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Of Deadly Importance



It's a humdrum day. You drive home and see your neighbor check his mailbox. You stop for five minutes to say hey. You talk about nothing, really. The weather, your in-laws' upcoming visit, some funny story about his dog. Then you each go back to your respective lives. We know little about the people who live around us. Sometimes we only discover who they are when they die.

That's what happened on Dec. 18 when a friend in Fieldbrook shot me an e-mail with this subject line: Who knew?

In it he pasted a copy of the New York Times obituary of Don Van Vliet, known to most of the world as Captain Beefheart. Vliet lived in Trinidad and I live in Sunny Brae, so he wasn't really my neighbor, but if you zoom the map out it's close enough.

I have to admit that before the e-mail I didn't know of Captain Beefheart. He was of a different generation and a different music culture. But I'm embarrassed about that, because he is credited with being the single biggest influence of ’70s punk music and that was my generation and music culture. After I read the long list of great artists Beefheart influenced -- Tom Waits, Kurt Cobain, Matt Groening -- I felt left out of the world's most interesting party.

It seemed as if just about anyone who knew anything about real music knew all about him. That was clear from the number of newspapers around the country, and world, that reprinted the Associated Press and New York Times obituaries of him. More than 800 news sites, according to Google News. The San Francisco Chronicle. Rolling Stone. The L.A. Times. The Chicago Tribune. Even the Kansas City Star ran it. Bob Doran wrote a beautiful tribute in the North Coast Journal a few days later. (Check it out. He smoked Cubans with the guy at the Silver Lining!) Vliet even rated a tribute by New York Times writer Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose columns run just under the editorial, in space described as the most valuable in all of journalism. Klinkenborg wrote:

"Summer of 1969. Parents away. A 50-foot audio cable runs from the stereo through a window across the porch to the lawn, where it terminates in headphones with my head between them. I'm lying on my back in the Sacramento night. On the turntable is Trout Mask Replica, just released, which I've listened to again and again."

It might well be that our daily was the only sizeable newspaper in the country that didn't report Vliet's death. Which was a shame, since the captain spent the last years of his life in Trinidad and died at Mad River Hospital.

How important are obits? The New York Times devotes the last Sunday magazine each year to the important people who died during the year. The Academy Awards devote time to recall people important in the movie industry who died during the year.

Obituaries force us to reflect on how we will each be remembered and sometimes get us to change our lives for the better. The Nobel Prizes came about after a French newspaper prematurely reported the death of Alfred Nobel. When he read it, he realized he would be remembered throughout history as the inventor of dynamite. He created the prizes to change that fate.

Nothing brings a community together more than the death of one of its members. In the bible, the estranged half brothers Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father, Abraham. Death is our final rite of passage and the deaths of people around us force us to consider our own mortality. The death of an artist is at once tragic and inspirational; it shows us what is possible within one lifetime.

Often we only discover our neighbors when we read about their deaths in the local newspaper. I don't fault the local paper for not having stories on Vliet while he was alive. The man kept a low profile and had left his music life behind. But to be the last in the world to learn about the death of a neighbor, that's hard to take.

I once worked as a reporter for a regional paper in Southern California, and there the paper went nuts anytime a local celebrity died. It went nuts even if the famous person had only vacationed there. Someone at the paper would be out of a job if we'd missed the death of someone world-famous.

Vliet's death came across the California wire, with his home in Trinidad mentioned. A Google alert for the names of our towns would send any newsworthy item to one's e-mail. The New York Times knew, because Vliet's manager likely sent out a release. But a small town paper should know before the press release. Someone -- at the hospital, coroner's office, or within the circle of people Vliet knew in the community -- should have alerted the paper. That no one did shows a breakdown of communication between the paper and the community, or worse, the erosion of relevance. As a reporter, you earn and maintain trust and credibility with sources so that when something important breaks, you will be among the first to know. To earn that trust and credibility you need to communicate that your paper matters, your readers matter and the news that someone might give you matters. That the Times-Standard did not have the Vliet obit means that there are people out there who don't consider the paper relevant as a source of news. But since it is our regional daily that's distressing.

So instead of reporting one of the more talked about stories in the county, the failure to report Vliet's death became one of the most talked about stories.

Meanwhile, the paper did report the death at the age of 13 of Ted Kennedy's Portuguese water dog, Splash, a greeter of presidents and diplomats. That made me wonder. Do I really know that dog next door?


Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. 

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