Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Danny Boy vs. Ann Northrop

Danny Boy Okrent sez:

Statement from Daniel Okrent
New York Times Public Editor

Spurred by challenges and queries from several readers, I looked into the charge that The Times had willfully suppressed information about Susan Sontag's relationship with Annie Leibovitz. My inquiry indicates that the subject was in fact discussed before publication of the Sontag obituary, but that The Times could find no authoritative source who could confirm any details of a relationship. According to obituaries editor Chuck Strum, "It might have been helpful if The Times could have found a way to acknowledge the existence of a widespread impression that Susan Sontag and Annie Leibovitz were more than just casual friends. But absent any clarifying statements from either party over the years, and no such corroboration from people close to her, we felt it was impossible to write anything conclusive about their relationship and remain fair to both of them." Ms. Leibovitz would not discuss the subject with The Times, and Ms. Sontag's son, David Rieff, declined to confirm any details about the relationship.

Some might say that such safely accurate phrases as "Ms. Sontag had a long relationship with Annie Leibovitz" would have sufficed, but I think anything like that would not only bear the unpleasant aroma of euphemism, but would also seem leering or coy. Additionally, irrespective of the details of this particular situation, it's fair to ask whether intimate information about the private lives of people who wish to keep those lives private is fair game for newspapers. I would personally hope not.

Ann Northrop responds:

Dear Mr. Okrent--

I've read your note on the failure of The Times to include mention of Susan Sontag's relationship with Annie Liebovitz in her (Sontag's) obituary. I must say it leaves me with little respect for you or The Times fact-checking and research capabilities. Susan Sontag did talk about their relationship--in an essay in The New Yorker in which she referred to it as "an open secret." Ms. Sontag also had committed relationships with Lucinda Childs and other women.

Not only is your research deplorable, but your opinion that this information is out of bounds for reporting is antedeluvian. This is 2005, Mr. Okrent. Same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts, Belgium, the Netherlands and 8 provinces of Canada--and soon will be in all of Canada and Spain (and that's just this year). Same-sex relationships are not shameful or second-rate. Susan Sontag did not hide her relationships. The Times does not hesitate to discuss the private lives of anyone in its obituaries. You and The Times have performed shamefully in this instance.