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Fascinating Fake

Adam Bernstein

The New York Times wrote an obituary recently for Joe O'Donnell, who professed to have been an official White House photographer for five administrations and taken defining images of those eras (Little John-John saluting his father's coffin in 1963, et al.).

When a series of retired news photographers started questioning O'Donnell's veracity, an abbreviated correction followed and a promise to follow-up at length. And then, yesterday, the paper's public editor added his observations about how the mistake occurred.

This is fascinating stuff for obit fans, namely because it reminds us how fragile the job can be.

After the NYT ran its obit, we on the obit desk were all taken aback by the seeming scoop. After all, he spent much of his career -- as it now turns out, for the U.S. Information Agency -- in Washington. Yet The Washington Post passed up its own staff-written obituary on O'Donnell. Here's why:

I found nothing on him when I searched the archive of the NYT and Wash Post. This was very odd, considering the position he claimed to have held at the White House. Typically, news and even offical WH photographers of that era were members of a local photog. association and many have won prizes for "best feature photo of Vice President Nixon's stubble" or some such thing. Anyway, nothing on O'Donnell. And then I called O'Donnell's wife, in Nashville. She was his fourth wife and had very little information about the hows and whys of his life.

So I recommended we use the wire story, as we seemingly could not add anything of historic or anecdotal value to the basic outline of his life. This was a good call, as it turned out. Or at least the better call. We are still waiting for the AP to correct its account; the wire service's Nashville bureau chief is supposed to get back to us presently about what it plans to run. We'll then make a decision how to proceed.

The NYT investigation was intriguing, a portrait of a man whose alleged dementia may have been responsible for his fakery. And yet, it was an uneasy reminder of the human desire to be remembered at any cost, to leave some form of public legacy. After all, people seem to vanish into obscurity faster, now that news cycles are quicker.

By Adam Bernstein |  September 17, 2007; 10:34 AM ET  | Category:  Adam Bernstein
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Update: AP says it is planning to send out an explanatory story this week.

The wire service's bureau chief in Nashville said it is still unclear what O'Donnell did and did not do, based on the murky way official photographs were labeled decades ago.

Posted by: Adam | September 17, 2007 1:04 PM

This kind of error seems to be happening with frightening regularity, and not only to the Times. The AP was recently taken in by a man who called himself Bill Henry and said he'd been a major league pitcher. When he died his widow, whom he had married in the 80s and who did not know him when he was of playing age, announced his death; local papers and the AP ran the obituary without apparently noticing that the deceased's birthdate didn't match the date given for Henry in reliable baseball references. That should at the very least had someone on the line with a reliable baseball historian to confirm that this Bill Henry was in fact the ballplayer.

What I find interesting about that case is that I haven't seen any proof that the deceased was actually named Bill Henry before he met his wife. He told her when he first met her that he was widowed and that his children had died young; I keep wondering whether he was in reality a fugitive from justice who assumed the name, then found out later it also belonged to a major league ballplayer and decided to impersonate him.

These two incidents (and the Paul Vance fiasco) should wake obituary writers to the fact that obituaries of minor celebrities have to be researched even more meticulously than those of major ones. It's unlikely that anyone could successfully impersonate 50 Cent in this manner, but (as we've seen) it's perfectly possible for someone to do so with respect to a less visible celebrity. What's more, the possible harm to the victim of the impersonation or appropriation can be far greater if the individual is less famous, older, or less wealthy, since they may not have the resources or ability to correct the record with everyone (banks, publishers, etc.).

Posted by: Charlene | September 17, 2007 7:13 PM

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