Before we consider the mainstream news obituaries for the man who, for millions of activists, is best known as the father of the modern pro-life movement, let's pause and consider the top paragraphs of The New York Times obituary for one Margaret Sanger.
TUCSON, Ariz., Sept. 6 -- Margaret Sanger, the birth control pioneer, died this afternoon of arteriosclerosis in the Valley House Convalescent Center. She would have been 83 years old on Sept. 14. ...
As the originator of the phrase "birth control" and its best-known advocate, Margaret Sanger survived Federal indictments, a brief jail term, numerous lawsuits, hundreds of street-corner rallies and raids on her clinics to live to see much of the world accept her view that family planning is a basic human right.
The dynamic, titian-haired woman whose Irish ancestry also endowed her with unfailing charm and persuasive wit was first and foremost a feminist.
Now here is the question: Might the gatekeepers of news back in 1966 have considered -- at the very top of the story, in the lede -- making some kind of reference to famous Sanger quotations about race and eugenics drawn from her public writings and remarks? You know, such as this passage on the negative effects of excessive philanthropy:
Our failure to segregate morons who are increasing and multiplying … demonstrates our foolhardy and extravagant sentimentalism …
Instead of decreasing and aiming to eliminate the stocks that are most detrimental to the future of the race and the world, it tends to render them to a menacing degree dominant … We are paying for, and even submitting to, the dictates of an ever-increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all.
In the end, embarrassing Sanger quotations such as these never appeared in the Times obituary for this famous activist and feminist trailblazer. Instead, the piece focused on her massive impact on American life and, indeed, the world. It was built primarily on the views and voices of her many admirers, with her many detractors left silent.
Which brings us back to Willke. Clearly, he was a man with many admirers and many detractors. I can certainly understand that journalists would want to produce obituaries for this controversial man that show both of those realities (although that journalistic goal is often waived, as with Sanger, for those who are considered heroes and heroines of the journalism powers that be).
However, as a former GetReligionista put it in an email yesterday:
What are the odds that upon his death both the NYT and the AP would have the exact same lede about the least important thing (shockingly negative) of one of the most important pro-life leaders in the movement?
Yes, Willke said many things in his life -- including a few controversial things -- as a public educator and activist. But one recent statement seems to have stuck, more than anything else, in the minds of editors.
Dr. John Willke, an obstetrician who helped shape the modern anti-abortion movement with ideas including a belief that a woman can resist conception from a sexual assault, has died, his daughter said Saturday. He was 89.
Willke, who founded the International Right to Life Federation, died Friday at his home in Cincinnati, daughter Marie Meyers said. She said the cause of death wasn't immediately known, but that he had seemed in good health for his age.
"The core of his life was caring for people as a husband, a father and a doctor, and that caring extended to his life's work for unborn children and their mothers," Meyers said.
The obit goes on to offer a somewhat even balance of positive and negative views about Willke and his work. As I said, the man had his enemies and it would be hard to ignore their views. Rather like Sanger?
How about the lede in The Washington Post? Is there a pattern?
John C. Willke, an Ohio physician who helped lead the movement to outlaw abortion in the United States, supplying fellow advocates with arguments that included a widely rebuked claim about a rape victim’s ability to conceive, died Feb. 20 in Cincinnati. He was 89.
And finally, what about The New York Times itself?
Dr. John C. Willke, an obstetrician who helped establish the modern anti-abortion movement -- and whose idea that rape victims could resist conception was widely challenged -- died on Friday at his home in Cincinnati. He was 89. ...
Dr. Willke was a former president of the National Right to Life Committee, the nation’s oldest and largest anti-abortion organization. He and his wife, Barbara, a nurse, founded Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati in the early 1970s and lobbied against Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion. They supported peaceful protests at abortion clinics across the country and spoke out against the use of violence in the name of their cause.
“They knew how to effectively and instinctively communicate” their message, said Bradley Mattes, chief executive and a founding partner with Dr. Willke of the Life Issues Institute, which describes itself as “serving the educational needs of the pro-life movement.”
So what is my point here? My point is that the Willke obituaries offered a balance between negative voices and positive voices but, especially in their ledes, seemed to have been shaped primarily by the views of those who opposed his work.
Would similar obituaries have been written in the mainstream press for a hero of the cultural left, obituaries that focuses just as much on the views of their detractors as on the voices of those who loved and admired them? Viewed as a whole, were the views of Willke that much more controversial than those of, let's say, someone like Sanger?
I would argue against the omission of some negative commentary on Willke and his work being included in his obituary. Then again, had I been writing on these topics in 1966, I am sure I would have also made the same argument for a more balanced approach to Sanger's life and legacy, as well.
Look at those ledes again. Yes, what are the odds?