Sunday, May 23, 2010

Invasion Of Privacy: NYT's Corey Kilgannon Visits Dead Man's Apartment, Takes Pix And Writes It Up For City Room Blog.

Last Sunday, the legendary jazz pianist Hank Jones died peacefully at the age of 91, at a Bronx hospice.

By the next day, NYT reporter Corey Kilgannon had talked his way into Jones's room in an Upper West Side apartment. On Tuesday, Kilgannon (sharing a byline with City Room editor Andy Newman) posted a piece on the City Room blog that portrayed Jones as a lonely old man in a messy studio -- setting off a firestorm of complaints from Jones's family and friends that he'd invaded Jones's privacy, and besmirched his legacy.

We'd say the complainers are right on both counts. Intentionally or not, the City Room post reads like an attempt to make Jones's life look lonely and sad, made even worse by the reporter's brazen disregard for Jones's privacy by snapping -- and publishing -- a photo from inside his room.

Kilgannon has always been one of our favorite NYT reporters. He writes eloquently about New Yorkers on the fringe of society, and provides a needed balance to a newspaper that actually thinks we want to know how rich people spend their Sundays. He joined the reporting staff in 2000, after graduating with an English degree from Columbia and working his way up from copy boy. Recently he wrote a memorable profile of Frank Serpico, the former cop now living upstate.

But Kilgannon's post on the jazz icon lacked his usual perfect pitch. He portrayed Jones as living in "near isolation in a 12-by-12-foot room at 108th Street and Broadway, ordering in three meals a day from the diner downstairs and practicing incessantly on an electric keyboard plugged into headphones." He described "suitcases, sheet music and jazz awards cluttered around an unmade bed." He mentioned CDs "scattered about" and referenced an unopened bottle of champagne.

Not getting the picture? Kilgannon provided one with the post -- a photograph of Jones's roommate and landlord, Manny Ramirez, in the apartment.

It doesn't look that messy to us!

Right after the story and photo got posted, commenters weighed in with their objections. The complainers included family members, friends, and business associates.

What next?" asked Miles Morimoto, who took of a portrait of Jones that appeared in the NPR website in 2007. "Will the Times go into Lena Horne’s closet and tell us how neat or messy she was?"

Jazz bassist Charlie Haden and his wife, Ruth Cameron, wrote a lengthier attack on the article, speculating (as others did) on the legality of breaking into Jones's apartment without family permission, and removing its contents.

"Taking photos less than 24 hours after Hank died," the couple wrote. "That is just as outrageous and seems opportunistic and exploitive at best." Comments followed from Jones's manager and some family members, all making clear that Kilgannon's story misrepresented the pianist's existence in his final weeks.

Several commenters noted that Jones wasn't frugal when he traveled -- often staying in first-class hotels -- but that he chose to live within limited means in New York City, to be near his friends, even though he owned a farm upstate.

By the next afternoon, Kilgannon felt it necessary to respond to the complaints. In a blog comment, he explained that he lived across the street from Jones and had called Ramirez after the obituary appeared. Ramirez told Kilgannon that he'd gotten permission from Jones's family and lawyer to break into the apartment with a sledgehammer and pack up his belongings.

Kilgannon defended his portrayal of Jones, saying that he wanted to "augment" the obituary, and arguing that he didn't intend to show him as destitute.

"I found it touching that Mr. Jones chose such an isolated life, towards the end," Kilgannon wrote, "and I probably could have been better at describing that it seemed by-choice, out of passion for his art, not out of depression or some sense of shame."

He went on: "This was not intended to define Mr. Jones and his legacy by the condition of his room, but rather to attempt to glimpse him as a human, to add to the official and public image we already have of him. If he lived in a mansion, I would have been just as eager to visit and write about that."

We don't doubt Kilgannon's motives; he's a sensitive guy. But we don't think much of NYT reporters looking over and photographing the private belongings of dead people in the first hours after their death -- in a mansion or a hovel -- without direct permission from a family member or lawyer. It just doesn't feel right to us.

By the way, if you've never heard Hank Jones play the piano, listen to this.


jamesl1960 said...

If Kilgannon had ever really
heard the trancendent singularity of Hank Jones piano playing, he never would have written the blog. Obviously an ignorant fuck.

Anonymous said...

Andy Newman's name is on this story, too. What exactly did he contribute? The City Room blog has gotten a lot worse under his leadership, btw.

Anonymous said...

I thought the Times was competing with the WSJ, not the New York Post.

Roberto said...

I'm reminded of the iconic "Happy Days" episode in which the Fonz can quite manage to say, "I was wrr ... wrrr ... wrrr ...".

You were wrong, Kilgannon. Apologize (in person to the family would be good), and take away a lesson.

lesdmd said...

I read and shared with my wife the Obit the day it appeared; because I found it touching and bitter-sweet. Anyone who makes and loves music should understand that the isolation wasn't a reflection of loneliness but of devotion to his art. I came away from article thinking of Mr. Jones as the consummate musician, who chose to simplify his life to the essence of what remained important to him, and who remained kind and considerate of others to the end of his days.
Mr. Kilgannon makes it clear that he followed the landlord into the apartment after Mr. Ramirez "took a hammer and large chisel,(and) bashed a hole in the door." The article ends with the appreciative "Thank you, Thank you, Thank you" of a neighbor still posted on the jazzman's door.
While I can understand some mis-interpreting the portrait, I think Mr. Kilgannon owes no apologies and that Mr. Jones' friends and family should be happy to have the journalists words added to the pianist's tributes.


The problem here, as is evident from all the comments over at the Times commentariat afterblog space, is that the Times' print obit for Mr Jones was very well done, and there was no reason at all to run Corey's blog post as a supplement to the print obit. Let print be print. His blogpost was ill-thought out, ill-fated and wrong from the get go. Blog about original things, yes, but not as follow up to well written obits in the print edition. What happened here is that Corey and Andy got carried away ....with themselves. That's the problem with the blogosphere sometimes. Corey and Andy, repent, and rethink what you did. It was wrong wrong wrong. Personal blog, sure. But not on a New York Times branded blog. You gaffed hugely, and you owe a bigger apology that the one you gave so far. To err is human, yes, but this blog post was wrong. It was all about Corey. Corey lived nearby. Corey called the landlord. Corey Corey Corey.

Sometimes we need to bury the dead quietly, and not this way, Corey. Do apologize better, sir.

Anonymous said...

this is just unwarranted criticism. mis-interpretation of his post is possible but it is the incorrect interpretation nonetheless.

and for Anonymous 12:11pm: I'm not sure the blog has gotten worse. there is still the hard news coverage and it now has some stuff that gives us a great understanding and sense of the city.

Anonymous said...

Breaking into the nest and showing disrespect for culture, making shit up based on no reliable insider knowledge is what a pest does best. Sir? Hardly a sir.

Anonymous said...

Fucking whiners and babies. Great City Room post and Kilgannon is a champ. It's a tough goddamned city, life is hard, we all die, and it's jazz, man, jazz, Hank would have laughed his ass off at you fucking poseurs.

Anonymous said...

Amen, to the whiners and babies poster.
what a load of horseshit from these people.

Anonymous said...

Did you guys try to contact Kilgannon for a comment? It's typical of the Times not to comment on this kind of post. The paper is seeking to marginalize (or kill off) NYTPicker by ignoring it, or by its loyalists posting attacks. Apparently it's not working, though, because NYTPicker is still here. They must hate that.

Anonymous said...

there are still copy boys?!?!