Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Early antiwar activist dies in obscurity, and the national paper of record runs an obit 7 years later

Don Duncan made this liberal magazine's cover.
The obituary in The Madison Courier in Southern Indiana about a 79-year-old man who had died in a local nursing home was nothing special, other than noting his sister (actually a stepsister) was Mitzi Gaynor, not otherwise identified. It also did not mention that he had returned from a tour as a Green Beret sergeant in Vietnam and quit the Army to become "one of the war's fiercest critics, well before the antiwar movement had gathered steam," reports William McDonald of The New York Times.

McDonald is the Times obituary editor. His story ran last week. The obituary of Donald W. Duncan had appeared in 2009, unbeknownst to the Times, which a few years later started to prepare an obit on him because he "made an appreciable impact on the national discussion of the war," McDonald wrote.

When the Times discovered that Duncan's death had been reported, it had a decision to make. "If another news organization, particularly one with national reach, had run an obituary in 2009, we would have stood down, acknowledging that we had been napping back then and that it was way too late now to make up for the lapse," McDonald wrote. "A competitive daily newspaper isn’t keen on reporting something that happened seven years ago. Unless, of course, virtually no one else had reported it. We decided to pursue the obituary, the seven years notwithstanding. The thinking was, we would have written about Mr. Duncan immediately after he died had we known, so we should apply the same standard now. His death, in a sense, was still news, and his story still deserved to be told. What’s more, in an odd way, the very obscurity of his death added an unexpected, even poignant, element."

The Times obit by Robert McFadden said Duncan "died in the obscurity of a small Midwestern town seven years ago, an all-but-forgotten soldier. He was 79. In an age of seeming information ubiquity, the news media will generally recall the lives of noteworthy people when they die. But Mr. Duncan’s death went largely unnoticed outside of Madison, Ind., the Ohio River town where he lived."

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