How we deal with the dead.

What's happening in our readers' forum.
June 18 2008 11:05 AM

"Canonization, Backlash, Backlash-Backlash"

How we deal with the dead.

Where do Slate readers stand on obituaries? As of today, in two camps, snarling across the Potomac at each other about Tim Russert. One tendency dislikes the way the magazine's admittedly irreverent tone will not be toned down for a death, and the fact that Slate will highlight—in "Recycled"—older and often deeply uncomplimentary articles on the dead person. Recently this happened with Sydney Pollack—an archived and rather grumpy "Assessment" was paired with a more respectful "Obit," and some readers were unimpressed. When the inventor of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax, died, and Slate published an unfavorable commentary, we had to devote a whole "Fraywatch," to reader reaction ("don't mess with the game people" we concluded). But then, there's another whole army of readers who say that that's what they come to Slate for—a contrarian view, a refreshing and unsentimental look at what's happening. That's not how the other side describes it, of course.

So, to Tim Russert. First there was a "Recycled" item linking to past articles on him: Several readers said how inappropriate they found that. Then, Jack Shafer wrote a "Press Box" about the eulogies on Tim Russert. Too much, he said. Readers responded—boy did they respond.  More than 200 posts on the topic, proving at the very least that Russert's death touched a nerve—though also proving the second rule of Fray responses: Get featured on the MSN home page and a lot of non-Slate regulars will read the article, and comment.

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A few careful readers appreciated the observation made by Right By Choice: "I didn't see an unkind word in the whole article about Russert himself"—but for most people this was neither noticed nor relevant. More to the point was Lucabrasi's phrase "Canonization, backlash, backlash-backlash," which summed up the situation so well that we're using it to define the responses.

Canonization: An outside observer (like your foreign Fray Editor) might be surprised by the number of readers saying how much they identified with Russert—"My entire family reacted to Tim's death as though we had lost a member of our family" as JoAnn put it, a thought repeated by many others. He was "someone of blue collar roots who used his position as the moderator of Meet the Press to engage in a dialog with prominent politicians and get straight answers for mainstream America" according to Slate1234.

There were tributes from those likeRithorn, who admits to "Potomac fever" and says "We out here in the hinterland came to look forward to his observations and commentary." JTully was firm: "I am the common man ... [the coverage] was for all of us, I frankly, didn't miss a minute of it … Tim Russert was fair … brilliant, and yet a common man from a common background." Many, like AberdeenJessica, wanted to mention their own working-class roots while praising "his ability to keep a foot proudly in two worlds."

The Backlash community—Shafer's supporters—comes with this bracing comment from mdfine: "I have been a Slate reader and occasional poster for some time now and I can honestly say that I have never agreed with a single thing that Jack Shafer has written until now." HebrewHammer says his piece with grace: "I don't want to seem cold, but it seems to me that we used to embrace a tragedy with quiet grace and self-reflection. Now we flaunt it by showing the people around us how much we can mourn." WhiteCamry was sharper: "Tim Russert's middle name wasn't Diana, was it?"

There were other comments on Russert: TheRealRML said "He was the Elvis of political commentators: He was everywhere and even his competitors wanted to capture his qualities"; GregLDixon went with the "he was everywhere" theme too: "Russert, champion of time management." And we (respectfully) laughed at TheMexican's comment: "He was a great guy, let's name a potato after him!"

Then there was the Backlash-Backlash: people who saw the point of the article but had another take. The question of what the Russert coverage displaced on the news channels was much mulled over, and Dbguy asked "You really missed folks pontificating as to how Obama would do with Hillary women in November that much? We'll know that soon enough." Another reader, nancyacramer, said that "on some level, for many of us, actors, broadcasters, and personalities of every sort find their way into the fabric of our lives more deeply than we realize" and went on to tell us that some friends who'd felt Russert's loss deeply had then been glad to be able to watch Tiger Woods in the U.S. Open golf tournament. Esteban had a peace-making suggestion: "How about an 'in the ground' rule in which all would be fair in love, war, and media criticism after the funeral?"

There's one more post we really want to feature: from Schoolie, who says he liked Russert, but "I've never seen a bigger celebration of banality in my life than last weekend on the TV news. Dad! Football! Jesus! I generally hope for more secret perversity in my public figures." We've said it before: It's hard to define our ideal Slate/Fray reader, but we know him when we find him.—MR ... 4 p.m. GMT

Saturday, June 07,  2008