach its potential.

Obits: Closing the gap between good and great

Obits: Closing the gap between good and great

A slogan to tape on your computer:

THE GREATEST DISTANCE IS THE GAP BETWEEN GOOD AND GREAT

It’s a way of prodding yourself to push that B-plus story harder, to look for ways to make it an A.

Think about both these values in the context of obituary writing.

Obits are a great test of your ability to define a story on your own terms, rather than having to rely on other voices. They present a wonderful challenge: Distill and define the meaning of an entire life–not with a bunch of quotes, but with your own reporting and insights.

When a writer goes to the heart of what a life means, he is slicing through traditional elliptical writing–the formulaic, tentative style that gradually encircles the truth, rather than going right to the heart.

Here, for your consideration, are two pairs of obits. The first pair were written last year when Washington Post Publisher Katherine Graham died.

First, the top of the L.A. Times’ story:

Katharine Graham, the tough-minded media giant who led the Washington Post through the publishing minefields of the Watergate scandal and the Pentagon Papers and ultimately became the most powerful woman in American newspapers, died Tuesday in Boise, Idaho. She was 84.

Graham sustained head injuries in a fall Saturday while on a business trip to Sun Valley, Idaho. She underwent surgery but never regained consciousness.

For many years, as the Post group’s chief executive, she commanded the largest Fortune 500 company ever run by a woman. Under her leadership, the Post grew from a small, family-owned local paper to one with international influence and stature.

“She set a newspaper on a course that took it to the very top ranks of American journalism in principle and excellence and fairness. That’s a fantastic legacy,” said Ben Bradlee, a vice president and former editor of the Post who commented on her life and legacy at a staff meeting at the paper Tuesday. “I just say, ‘Well done, fantastic job.’ ”

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, chairman emeritus of the New York Times Co., said Tuesday that he was deeply saddened by her passing.

“Throughout the last half of the 20th century, she used her intelligence, her courage and her wit to transform the landscape of American journalism, and everyone who cares about a free and impartial press will greatly miss her,” Sulzberger said in a statement.

Another contemporary, former Los Angeles Times Publisher Otis Chandler, said it was difficult to do justice “to her contributions to this nation, to freedom of the press, to journalism and quality writing, to her role in bringing the Washington Post to preeminence as one of the world’s great newspapers, and to the role of women in business.”

Graham was chairman of the executive committee of the Washington Post Co., whose holdings include the Washington Post newspaper, Newsweek magazine and various television and cable broadcast systems, along with interests in the International Herald Tribune and the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.

Graham’s courageous decision in a 1st Amendment battle with the government over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a secret report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and her later role in backing the investigation of Watergate, established her as one of the great newspaper publishers of the 20th century.

In his book “A Good Life,” Bradlee put Graham’s leadership in perspective when he described the moment she gave the go-ahead to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971: “What I didn’t understand, as Katharine’s ‘OK . . . let’s go. Let’s publish’ rang in my ears, was how permanently the ethos of the paper changed, and how it crystallized for editors and reporters everywhere how independent and determined and confident of its purpose the new Washington Post had become.”

Not long afterward, the Post burnished its reputation when it led the nation’s media in uncovering the Watergate scandal. The Post was alone in its trailblazing investigative reports of dirty dealings in the White House, which led to the indictment of 40 administration officials and to the 1974 resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, who had sworn to ruin Graham if her reporters persisted….

Not bad, right? Notice, however, that there were three outside observations in the first seven paragraphs, and that they employ a lot of stilted language. That’s weak. An authoritative voice, fueled by good reporting, should be able to do that work on its own. An authoritative voice in this case would also have recognized the feminist implications of Graham’s life–something this story did not do until the 15th graf.

