NYT Reacts to Tempest Over Its Obituary on Yvonne Brill

NYT Reacts to Tempest Over Its Obituary on Yvonne Brill

Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times, commented in her blog today about the tempest created by the newspaper’s obituary of Yvonne Brill this weekend.   In response to a slew of negative comments from readers, the Times changed the opening line of the obituary to note that she was a brilliant scientist rather than praising her cooking skills.

The original obituary’s opening line, recounted in Sullivan’s story, was “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise her three children.”  

The new opening sentence changes only the beef stroganoff remark.  It now begins “She was a brilliant rocket scientist” but following her husband and taking eight years off from work are still there.    As pointed out later in the obituary, that last statement is incorrect since Brill worked as a consultant during those years.

Sullivan interviewed her colleagues who wrote and approved — and continue to defend — the original version.  She also posts some of the reaction the paper received.  Her bottom line is that “The emphasis on her domesticity … had the effect of undervaluing what really landed Mrs. Brill on the Times obituaries page:  her groundbreaking scientific work.”

Editor’s Note:   As I mentioned in my own post about Yvonne’s passing, she was a dear friend and I think it’s sad that the Times was, in my opinion, initially so demeaning about her scientific accomplishments.   I must say, however, that Yvonne was every bit as proud of her three children — and their children — as she was of her professional achievements.   I can’t help but wonder if she would be dismayed that this has created such a ruckus.   She was one of the most unassuming people I have ever known.   I fault the Times for turning her passing into a news story about clueless obituary writers and can only recommend that they “stop digging,” as the saying goes.



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