New York Times did not need to stop the presses for Hitchens obit

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New York Times Communications Director Danielle Rhoades Ha reports the paper did not stop the presses, as originally reported, to include a story about Christopher Hitchens’ death of cancer Thursday. “The story broke and was confirmed before the deadline for making our final edition,” she said by email. The front page was redrawn to change the line-up of stories, but the presses continued to roll. News Presentation Editor Patrick LaForge checked with Associate Managing Editor Tom Jolly, who was working Thursday night. LaForge tweets that the first word of Hitchens’ death came at 11:55 p.m., was confirmed at 12:10 a.m. and the (third) edition closed a few minutes late at 12:45 a.m. The obit did not make it in the national edition of the paper, Rhoades Ha says.

The Atlantic’s Nicholas Jackson originally reported that the Times paused production to include the story about Hitchens.

A press stop is rare, says LaForge. “The New York Times does not literally ‘stop the presses’ often, but on Sunday night, after President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, it did,” Katherine Schulten wrote in May.

Christopher Buckley prepared himself to speak with an obituary writer about Hitchens:

Over the course of his heroic, uncomplaining eighteen-month battle with the cancer, I found myself rehearsing what I might say to an obituary writer, should one ring after the news of Christopher’s death. I thought to say something along the lines—the air of Byron, the steel pen of Orwell, and the wit of Wilde. …

His journalism, in which he championed the victims of tyranny and stupidity and “Islamofascism” (his coinage), takes its rightful place on the shelf along with that of his paradigm, Orwell.

Vanity Fair’s special section on Hitchens included a tribute from editor Graydon Carter:

Christopher was one of the first writers I called when I came to Vanity Fair in 1992. Six years before, I had called on him to write for Spy. That offer was ever so politely rejected. The Vanity Fair approach had a fee attached, though, and to my everlasting credit, he accepted and has been writing for the magazine ever since. … Christopher had an enviable career arc that began with his own brand of fiery journalism at Britain’s New Statesman and then wended its way to America, where he wrote for everyone from The Atlantic and Harper’s to Slate and The New York Times Book Review. And we all called him our own.

Hitchens’ latest Vanity Fair piece was published days ago. The magazine tells Politico’s Dylan Byers that there will be one more essay penned by Hitchens published next month. Ben Smith reports that the essay is about Charles Dickens.

Slate’s Jacob Weisberg recalls Hitchens’ generosity. “For an aspiring journalist in Washington, nothing could be headier than Christopher’s boozy instruction in radical politics and contemporary literature.”

FishbowlDC’s Betsy Rothstein alerted readers to a Washington Post obituary error discovered by David Teeghman blogging for the Missouri J-school. Teeghman grabbed a screenshot of the Post’s original Hitchens obit by Matt Schudel (since updated), which contained dummy text for some key information. Teeghman’s advice to newsrooms:

If you are going to write someone’s obituary before they die (which is standard practice!), you should probably fill in key details like “cause, place of death” of the deceased before you hit publish.

The Post did not feature Hitchens on its front page, based on the Newseum’s version.

Other Poynter writers contributed to this report.

Correction: This post originally said the New York Times stopped the presses to accommodate Hitchens’ obituary, but that was incorrect. It also said David Teeghman was at the Missouri J-school, but he has graduated.

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  • Anonymous

    I’m going by what I saw and read and heard of him during my life. He seemed primarily concerned with cutting a figure, courting notoriety and conflict, always with himself at the centre of a great deal of controversy. As a fellow Brit I am familiar with the type (e.g. Muggeridge and Johnson). Hitchens, like Muggeridge, but in a different way, was inordinately vain and conceited, but he had the fatal flaw of constantly needing reassurance that he was wonderful. The showmanship is in the hyperbole and rhetoric. I also never said he was a conservative who lurched into his opinions..etc. I said he was a progressive who threw everything he believed overboard and embraced a conservatism he previously despised for reasons which were never made clear. Why do you insist upon re-phrasing my words in order to shape them into an assertion that is the very antithesis of what I intended, so that you can shoot down a position I never held? Just read what I wrote and use my words.

    Finally, Hitchens is trivial and irrelevant, and will not be remembered long.