Now read the top of the New York Times’ obit. Watch how this version was more determined to tell you the story of two transformations–the Post’s, and Graham’s herself. Watch, too, how it does it without any outside experts. Remarkably, it will be 40 grafs (I won’t make you read them all) before this story uses more than one outside comment to validate Graham’s life. (And even that comment is a reference to Graham’s autobiography.) We’ll give you the first 11 grafs, the same number you read in the L.A. Times example:

Katharine Graham, who transformed The Washington Post from a mediocre newspaper into an American institution and, in the process, transformed herself from a shy widow into a publishing legend, died yesterday after suffering head injuries in a fall on a sidewalk on Saturday in Idaho. She was 84.

Mrs. Graham had been attending a business conference in Sun Valley. She was flown to a hospital in Boise, where she underwent brain surgery but never recovered consciousness, her son Donald E. Graham said.

Mrs. Graham was one of the most powerful figures in American journalism and, for the last decades of her life, at the pinnacle of Washington’s political and social establishments, a position this insecure wife and mother never imagined she would, or could, occupy.

It was only after she succeeded her father and her husband as president and later publisher of The Washington Post, a newspaper with a modest circulation and more modest reputation, that it moved into the front rank of American newspapers, reaching new heights when its unrelenting reporting of the Watergate scandal contributed to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974.

Mrs. Graham’s courage in supporting her reporters and editors through the long investigation was critical to its success. Three years before Watergate, she gave solid backing to The New York Times in a historic confrontation with the government when she permitted her editors to join in publishing the secret revelations about the war in Vietnam known as the Pentagon Papers.

Mrs. Graham would have been the first to say the single greatest decision of her professional career was not in publishing the Pentagon Papers nor in exposing the Watergate scandal but in hiring Benjamin C. Bradlee to be her editor. With her support he forged a staff of reporters and editors that made The Washington Post a force in the capital and in the world of journalism.

Now the obit returns to the theme of personal development:

Mrs. Graham capped her career when she was 80 years old in 1998 by winning a Pulitzer Prize for biography for her often painful reminiscence, “Personal History” (Alfred A. Knopf). Nora Ephron, in her review of the best-selling memoir in The New York Times Book Review, wrote of Mrs. Graham, “The story of her journey from daughter to wife to widow to woman parallels to a surprising degree the history of women in this century.”

Mrs. Graham was a socialite mother of four when her husband, Philip L. Graham, committed suicide in 1963. Her father had given Mr. Graham control of The Post and when the latter died, his widow found herself in a mysterious thicket of corporate politics dominated by men unaccustomed to a woman in the boardroom and highly skeptical of her ability to run a newspaper.

Mrs. Graham saw herself at best as only as an interim caretaker who would try to hold on to The Post for her children. She became something quite different: the effective steward of a multimillion-dollar communications empire.

“It’s sort of like a fairy tale,” Mrs. Graham said on being told of her Pulitzer Prize. But her life was its own sort of fairy tale.

She was born in New York City on June 16, 1917. Her father, Eugene Meyer, made his fortune on Wall Street, became a governor of the Federal Reserve Bank, went on to organize the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and was appointed the first president of the World Bank. Her mother, the former Agnes Ernst, was a tall, self-absorbed woman of intellectual and artistic ambition. She was scathingly critical and often harsh with her daughter, the fourth of five children.

The second pair of obits we’ll compare for focus and authoritative voice were published last week when entertainment-industry legend Lew Wasserman died. This is another great life, but a complex one that required the writer to distill the many ways Wasserman affected his industry and popular culture.

We’ll start with the L.A. Times’ version:

Lew R. Wasserman, a onetime theater usher and talent agent who emerged as the most powerful mogul in post-World War II Hollywood, died Monday morning at his Beverly Hills home from complications of a stroke. He was 89.

Wasserman’s health had deteriorated since May 17, when he suffered the stroke. In keeping with his intensely private life, Wasserman’s family held services late Monday.

