Calling someone's loved ones in the hours after they receive the worst news imaginable is by far the worst task anyone ever undertakes in the difficult business of journalism, and it is all the more gut-wrenching when you're doing it to report on someone you know and admire, both as an artist and as a human being. You do this not out of some gruesome desire to land a "scoop," but because tens of thousands (and in some cases, millions) of people were touched by this person and his or her work, and they deserve to know the truth, no matter how sad.
And, in this new age of Internet "journalism," blogs and tweets, you also do it because sometimes the rumors and untruths spread much more quickly and virulently than the facts.
When Chicagoist broke what would turn out to be the non-news of the death of local rock poet Thax Douglas just before the start of the first day of the 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival, several dozen local journalists who cover this city's music community dropped everything they were doing and began a frantic effort to try to confirm whether the news was true. Again, this wasn't out of any morbid desire to fill column inches or blog space, but because Thax is a burly, bearded and beloved presence at seemingly hundreds of packed concerts a year, and his readings have made him part of the lives of countless Chicagoans who would mourn his passing.
The story turned out to be false: Thax maintains that someone hacked into his Facebook account and posted the lie as a "prank." Three people at the Sun-Times alone (me, my colleague Dave Hoekstra and my editor Thomas Conner) worked on debunking this none-too-funny joke, and it took a few hours and a lot of phone calls and interviews before we succeeded, along with several other diligent news sources online and in print. I think it's safe to say all of us were happy that, unlike so many other obits we had to pursue, this one didn't need to get written--though I did mention it (because Tortoise did, onstage in front of thousands) in my first-day account of Pitchfork and in a post the next day trying to clear things up.
Resurrected, alive and kicking, Thax recently took umbrage (on Facebook again) with one or both of those posts and cussed me out. So it goes. I stand by what I wrote, and he's welcome to correct anything he deems untrue, or to add his side of the story.
Much more troubling to me is a post in that discussion on Thax's page by Jay Bennett's former collaborator Edward Burch, who was one of the people I called on Memorial Day evening when trying to determine if there was any truth in the rumors swirling on the Net about his friend's death. I wish that story had turned out like Thax's, but as Bennett's myriad fans know, it didn't.
Several weeks after Bennett's death--which I covered with several posts on this blog, stories in the newspaper and pieces on the radio, all paying homage to the musician's prodigious talents and memorable personality--the Champaign-Urbana coroner released his report: Bennett died of an "apparently accidental overdose" (the exact wording) of a common but controversial pain killer, fentanyl.
In all of my other reports on Bennett's death, I noted that he was in considerable pain as he awaited hip surgery, which, sadly, he was struggling to fund. I noted that again in the post on the coroner's report and, since I had never heard of fentanyl and assumed many readers wouldn't have either, I turned to the two sources journalists go to first for information on a drug: The Physician's Desk Reference (I have a slightly outdated copy here from my research into the drug darvon when I was writing a biography of Lester Bangs) and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's regularly updated publication Drugs of Abuse, which is now online and which covers every drug, legal and illegal, that can result in the death, intentional or unintentional, of the person who takes it.
The story on fentanyl was very similar in both places, and I quoted much of the entry from the latter source, cutting out a few sentences about the drug's different brand names and means of consumption. By no means was Bennett's the first death from this drug, which is why it's controversial, and which makes the story even more sad, because that means it didn't have to happen and perhaps, in this world of countless painkillers, this one should never have been prescribed.
Burch (as well as several people who commented here on that entry) believe I was trying to somehow insinuate that Bennett was abusing the drug. That never occurred to me--the lead of the story was, after all, that officials said he died of an apparently accidental overdose, the clearest language you ever get in an autopsy or death report (and I've seen more than a few). I did not attempt to clarify the post earlier because I thought that would only prompt more discussion about something I never intended to say in the first place. Mea culpa.
On reflection, to paraphrase the elegant language President Obama used on Friday about the Gates affair, I could have calibrated the words in that post differently, and I wish I'd used the language from the PDR instead of Drugs of Abuse. I apologize to anyone who was hurt by what I posted, and add only that it was the last sad footnote to a story I covered in depth and, I hope for the most part, with the respect its subject deserved.