Whatever you may think of the morality of selling celebrity sex gossip, Anka and the Globe were blameless for an additional sin: They had fallen victim to dreadful timing. We who write for a living live in fear of this sort of thing.
For us, death is already tricky to negotiate. It often requires relaxing the ordinary rules of engagement, such as the one that says we should tell the truth at all times, robustly, completely, without fear or favor. When celebrities die, however, journalists often hold back on (or soft-serve) the negatives, however deserved, until a decent interval passes. Knowing just how long that interval is can be a matter more of intuition than science.
But that waiting period is definitely not “one day,” which begins to explain my recent quandary after the death of Roger Ebert, the deservedly renowned film critic, shrewd social philosopher, and indomitable victim of a cancer that had maimed him and stole his voice. I had an Ebert story to tell, and it was a juicy one. But I daren’t write it. He was a giant, and my story would make him look small.
Death presents journalists with another dangerous temptation — the egomaniacal urge to link your life to the deceased’s, however tenuous the connection might be. It’s a way of siphoning off some of the ambient good will, but it was not true in my case. In my “Roger and me” story, I don’t come off looking so hot, either.
But still I did not write. I sulked. I felt sorry for myself, sitting on this story. Ebert has been dead only about a week — still too soon — but now I find myself able to tell it, for reasons you will understand.
In the 1980s, I edited Tropic, the Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine. It was a swaggering, unapologetically subversive magazine, staffed by an eccentric group of people, including me, Tom Shroder, Dave Barry and Joel Achenbach, all of whom are familiar to Washington Post readers. (We once did a story on the cruel truth about animal shelters. It was headlined “See Spot Die.”)
On May 28, 1989, Tropic ran an article on its cover by Bill Cosford, the Herald’s talented film critic. In “Confessions of a Movie Critic — a Life in the Dark,” Cosford mercilessly pilloried his craft (he awarded his story just 31
2 stars, right on the cover). Among the others he took to task were Ebert and Gene Siskel, who had patented the too-cute-by-half “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” reviewing conceit.
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert are film critics so famous that they frequently appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and they are the principal reason why people pay attention to movie critics these days. So that’s OK.