Effectively detached from the business for the last seven years, Wasserman was still Hollywood’s patriarch, his advice sought by executives, union leaders and politicians. His death marks the symbolic passing of an era in Hollywood that is unlikely to be repeated. Both feared and respected, Wasserman single-handedly wielded the kind of behind-the-scenes clout that could settle labor disputes, bring together studios with conflicting agendas and influence power brokers in Washington, D.C.

“For decades he was the chief justice of the film industry–fair, tough-minded, and innovative. I feel that all of us have lost our benevolent godfather,” director Steven Spielberg said.

As head of the former MCA Inc., Wasserman built the prototype of today’s entertainment conglomerates, meshing entertainment units together while leveraging successes in one area, such as movies, into profitable ventures in other businesses, such as theme parks and television. As an agent, he forged a landmark deal for actor James Stewart giving the star a piece of the profits and wide-ranging creative control, power that top stars today take for granted.

He put together a company that boasted a movie studio that gave Spielberg his break with “Jaws” and also released such Spielberg hits as “Jurassic Park,” “E.T.–the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Schindler’s List.” Other films released during Wasserman’s tenure included the Oscar-winning “Out of Africa,” “American Graffiti,” and comedies such as the raunchy “Animal House.”

When other Hollywood figures viewed television in its infancy as a threat to the motion picture studios, Wasserman saw its promise and embraced it, operating a television division that over the years produced such hit shows as “Kojak,” “Miami Vice” and “Coach.” MCA’s music conglomerate boasted top acts across the spectrum, including Nirvana, Reba McEntire and Elton John. The Universal Studios theme park Wasserman built attracted millions of visitors to Southern California each year from around the world, luring them with the glamour of touring a studio back lot where films were made.

Wasserman’s imprint went well beyond the entertainment business and into politics. Smarting from a 1962 deal with the federal government forcing him to divest his talent agency business from MCA’s movie operations, Wasserman vowed never to let something like that happen again and immersed himself in the workings of government.

A confidant of presidents and world leaders, Wasserman correctly sensed that money and access to stars spoke volumes with politicians. He became Hollywood’s most skillful executive at raising campaign funds and at forging ties to top politicians in Washington, Sacramento and at Los Angeles City Hall. From his office on the 15th floor of MCA’s Black Tower that now carries his name in Universal City, Wasserman, with a handful of phone calls, could rally Hollywood to raise millions for candidates.

Even the most powerful of moguls rarely turned down a personal appeal from Wasserman. He became the most important fund-raiser in Hollywood in an era when huge sums were needed to buy television ads and conduct national campaigns.

He was one of the first Hollywood executives to get to know Bill Clinton…

Okay, that was very good. But did you notice that the top few grafs seemed to concentrate more on telling you how powerful and influential Wasserman was, rather than showing it to you? Watch what happens when a writer becomes just a bit more consumed with forcing you to quickly confront the genius of someone like Wasserman. The New York Times’ obituary used a clever chronological device to show you the sustained and varied impact Wasserman had. Here are the first 10 grafs:

Lew R. Wasserman, the former chairman and chief executive of the Music Corporation of America, who was arguably the most powerful and influential Hollywood titan in the four decades after World War II, died yesterday in Beverly Hills. He was 89.

The man considered the last of the legendary movie moguls, Mr. Wasserman began as a theater usher, became an MCA agent for entertainers and eventually changed the face of the movie business.

Now the writer gives you one sentence for each decade:

Working on behalf of his film-star clients in the late 1940’s, he put an end to the ironclad long-term contracts that turned even big-name actors into high-paid serfs of the major studios.

In the 1950’s, he forced a reluctant Hollywood to accept television, then a new medium, as a potential cash cow rather than as a feared competitor.

In the 1960’s, he demonstrated the political influence that Hollywood could wield by organizing huge fund-raising campaigns, particularly for the Democratic Party. And in the 1970’s, his deft marketing of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and other movies was credited with creating the summer blockbuster.

Five grafs into the story, you have an indelible appreciation-and the writer has made it easier for you to decide whether to keep reading.

