By: Joe Strupp
As Web sites worldwide reported the death of columnist Art Buchwald today, The New York Times had one approach that beat them all — Buchwald himself announcing his own death on video.
“Hi, I’m Art Buchwald and I just died,” the late columnist says on the video posted this morning on nytimes.com, just minutes after his death was made public. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer then goes on to discuss his life with reporter Tim Weiner, in an unusual embargoed interview conducted last July.
The interview is the first in a series of obituary chats the paper’s Web site is planning to run, titled “The Last Word.” Buchwald’s interview, conducted at his Martha’s Vineyard home, includes memories of his political writings, his views of the world, and comments on the illness that raised interest during the last year after he declined to continue dialysis treatment.
“He really was hurting, he was not healthy,” Weiner, a 14-year Times reporter, recalled today about the interview. “But when the time came to talk, he was just himself.”
Weiner, who has covered the CIA and served as a foreign correspondent for the Times, came up with the idea for the online video interviews after returning from a book leave last spring. He said the book he wrote, about the CIA, included a lot of oral history. Such discussions prompted his interest in making video interviews with famed personalities to be played after their deaths.
“It occurred to me that we ought to revive the tradition here of interviewing people whose deaths are likely to be Page One news for their obituaries,” Weiner said. “And do it in high definition video.”
Senior Producer David Rummel, who has been at the paper for five years, liked the approach and the two have been involved ever since. “It is an oral history project,” Rummel, a former 60 Minutes producer and ABC News investigative journalist, said. “It is a chance to give them the last word.”
Although Buchwald’s is the first to be posted online, Weiner said at least 10 other such interviews have been completed and edited, with plans to conduct about three or four each month. He said a former president is among those who have been interviewed, along with an unnamed scientist and other celebrities.
“It took a while to get started and this is the first person we have interviewed who has died,” Weiner said. “It is the guy talking about his life in a way that television would never take the time to do, but that holds to our standards.”
Weiner said he spent about an hour with Buchwald, with some 15 to 20 minutes used for the online presentation. Rummel said other elements of the interview, including a timeline of his life and a transcript, are likely to be added soon. The reporter also said that he interviewed several other subjects during the Martha’s Vineyard trip, but declined to disclose them. “There is a network of people who live there and know each other,” Weiner said.
A handful of potential subjects, including another former president, have declined to be interviewed, Weiner said. When he approached Buchwald, he said the ailing writer quickly agreed. “He was open to it,” Weiner recalled. “It gives people the chance to tell the story of their lives. It is not the voice of The New York Times, it is their life in their words.”
But Weiner and Rummel have declined to reveal the names of those who have declined or agreed to such interviews. They said one of the important aspects of the interviews is that they remain secret until the subject’s death. “Our agreement is to keep it confidential,” Rummel said. He added that some of the subjects did discuss aspects of their lives not previously revealed, although he noted there were so far “no bombshells.”