The Times’ Curious Reticence on Sontag

The obituaries of Susan Sontag correctly celebrated her work as an author and critic. Unfortunately, the majority of the Sontag obituaries shared another feature. They did not mention Sontag’s relationships with other women, most notably her companion, photographer Annie Leibovitz.

In a posting on his Web site, Andrew Sullivan noted that he had searched a database of news articles and found 315 Sontag articles.

“[O]nly 29 mention Leibovitz, and most of them referred merely to their joint projects,” Sullivan wrote.

The omission is odd given that Sontag, while not bragging about her sexual orientation, has not been shy about it either.

In a 2000 New Yorker interview, Sontag said, “That I have had girlfriends as well as boyfriends is what? Is something I guess I never thought I was supposed to have to say, since it seems to me the most natural thing in the world.”

Then in 2001, Time magazine reported that Sontag and Leibovitz were raising a child. This was mentioned in a People magazine obit.

“Time magazine reported that her companion, photographer Annie Leibovitz, had given birth to a daughter, Sarah Cameron Leibovitz,” Stephen M. Silverman wrote in People. “Neither Leibovitz nor Sontag offered word on the child’s paternity.”

The great offender in all of this was, of course, The New York Times. Sontag lived and worked here for most of her 71 years. The Times is the newspaper that covers the intellectual set that Sontag belonged to. The more the Times explains its error, the worse the paper looks.

A Times spokesperson told a New York Daily News gossip columnist that “Our extensive reporting in recent weeks did not substantiate the widespread reports of any relationship of Miss Sontag and Miss Leibovitz beyond friendship… We should probably have mentioned the friendship, but nothing further was warranted by the facts we could gather.”

After “extensive reporting” over a period of “weeks,” The Times was unable to locate the public sources I mentioned above? Perhaps I don’t understand the meaning of “extensive” or “reporting.”

The Times did note that Sontag was once “photographed by Annie Leibovitz for an Absolut Vodka ad” and the Daily News columnist concluded that that “has to be the best euphemism for ‘lesbian’ I’ve ever heard.”

The Times promptly made a liar out of its spokesman in a press statement issued by Daniel Okrent, the paper’s public editor.

The “extensive reporting” apparently consisted of asking Sontag’s son from her marriage to Philip Rieff and Leibovitz if the two women had a romantic relationship.

“Ms. Leibovitz would not discuss the subject with The Times, and Ms. Sontag’s son, David Rieff, declined to confirm any details about the relationship,” the statement read.

This is offensive for a number of reasons. It shows just how lazy the Times was in chasing down this fact.

More important, the newspaper effectively gave Sontag’s son and Leibovitz a veto over what information would be contained in the obit by restricting its reporting on this subject to just those two people. That is not journalism.

The point of the obit is to inform the public or so I thought. Apparently, the function of a Times obit is to allow the surviving family members to create an image of the deceased that they find palatable.

Then Okrent got honest. He wrote, “Additionally, irrespective of the details of this particular situation, it’s fair to ask whether intimate information about the private lives of people who wish to keep those lives private is fair game for newspapers. I would personally hope not.”

The New York Times regularly publishes “intimate information about the private lives of people who wish to keep those lives private,” so what Okrent means is that he, like many members of the mainstream press, is uncomfortable reporting on a relationship that falls outside of what is viewed as the heterosexual norm.