Curiously, Hollywood’s need to produce ever more expensive blockbusters ignited a series of mergers and takeovers that led to Mr. Wasserman’s decline. Surrounded by new media giants like Time Warner and the News Corporation, Mr. Wasserman sold MCA to the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company of Japan in 1990. Though he stayed on to manage MCA, he effectively lost control of it to Matsushita, with which he fought bitterly.

Then, in 1995, without even informing Mr. Wasserman, Matsushita sold MCA to the Seagram Company, the conglomerate controlled by the Bronfman family of New York and Montreal. MCA was renamed Universal Studios by its new president, Edgar Bronfman Jr. Though Mr. Wasserman was retained by Universal as a media consultant, his impact on Hollywood had effectively been diminished.

Throughout his long career, Mr. Wasserman avoided the limelight and rarely sat for interviews. “Publicity is for clients, not for us,” he often told his MCA subordinates. As a result, he was not as well known as Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner and the other pioneering movie moguls whose later years overlapped his own reign at the top. Yet, all these larger-than-life figures often confined their power to their studios, while Mr. Wasserman’s influence was felt across the entire industry.

“He became the godfather of the film industry for many years,” the actor Charlton Heston said of Mr. Wasserman in “The Last Mogul,” a 1998 biography of the MCA chairman by Dennis McDougal. In a 1995 interview with The Washington Post, Jack Valenti, the movie industry’s chief Washington lobbyist, described the man who got him his job as a god rather than a mere godfather: “What you have to understand is if Hollywood is Mount Olympus, Lew Wasserman is Zeus.”

The talent Mr. Wasserman had under contract to MCA included Bette Davis, James Stewart, Judy Garland, Henry Fonda, Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gregory Peck, Gene Kelly, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Jack Benny and George Burns and Gracie Allen. Among the many blockbuster movies produced by MCA’s film subsidiary, Universal Studios, under his reign were “Airport,” “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial,” “Jurassic Park” and “Back to the Future.” The hit series produced by MCA for television included “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” “Magnum P.I.,” “Miami Vice” and “Murder, She Wrote.”

Tall, gaunt, with white hair, oversize black-rimmed glasses and his usual dark suit, Mr. Wasserman inspired…

ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF DIRECTNESS VERSUS ELLIPTICAL WRITING was on display last week when Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent who wrote a critical memo about the national security bureaucracy, testified before Congress.

The L.A. Times’ story seemed to almost dance around the specifics of WHAT Rowley told the hearing. Watch how long it took to get to specifics, creating a sense of impatience, at least with me, and I only had one cup of coffee the day it ran.

WASHINGTON — Coleen Rowley, the veteran Minneapolis FBI agent whose scathing critique of her bosses has made her a hero, told rapt lawmakers Thursday in her first public appearance that the FBI’s “ever-growing bureaucracy” has stymied the hunt for terrorists.

“We need a way to get around the roadblocks,” Rowley told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in a two-hour appearance that ranged from folksy observations about a field agent’s life to condemnation of FBI headquarters in Washington.

Rowley, an Iowa native who speaks with a heartland twang, acknowledged that she never imagined she would be thrust in the middle of the national terrorism debate when she spent three sleepless nights last month drafting a letter about missteps in the FBI’s handling of suspected “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui.

But by Thursday, as she told her story publicly for the first time after nearly two weeks in seclusion, she had become the darling of FBI-bashers demanding top-to-bottom changes in the embattled bureau.

Okay, I still want to know: What IS her story? Why does the writer assume I have paid rapt attention to this running story?

Rowley, 47, has had private audiences this week with senators and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. Justice Department investigators probing intelligence failures surrounding Sept. 11 are waiting to hear her allegations, and hundreds of current and former FBI agents have e-mailed and called her with words of support for giving voice to frustrations many said they shared.

