Steve Fossett, Officially Dead
An Illinois judge yesterday declared the legal death of millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett, who vanished during a routine flight in September. His wife petitioned for the legal declaration, and the judge said there was no reason to believe he intentionally disappeared.
Considering the play of the story -- ours was buried, so to speak, in the regular Metro obit section -- many editors considered Fossett old news or perhaps insignificant as a wealthy thrill-seeker (an unkind but not necessarily unwarranted view). The New York Times also played down the death, running the story on its obituary page.
If Fossett's body had been found immediately after he went missing, it's likely he may have gotten front-page treatment. As news cycles get shorter, it seems that people's obits can sometimes get short shrift as a result.
An exception seemed to be New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary, who conquered Mount Everest in 1953 and still warranted the front page when he died Jan. 11.
My obit for Fossett was a bit longer than what ran, and several intriguing anecdotes were cut. Here's a sample, about his swimming the English Channel: "He completed the channel crossing in 1985, on his fourth and final try -- bruised, bleeding, perilously close to hypothermia and in last place. Nevertheless, he said, He took home an award from England's Channel Swimming Association citing his 'sheer guts.' "
A larger question was when to run the story. In October, I was quoted in a New York Times account, when Fossett was still missing. I still agree with what I said then: You cannot run a story until the authorities have legally declared someone dead.
As an editor once told me, you might write the best obit in the world, but you can expect complaints if the person is not dead.
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