  • Anonymous

    You must be extremely infatuated with Christopher Hitchens if you strive to re-interpret what I wrote into terms which you can then dispose of. Rather than rephrase me, why don’t you just read me? I said Hitchens was not noticeably a schizophrenic,which you thereupon distort into an assertion that he WAS a schizophrenic. Using that distortion, you then raise the spectre of David Brock, who I don’t know, to challenge what I didn’t assert in the first place. You go on to take a explanation of the way my ideals and values evolved into a projection which I never declared. This is “straw-man” arguing par excellence. There was nothing brilliant about Hitchens other than his command of English. His views were shot through with contradictions and inconsistencies. In truth I think he needed the attention and notoriety, and tuned his instrument to attract it. A person’s whose values veer and reverse themselves as Hitchens’ did, ends up being remembered for nothing, since the sum of his life’s work is self-cancelling and therefore zero.

  • Dan Mitchell

    Indeed, yes. I think you must be going by his cable-TV appearances, because “nothing substantial to say” is a ridiculous statement. He wrote brilliantly, to the end, about all manner of subjects. Here is but one tiny piece of them. Even subtracting the political stuff leaves a huge swath of first-rate writing:

    You also mischaracterize the man woefully, by painting him as a conservative who lurched into his newer opinions without giving them any thought. It wasn’t even inconsistent, as you allege: he was wrongheaded in several ways, but his motivation, as always, was to decry fascist tendencies and despotism. He still hated Reagan and Kissinger, for example. 

  • Dan Mitchell

    So the evolution of opinion over a period of decades must be due to some psychological malady. Got it. Is that also true when the evolution goes from right to left? Did you similarly wonder whether David Brock was a schizophrenic when he became a liberal, or is that an example of someone coming to his senses?

    Or are you simply projecting? –> “My own political ideals and responses are rooted in the emotional impulses of my personality.”

    As for being a mockworthy self-parody, many of Hitchens’ later writings (when he wasn’t going on about Islamo-Fascism or women in comedy) were among his best. Or are you just going on his talk-show appearances?

  • Poynter

    Thanks, Karen, I’ve corrected the post. –Julie

  • Karen Mitchell

    David Teeghman is an alum, no longer a student at Missouri.

  • Anonymous

    I should add that at the end, like Malcolm Muggeridge, Christopher Hitchens had a wonderfully fluent style, an awe-inspiring command of the English language, but had nothing substantial to say. His was an instrument which was out of control, or rather in love with it’s own sound.  Like Muggeridge and Paul Johnson, it was in the great tradition of the Conservative Clown. We may have respected lesser intellects with whom we disagreed because at least they were consistent in their views.

  • Anonymous

    I am as sorry to read of the early death of Christopher Hitchens as I would be about the premature end of any life. My heartfelt condolences go out to his family and friends. Mr Hitchens stood in that long line of apostates that included Malcolm Muggeridge and Paul Johnson. I admired his progressive activism and deplored his sentimental toryism. The problem with someone who changes direction so savagely in later life is that we are unsure which Christopher Hitchens we are getting now. Was the earlier leftist radical Hitchens the true Hitchens, or is it the strident neo-con? We can never be sure whether he will ‘turn’ again and embrace what he so recently rejected. More to the point, the question is ‘Why’? Since the two positions are mutually exclusive, and Hitchens was not noticeably schizophrenic, any explanation of this volte face would be of inordinate interest to the world of ideas,  and to psychology.

    My own political ideals and responses are rooted in the emotional impulses of my personality. Killing is bad because I hate to see it happen or imagine it. As a concept it is meaningless without some sort of emotional fertiliser. It is my belief that our emotional natures evolve through maturation and are fairly fixed for life. I can no more inflict pain than countenance it. I certainly can never imagine myself abandoning this value in the future. There is no cause that would be justification enough. So how can Hitchens lurch from radical leftist activism to pro-war conservatism and still have an intact personality?

    For this reason I do not revere Hitchens’ intellect. Like Muggeridge at the end, he became a self-parody, a joker wheeled out for entertainment purposes, to be mocked and laughed at. I’m sure he must have been aware of this new role. And that is how I received him. When he was duelling with Noam Chomsky I could see that Chomsky was toying with him.

    At the end of the day he became trivialised into a conservative joker. On the left that is how he will be remembered. Had he had consistent values throughout his life he would have been revered as a great campaigner for truth and justice, as Pilger will be. But I agree with Burns that, in the last analysis, “A Man’s a Man for a’ that”, and his passing should be mourned.