Why It Never Pays to Die the Same Day as Someone Famous
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes things happen at the wrong time and wrong place.
By Laura Secorun Palet
Do you remember when Ray Charles died back in 2004? Probably not, because it happened right after Ronald Reagan’s funeral. The same thing happened to fellow singer James Brown, whose death in 2006 was eclipsed by Gerald R. Ford’s.
History has a very short attention span, largely because we humans do, too. Which means that when two noteworthy events happen at the same time, we are forced to pick one over the other. Case in point? The recent Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, which coincided with the much larger but less reported massacre by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
“Media companies want to write about what’s most important to most of their readers, but it’s a difficult thing to measure,” says Aly Colón, chair of Journalism Ethics at the Knight Foundation. “It comes down to proximity and cultural bias.”
So if you’re planning to circumnavigate the globe in a canoe, avoid finishing on Election Day.
This is not a new phenomenon: Throughout history, countless events have been eclipsed by others that just happened to take place at the same time. Take 1453, for example, which is remembered by most historians as the year Constantinople fell. If you weren’t paying attention in history class, that’s when Ottoman troops took over the city and quashed the Roman Empire. Yet few people remember that, just two months later, another major event took place: the end of the Hundred Years’ War. Granted, it was a conflict that had lasted more than a century, but its conclusion was a crucial moment in European history that got overshadowed.
More often than not, catastrophes steal the spotlight from individual accomplishments. That was the case with Harriet Quimby, who, on April 16, 1912, became the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel. But instead of achieving Amelia Earhart-like recognition, she was reduced to a footnote in aviation history because everyone was consumed by the sinking of the Titanic just one day earlier. And, as luck would have it, it would be Quimby’s last shot at fame — she died a few months later when her plane crashed.
John Fairfax suffered a similar fate. He became the first man to row solo across the Atlantic — six months during which he endured hunger, shark attacks and storms. You’d think such a feat would captivate a nation, but his timing was off: He arrived in Florida on July 19, 1969, just as folks were fixated on their television screens preparing to watch the first man walk on the moon the next day.
The ultimate snub springs from simultaneous celebrity deaths. The passing of Groucho Marx would no doubt have received a lot more attention, for example, had the beloved comedian not shed his mortal coil the same week as Elvis Presley.
Journalists are often confronted with an impossible choice between equally famous people. Such was the case with C.S. Lewis, writer of The Chronicles of Narnia, who died the same day as Aldous Huxley, famed author of Brave New World. Even Mother Teresa, who died just a few days after Princess Diana, got the short end of the stick. Though, it must be said, most newspapers found enough space to pay tribute to both icons.
When it comes to landing a front-page obituary, however, there’s no competing with heads of state. Unless, of course, you are another head of state, like former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who both died on July 4, 1826. Some newspapers mentioned Jefferson first; others led with Adams. But in many the two men shared both a front page and an obituary.
PR people know that timing is everything when it comes to good press. You need to “look ahead and know which events are coming up,” says David Margulies, founder of the Dallas-based Margulies Communications Group. “But sometimes you can’t control circumstances,” he adds, noting how it would’ve been very bad luck to try “launching a new airline” around the time the Malaysian airplane disappeared.
So if you’re planning to circumnavigate the globe in a canoe, avoid finishing on Election Day. But if you’re going to commit a crime, that might just be the perfect time.