Rowley was mobbed by photographers as she took her seat at the witness table in one of the Senate’s ornate hearing rooms, where she was fawned over by lawmakers.

“Agent Rowley is a patriotic American who had the courage to put truth first and raise critical but important questions about how the FBI handled a terrorist case before the attacks, and about the FBI’s cultural problems,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

During the hearing, senators wanted her input on everything from “careerism” and computer woes at the FBI to President Bush’s plans to restructure homeland security.

But what is she SAYING? It’s only here I start to get something:

Rowley, a 21-year veteran agent who also serves as general counsel in the FBI’s Minneapolis field office, begged off commenting about some of the bigger topics that went beyond her pay grade. But she was anxious to lay the blame for investigative missteps on bureaucratic ineptitude.

A “don’t-rock-the-boat” mentality has stifled aggressive police work, she said, and a reorganization plan unveiled last week in Washington to add still more levels of oversight to the FBI’s nine-layer counter-terrorism bureaucracy threatens more of the same.

“Why create more [layers]? It’s not going to be an answer,” she said.

Only here do I get the background I need:

In her now-famous May 21 letter to Mueller, Rowley complained that after Moussaoui was picked up on an immigration violation in August because of his suspicious activities at a flight school, FBI agents in Minneapolis strongly suspected that he was a terrorist. But their efforts to get a secret intelligence warrant to search his belongings and laptop computer were rebuffed by FBI supervisors in Washington who did not think they had a strong enough case, she said.

A later search of Moussaoui’s computer and other items produced…

By contrast, watch how the New York Times focused you more quickly:

WASHINGTON–The F.B.I. agent whose impassioned protest letter ignited a storm of criticism of the bureau’s management told a Senate committee today that the F.B.I.’s bureaucracy discouraged innovation, drowned investigators in paperwork and punished agents who sought to cut through the many layers of gatekeepers at the bureau’s headquarters.

The agent, Coleen Rowley, a lawyer in the bureau’s Minneapolis office, gave the Senate Judiciary Committee a rare glimpse into life in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s field offices, where most of the investigative work is done, but where she said agents operated under risk-averse superiors in Washington.

“There’s a certain pecking order, and it’s real strong,” Ms. Rowley said, referring to how agents were effectively barred from raising issues over the heads of their immediate supervisors. Even then, she said, numerous layers of officials at headquarters second-guessed the decisions of agents in the field. “Seven to nine levels is really ridiculous,” she said.

A lawyer who said she had spent half her life in the F.B.I., Ms. Rowley, 47, seemed comfortable as a star witness in a nationally televised hearing into how the bureau handled warning signs that could have uncovered the Sept. 11 plot. Ms. Rowley said she was surprised by the furor her letter caused.

In the letter, sent on May 21 to the bureau director, Robert S. Mueller III, Ms. Rowley bitterly criticized the performance of F.B.I. headquarters agents in handling the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, who is accused of being the 20th hijacker. She complained that headquarters agents stifled attempts by Minneapolis agents to obtain a warrant to examine Mr. Moussaoui’s laptop computer. Mr. Moussaoui’s computer was not searched until after the attacks. It contained data about the cockpit layouts of large commercial aircraft and phone numbers like one in Germany for the roommate of Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the plot.

Republican and Democratic senators heaped praise on Ms. Rowley for what they called her courage in criticizing senior F.B.I. officials over Sept. 11. Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican and longtime advocate of whistle-blowers, called her “a dedicated public servant who tells it like it is.”

Get it? The writer was not going to let anybody else have the floor until you knew what had happened, how it fit in to the context. The writer out-performed the L.A. Times by bringing a sense of urgency to the story-a belief that only some quick specific facts would keep you reading.

RECOMMENDED READING: Orlando Sentinel columnist Kathleen Parker said some well-chosen words in defense of cussin’ in the newsroom:

Newspaper readers often lament the declining quality of journalism and wonder, what happened? Two words. Human resources.

