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Obiturary of Journalism

This story, in a nutshell, tells all you need to know about the sad state of journalism.

A little more than a month ago, immediately upon the death of French composer Maurice Jarre, an Irish college student inserted a phony quote in the Jarre entry in Wikipedia. Shane Fitzgerald wanted to see if he could fool the vaunted open-source encyclopedia.

Wikipedia caught on pretty quickly, but the media fell for the hoax and swallowed it whole.

"One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear."

This fake quote appeared in a number of English-language publications worldwide. And until last Monday, when Fitzgerald came forward to reveal his "experiment," the quote was going down in history as fact.

Talk about putting words in a dead man's mouth.

The Guardian, so far, is the only paper that has acknowledged that it fell for the hoax. Others have quietly deleted the offending quote in their online archives. Wikipedia, on the other hand, caught the unsourced quote quickly and removed it twice - but not quick enough for the obit writers to pilfer it off the site.

That this outrage could happen is but an illustration of the sad state of the modern media. Its taste for instant dissemination is sometimes irreconcilable with the need for accuracy. Particularly in an age of severe newsroom cuts when skeletal crews are often overwhelmed by their workload, this shouldn't be surprising.

There was a time when obituaries were finely tuned, painstakingly researched work of art (not fiction). As such, I want to present you the best obit you've never read.

More than a decade ago, Ed Beitiks was tasked to write an obituary on Kurt Vonnegut, who was neither in ill health nor all that old at the time. But it was an old newspaper practice to have obits "in the can" just so the paper wouldn't be caught out when somebody really do drop dead on deadline.

The thing is, Vonnegut ended up outliving Ed, who was a prince of a man and a masterful storyteller. A Vietnam vet who fought brain cancer (from exposure to Agent Orange and war wounds) for the better part of a decade, Beitiks wrote the obit for the old San Francisco Examiner before he passed away in 2001. His Vonnegut obit never ran because ol' Ed hated the rival Chronicle, which would later merge with the Ex after being purchased by the Hearst Corporation. Ed never wanted his byline to appear in the Chron and his editors honored his wish.

Nevertheless, when Vonnegut died six years after Ed's own passing, his obit was resurrected by editor Allen Johnson (an Indiana native, a huge Vonnegut fan, Ed's friend and the best man at my wedding). It appeared in Chuck Nevius' blog in its entirety, but never ran in the Chronicle.

Ed didn't have the benefit of Wikipedia. He didn't need it.