Apparently, the New York Times decided that perpetuating bias against women and non-whites born in the 1920s and 1930s is a valid reason to maintain the paper’s vastly unbalanced obituary section well into the twenty-first century. They admit their obits section is unbalanced and favors “the movers and shakers.” But the fact that white men became those movers and shakers, and are now dying off, means that their obits are more important — Times-worthy, if you will — than the deaths of women and non-whites of the same era.

A Times reader, Mike Sponder, writes the new Public Editor:

Women rarely die, it seems. Check the Aug. 27 and Aug. 28 obituary pages of The Times.

Eight men were noted in obituaries and only one woman. I think you will find this consistent over any period you look at. Take any recent period, whether it is a week, a month or a year, and the numbers are consistent.

In his reply, the obituaries editor makes clear that his editorial judgment is to perpetuate past discrimination, and that the deaths of men, particularly white men, are more newsworthy:

A couple of things to remember about obits in The Times: One is that we set the bar high. Your death has to be news to a national and international readership. So we narrow the field to those who made the largest imprint and possibly found fame (or notoriety) in the process.

He points out that the world once inhabited and formed by the newly dead is, in fact, a world where bias reined. The opportunity to make a large imprint, and possibly find fame or notoriety, was mainly limited to a white, male subset of society: the folks who ran things then, and other people who looked like themselves.

They largely came of age around midcentury and began making their marks in the postwar years. It was an era largely run by men, and white men at that. So if you apply our rigid selectivity — a focus on movers and shakers — to that era, it should come as no surprise that an overwhelming percentage of the people we write about were white and male.

What this means is that even in death, women and non-whites (whose contributions to society were more limited or in more gender- and race-segregated fields) won’t make the New York Times, since there are probably seven ‘movers and shakers’ who are white men and thus more accomplished in death — and more deserving of an obit. It’s the ‘rigid selectivity’ that’s the problem, and that reinforces bias a half-century old.

The obits editor admits this bias:

So is bias reflected on the obit page? In a manner of speaking, yes. But I would submit that the bias, and even rank discrimination, in evidence there occurred long ago, when executive suites, law offices, college faculties, newsrooms and legislative chambers tacitly (or not so tacitly) passed the word: “men only.”


It’s not our bias, it’s the then-world’s bias!

The NYT obits, you see, are only a reflection of a biased history, not a perpetuation of that history. And there’s not any reason to criticize the obits page for its reflection of history:

But in the end, women make up only 10 to 20 percent of the obits we publish. History has left them vastly outnumbered.

Yes, that’s exactly the complaint: the New York Times in writing the final passage of these subjects’ first draft of history, and allowing the world’s past bias to influence its obituary selection criteria.

Good for you for understanding the problem, Mr Obits Editor.

To his credit, Public Editor Arthur Brisbane recommends the obits department look further afield for deaths of significant contributors who are non-male and non-white. But isn’t it a shame that, even when all the moving and shaking stops, men still have an eight-to-one advantage in having their deaths documented for the rest of the world (or the New York Times audience)?

Someone should tell the Times’ obits editor: Perpetuating historical discrimination is still discrimination. Saying “it’s always been done this way” or “it’s done this way because it was done so back then” is no way to break down old gender and race boundaries. It’s no way to write the last chapter of the first draft of our history.