.Publication:The New York Sun; Date:Jun 8, 2004; Section:Front page; Page:1
When Reagan Died, the Nation’s Obituary Writers Were in the Desert — and Out in the Cold
By STEPHEN MILLER
Staff Reporter of the Sun
There is an old newspaper joke about two reporters and an editor who discover a magic lamp.When the genie grants them each a wish, the reporters ask to be transported to lush tropical vacation spots. The editor’s wish is to get the reporters back to the office on the double.
At 5:02 p.m. on Saturday, when the news of President Reagan’s death flashed over the Associated Press newswire, many of the nation’s top obituary editors and writers were far from their newsrooms, and largely out of reach of their editors — attending the annual Great Obituary Writers’ International conference at the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, N.M.
“We were in a somber discussion about the coverage of the 9-11 deaths and the deaths of soldiers in Iraq,” said Adam Bernstein, an obituary writer at the Washington Post.“It kind of capped the experience of the convention.”
Rumors that Reagan was at death’s door had been circulating for several days, but it still came as a shock when two conference participants burst through the doors crying, “Stop the presses! Stop the presses!”
A number of the approximately 45 assembled obituary professionals from America and Britain raced for the single payphone in the hotel lobby, and the winner was the thirtysomething Mr. Bernstein of the Washington Post, the most youthful reporter on hand.
“I raced to the phone to block the Daily Telegraph from getting access,” said Mr. Bernstein, explaining that he had little role in the four front-page stories and eight-page pullout package that his paper ran Sunday.
Like the competitive reporters in a scene from “The Front Page,” Mr. Bernstein said, “I almost wanted to put an ‘Out of Order’ sign on the pay phone.”
Since Reagan had announced he had Alzheimer’s disease over a decade ago, most newspapers had a package of coverage in place, including a main obituary, sidebars covering Reagan’s earlier careers in sports announcing and acting, as well as timelines and numerous graphics. So few of the obituary writers in attendance were needed critically.
Second in line for the payphone was Shari Baxter, an assistant news editor at the Dallas Morning News, who had directed that newspaper’s Reagan coverage.
“I felt shock and disbelief,” Ms. Baxter recalled. “I couldn’t imagine a worse scenario. This was my biggest project.”
She said her favorite parts of the Dallas Morning News’s coverage were trivia items, such as the origin of the epithet “Teflon Presidency,” which Ms. Baxter said was first used by Colorado Rep. Patricia Shroeder, who thought of it while cooking eggs for her family.
Ms. Baxter immediately headed for the exit and drove to the airport in Albuquerque. She missed her paper’s deadline however, and had to be content with directing final details by phone.
Ms. Baxter said she had gleaned one nugget: News coverage included the fact that the Rev. Billy Graham was too ill to attend funeral services Friday in Washington. If anything, Rev. Graham’s reputation is larger in Texas than anywhere in the nation. Ms. Baxter said she was planning to get started on his obituary immediately.
Carolyn Gilbert, who has organized each of the seven Great Obituary Writers’ conferences noted that it was not the first time that reports of a major death had disrupted proceedings. “At the second conference [in 1999] we had a false report of Bob Hope’s death,” she said.