Thanks in part to human resources personnel — those well-meaning, misguided individuals who view writers and editors as cogs in a well-oiled machine — newsrooms have lost their souls.

Reporters — good ones — are wild, untamable spirits who, in the core of their crusty little hearts, really do love and want to pursue Truth, Liberty and Justice for all. Or something like that, and so it was once upon a time. Those who try to tame them are as Anne Rice’s body thieves or the body snatchers of movie fame. They evict the irascible artist and install a complaisant tenant unrecognizable just a couple of decades ago.

I was reminded of these changes recently while browsing Jim Romenesko’s media gossip Web site (www.poynter.org/medianews). Like most in the media, I visit this site once or twice a month, mostly hoping not to find my name there.

The current online debate among industry folks concerns a column by Jill Geisler, a “leadership and management group leader,” whatever that is, for the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based school for journalists. Geisler has a long list of journalism credentials and has won a bunch of awards in both print and broadcast.

Her column in part addressed the use of profanity in newsrooms. Geisler, whose bio says she teaches managers “the keys to building strong newsroom cultures and systems,” said more or less that profanity in newsrooms is inappropriate, unnecessary and can contribute to a hostile environment.

She wrote: “As managers, we must understand the issues of language and civility more clearly and care about them more deeply, because we set the tone of our workplace.”

On the surface, there’s not much to argue with. It’s hard to make a case for profanity. There’s too much of it in our culture; it’s coarse and demeaning; it suggests intellectual laziness and blahblahblah.

Thus, it wasn’t so much Geisler’s comments that caused my carotid artery to swell as it was the spirit behind her column, or should I say, the lack thereof. That lack of spirit, sacrificed on the altar of efficiency, is what’s wrong with newsrooms, journalism and, in my humble opinion, the whole country.

As monopolies have gobbled up daily papers, eliminating competition and streamlining “product,” they’ve installed bean counters and human resource managers where hungover city editors used to do just fine. We’ve traded passion for “good feelings,” and individuality for multicultural groupthink. Where we used to kick a– and take names, we have become precious.

I hate to sound like an old-timer, but after 25 years pecking at keyboards, I’m beginning to feel like one. My first newsroom was a smoky cocoon of noisy typewriter clatter, puddles of spilled coffee, desks piled with yellowing newspapers, books and over-filled ashtrays, flirting run amok, gruff old men who kept liquor bottles in the bottom desk drawer and curmudgeonly characters right out of central casting, including one bonhomme who took a nap every day on a cracked leather couch under — are you sitting down? — a window.

And yes, we cussed like, well, like what? You can’t say “sailors.” Last time I wrote that cliche I got a letter from a human resources officer of the U.S. Navy. You can’t say Sopranos. I’ve got an inch-thick file from the Italian American Anti-Defamation League.

How about this: We cussed like blondes on the third frisk through airport security.

In those days, journalism was irresistible. You fell in love the moment you stepped into the newsroom, even if it was 7:30 in the morning and you were facing six obits before you wrote the first of three stories due by noon. It was exhilarating, not just because you got paid for writing, but because it was FUN.

There’s little fun about today’s newsrooms. My next newsroom just five years later was an electronic morgue for obsessive compulsives. Editors looked cookie-cut from a Wharton MBA mold, sporting carefully clipped beards and bow ties. No one smoked. Coffee cups had been displaced by Evian bottles. Flirting, now officially illegal, was via instant messages, surreptitious and far more dangerous.

Gone were the liquor bottles, the ashtrays and organized mess. Desks were tidy in accordance with management’s Tidiness Memo. Gone too were the napping curmudgeon, the hungover city editor, the leather couch, the spirit, the passion, the fun.

Not all things old are better, but newsrooms were. And journalism practiced in a less constrained environment may have been, too. Some things can’t be micromanaged, and the human spirit, that intangible force that keeps underpaid, overworked writers from going AWOL, is one. Dammit.