'Hope I die before I get old'

Should the media be preparing obituaries ahead of time for young celebrities who live reckless lives?

Britney Spears 88 224 (photo credit: )
Britney Spears 88 224
(photo credit: )
It's never been a secret that when people die after long and distinguished careers, those detailed stories about their passing that major news organizations seem to produce almost instantaneously in fact were written well in advance. Now news that The Associated Press has prepared an obituary for 26-year-old Britney Spears has put the spotlight on a debate transpiring within the business of reporting death: With people grabbing the celebrity spotlight at a younger age, and some of them living lives of obviously dangerous excess, is it time for news organizations to begin preparing for early exits from celebritydom's under-30 crowd? "It's a complex issue, a complex debate," says Washington Post reporter Adam Bernstein, one of the news media's most respected obituary writers. "It's unclear to what degree somebody really is on the edge. So do you spend the time to put something together when you're wondering whether it will run now or 70 years from now?" Of the approximately 100 prepared obituaries The Washington Post has in its files, Bernstein couldn't recall any on a person under 30. He also questioned whether an obituary on someone like the troubled pop star could be much more than a recitation of bizarre public behavior, as opposed to focusing on real accomplishment. "Somebody like Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan or Amy Winehouse, you could arguably put something together," he said, naming three young stars who have lately become more prominent for bouts of bizarre behavior than displays of talent. "But it takes a significant chunk of your time to do it and there are people who are incredibly more accomplished and in their 100s," Bernstein added. He didn't deny, however, the huge public interest in anything any young star does. When Anna Nicole Smith, mainly famous for being famous, died at age 39 of a drug overdose last year, The Washington Post and numerous other newspapers put her obituary on their front pages. Such interest, veteran Hollywood publicist Michael Levine believes, is being driven by the Internet. He speculated that the Web's ability to make stars of people overnight is forcing news organizations to be more prepared to tell those celebrities' stories within minutes of their demise. "Technology makes all this stuff much more present in the consciousness of the culture," said Levine, former publicist for one of Hollywood's most bizarre personalities, Michael Jackson. "There's much more pressure to get the news out right now," he added. "You distribute or you die." It was Smith's death that served as a "wake-up call" to be prepared to report immediately on any high-profile person with a public history of troubled behavior, said Lou Ferrara, the AP's managing editor for sports, entertainment and multimedia. "I don't think anyone particularly likes this part of the business, but it is something you need to do," said Ferrara, who was one of the editors who asked for the Spears obituary. When Smith, the former Playboy playmate of the year, was found dead in a Florida hotel room, the AP did not have a prepared obituary. Neither did it have one on Brad Renfro, the 25-year-old actor who died earlier this month, two years after being arrested as he tried to purchase heroin on Los Angeles's Skid Row. And no one was prepared for the death of Heath Ledger last week. The fact that celebrities sometimes die young is of course not a new phenomenon. James Dean's car-crash death at age 24 in 1955 shocked the nation. So to a lesser extent did the drug-overdose deaths of former Saturday Night Live stars John Belushi in 1982 and Chris Farley in 1997. The year 1970 is famous in the annals of rock music for the substance abuse deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, who were both under 30. As for today's celebrities, "I don't know that more younger people are at risk, but they certainly seem to be in the news more," Ferrara said, noting the extensive coverage given to the death of Renfro, a relatively minor celebrity. Deciding which ones to prepare obituaries for, he said, is a judgment call decided on a case-by-case basis. The AP has approximately 1,000 prepared obituaries in its files on a wide variety of public figures. Although most are on people over 70, Spears is not the only 20-something whose passing the news agency is ready for. The Los Angeles Times has approximately 400 prepared obits, as they are called, although they lean heavily toward much older newsmakers, said Jon Thurber, the paper's obituary editor. Britney Spears is not among them. "While we're aware of celebrities and their problems, to try and go ahead and do advance obituaries on these folks when they're going through their dark periods would probably be more work than we could handle and stay up with the older people we need to cover," Thurber said. "That isn't to say we don't do some prep work on certain [younger] figures who are at risk," he noted. "We might gather some advance material on people and have it ready." But Thurber said it's too much of a guessing game to invest the time on a full obituary on someone who might turn their life around in the next year or so. He cited Robert Downey Jr. and Courtney Love as two prime examples of once troubled people who seem to have worked through their problems. At the same time, he said, there's no way to deal with the unpredictability of death. "Who in the '60s," Thurber asked, "would have thought Keith Richards would have outlasted John Denver?"