Through the decades, I have been assigned many different tasks as a journalist -- but I have never had to write a full-scale obituary. Thus, I admit that I don't know how long it takes to write one of those features.
Oh, I've written plenty of columns about religious leaders who have died, columns that served as features or sidebars adding (I hoped) interesting details to the coverage that newsrooms were providing in traditional obits. But I have never written one of those long, detailed obituaries that attempts to provide an overview of a public figure's life.
Of course, the more important the public figure -- at least in the eyes of journalists -- the earlier editors will assign an obit specialist or feature writer to put some basic material on file, "just in case." I am sure that elite American newsrooms already have large packages of features ready on Caitlyn Jenner and the Kardashian crew.
So what does it mean when a newspaper of record -- that would be The New York Times -- produces its own obituary about someone's life almost two weeks after the person died and obits ran in other publications? In other words, what is the statute of limitations on an obituary? Better late than never?
Quite a ways back -- Nov. 16, to be precise -- I ran a post focusing on the obituaries for the Rev. Cliff Barrows, the musical director for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association who was also one of the famous evangelist's closest friends and advisors. The local paper on this story, The Charlotte Observer, tried to show the behind-the-scenes role that Barrows played in Graham's life and work. In other words, there was much more to this story than a man directing giant choirs at evangelistic crusades. The Associated Press obit? No need to go there.
I noticed, at the time, that The New York Times ran the AP story on its website. This did not surprise me. I would imagine that the life and work this Graham associate was not on the radar of many editors in that newsroom.
Later -- as in Nov. 25 later -- the Times ran its own Barrows obit. Why the delay? Did someone simply forget to do one? Did it take that long to get an in-depth feature done? Had the obit been written already, but editors overlooked it? Perhaps there wasn't enough space in the obit section for a piece on this heartland hero? Were there obit-desk debates about whether Barrows merited this kind of attention from the great Gray Lady?
The headline was perfectly ordinary: "Cliff Barrows, Billy Graham’s Longtime Musical Director, Dies at 93." Then note the time element in this lede:
Cliff Barrows, a farmer’s son and ordained Baptist minister who for more than 70 years was the musical voice and program manager of the Rev. Billy Graham’s global Christian evangelistic crusades, died on Nov. 15 in Pineville, N.C. He was 93.
His death was announced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
“Cliff Barrows has led more people in singing than any other man in the world,” Mr. Graham said in 1992.
Nothing surprising there, except that the announcement was made much earlier in the month. There is one other piece of evidence in the text hinting that the timing on this piece was rather strange.
Mr. Graham, who is 98 and was too frail to attend Mr. Barrows’s funeral, said in a statement last week, “There wouldn’t be a Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in the way it is today without him.”
So what did the Times team end up producing on this interesting public figure? Clearly, the staff had the advantage of reading the insights of others who published pieces in the days after the death of Barrows.
To be blunt, this is a perfectly normal obit drawn from sources on paper. As best I can tell, the Times did no interviews of its own to add depth to this piece. Any hints about Barrows playing a larger role in Graham's work -- other than his music and media skills -- is provided by quotes from other published works. Such as:
“Cliff Barrows was arguably the most crucial teammate Billy ever recruited,” Harold Myra and Marshall Shelley wrote in 2005 in “The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham.” “He was a skilled and charismatic emcee and musician, leading the program in giant gatherings, a creative force in leading new initiatives, a candid counselor, and a man who knew how to both follow and lead.” ...
William Martin, the author of the 1991 biography “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story,” described Mr. Barrows in Christianity Today magazine as Mr. Graham’s “closest friend and most trusted associate.” His death, he said, “marks the end of one of the most enduring partnerships in evangelistic history.”
What about the obvious New York City angle in all of this? I imagine the Times library had tons of material -- stories and photos -- linked to Graham and Barrows, because of this connection that finally shows up at the end of the piece:
The Billy Graham crusade that Mr. Barrows said he recalled most fondly was in 1957 at Madison Square Garden in New York, a city where skeptics predicted an evangelistic preacher would flop. But the scheduled six-week revival was extended to 16 weeks and drew an estimated two million people.
Yes, that was one of the most pivotal moments in the work of these two remarkable men. Did anyone in the current newsroom know that?