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Tags: media | obscurity | obituary

Media Gets It Wrong on Obscurity

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Paul F. deLespinasse By Wednesday, 10 May 2023 09:45 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

In another of its retroactive obituaries, The New York Times recently reported that the deceased, Elizabeth Wagner Reed (1912-1996) ,"fell into obscurity." This language is very interesting.

Is obscurity like a hole into which one can fall? Is obscurity a bad thing? Under what circumstances does someone become obscure, and who is responsible?

An obscure person is someone whose life and doings have not been covered by the mass media. The Times certainly would not describe someone to whom it has given lots of attention as obscure.

I have seen news articles in which someone was referred to as "formerly obscure." These were often put-downs, seeming to suggest that obscurity was what they deserved but that they had somehow crashed into being well-known in spite of the media's efforts to prevent this. An upstart!

When I was finishing my Ph.D. in political science at Johns Hopkins University, a faculty member asked me where I wanted to teach. When I replied that I wanted to return to my native Oregon and teach at a small college, his response was "Oh, if you go west you'll never be heard of again!"

I could have lived with that, but alas, a good job in Oregon never came along and I ended up in Michigan for the next 36 years. Whether Michigan was far enough west to guarantee obscurity I'm not sure. And true obscurity is a nebulous thing.

A person may be obscure at the national level but well known at a state or local level. My paternal grandmother, Cobie Muyskens de Lespinasse, was certainly not a national figure. She died in 1963 and has yet to be granted a retroactive obituary in the New York Times.

Yet her scandalous 1934 novel about sex and religion in a Dutch settlement in Iowa is still remembered in that part of Iowa, and she was very well-known in her adopted state of Oregon.

An absent-minded friend in Iowa once wrote to her but gave as the address only two words: "Cobie," and "Oregon." No town. No last name, and it got to her! Her unusual first name, used instead of her actual name of Jacoba, probably helped.

And 46 years after her death, her historical novel laid in a Christian Communist settlement in Oregon was the subject of a major journal article in 2009.

People who teach in small colleges may be obscure because the media may assume that they are less able or have less interesting ideas than professors at big universities. Commenting on this, Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his address to Harvard graduation in 1978 noted that:

"I have received letters in America from highly intelligent persons, maybe a teacher in a far away small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but his country cannot hear him because the media are not interested in him."

Solzhenitsyn's comment resonated with me. I was teaching in a small college (by choice), had developed novel ideas ideas about how to think about politics, but was generally brushed off when I tried to bring them to the attention of my fellow professionals.

For lack of any better strategy, I went into journalism in order to bring my ideas directly to the general public.

The retroactive obituaries in the Times are reminders of the inherent selectivity of media organizations because of their limited space or time.

Readers can get a more complete idea of what is going on by getting their news from more than one source. But there will always be some important things that none of them will cover.

People today are probably doing things, the importance of which may only become apparent years or decades later. We need to remember that not everything important is being reported.

And even obscure people may have good ideas!

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. Read Professor Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.

© 2023 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

We need to remember that not everything important is being reported.
media, obscurity, obituary
Wednesday, 10 May 2023 09:45 AM
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