A newspaper and its owner are apologizing after backlash on social media, which circulated after the paper refused to publish a political sentence in an obituary.
Frances Irene Finley Williams felt the same way about dress codes at funerals as she felt about politics: strongly.
So when she died just before Thanksgiving at the age of 87, her family thought they would make politics a part of her obituary too. It was only natural, said her daughter, Cathy Duff. Williams and her 92-year-old husband, Bruce, were the kind of couple who woke up with the Louisville Courier-Journal and USA Today and went to bed switching channels between CNN and the local news. She was a bridge-playing, churchgoing, Elvis Presley- and Willie Nelson-loving political junkie who “did not take gladly to fools,” a “very, very spirited woman” who sometimes said that her frustration about President Donald Trump was killing her — “contributing to her decline,” as Duff put it.
She didn’t seem to be joking, Duff said in an interview with The Washington Post.
So at the end of her mother’s obituary, just after the part about Williams’ passion for making family photo albums, Duff added this sentence: “Her passing was hastened by her continued frustration with the Trump administration.”
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“I just felt like, along with everything else that was in there, that was a vital part of her personality and something she expressed with me over the last few months — just like she expressed she felt strongly about a dress code for funerals,” Duffy told The Post. “So I felt it was important to put it in there. We never gave it any more thought than that.”
At least not until the Courier-Journal declined to publish it: They would have to remove the Trump quip, they were told, or their $1,684 obituary wouldn’t run at all. Duff and her brother, Art Williams, were shocked. “We didn’t understand it,” Duff said.
Now, more than two weeks after Williams’ memorial services, the Courier-Journal and Gannett, the paper’s owner, are apologizing following backlash on social media, which circulated after Duff’s brother made their ordeal public earlier this month. It was a “mistake” to refuse to publish the political sentence, Laurie Bolle, the director of sales for Gannett’s West Group, told the Courier-Journal in a column titled, “Obit blaming Trump for hastening woman’s death should have been published.”
“Mrs. Williams’ obituary should have published as it was presented to our obits team and as requested by the family,” Richard A. Green, the Courier-Journal’s editor, told the columnist. “In this political climate we now find ourselves, partisanship should have no role in deciding what gets included in an obituary that captures a loved one’s life — especially one as amazing as what Mrs. Williams led. I’m certain she is missed greatly by those who loved her. We send the family our deepest condolences and apologies.”
Duff said she first learned their obit was rejected when she got a phone call from her brother on Dec. 24. The Cremation Society of Kentucky, which had been handling Williams’ obit, had received an email from a Gannett employee out of Wisconsin, who said the obit had been rejected because it contained “negative content.”
“Per our policy, we are not able to publish the obituary as is due to the negative content within the obituary text,” said the email, which was provided to The Post. “You are more than welcome to remove the negative content so we may move forward with publishing if you wish.”
Duff said she and her brother were too busy grieving and preparing for the services ― at which no one wore jeans or tennis shoes, as Williams requested — to argue about the Trump line. And so they simply agreed to remove it. On Jan. 5, however, they decided to make their displeasure known publicly. Art Williams wrote on Facebook:
“I was, and still am, dumbfounded, surprised, but most of all disappointed and aghast that a once historically courageous American newspaper that exists by reason of freedom of speech would so trivially move to abate the free speech that it seems, when convenient, to hypocritically champion. And over a relatively innocuous sentence. … My mom would have been offended.”
The comments on Duff and Williams’ Facebook pages poured in.
“That’s disgraceful!” one woman wrote. “[Courier-Journal] decision makers should be ashamed and take a long leave of absence to discern what their jobs really are. Have we left the truth in the gutter completely?”
“I am surprised they wouldn’t run that,” another woman said. “People who knew her would have understood and probably gotten a kick out of seeing it.”
Williams said in another post Jan. 13 that he and his father were waiting for an apology.
Duff said it came Tuesday. She said Green called her father, Bruce, to apologize and inform him that the Courier-Journal would run the obituary in full. Green could not be immediately reached late Tuesday to confirm.
It’s far from the first time that obituaries have become a vessel for political dissent.
Obituaries invoking Trump or, alternatively, Hillary Clinton, particularly blossomed during the 2016 presidential campaign, as the dead implored the living to vote for their favored candidates.
“Jeffrey would ask that in lieu of flowers, please do not vote for Donald Trump,” the chiropractor Jeffrey Cohen’s obituary read in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“His only regret is NOT being able to vote against Hillary Clinton in the next presidential election,” said one for E. Karl Kmentt in the Akron Beacon Journal.
Others, according to their family, just said forget it.
“Faced with the prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Mary Anne Noland of Richmond chose, instead, to pass into the eternal love of God on Sunday, May 15, 2016, at the age of 68,” began Noland’s Richmond Times-Dispatch obit.
Duff said her intent with the line that the Trump administration had “hastened” her mother’s death was not necessarily meant to be funny, but to encapsulate the exasperation her mom truly felt.
Her mother had been suffering from coronary artery disease, and so Duff moved to Louisville a year ago to help her father care for her. During the last year of her life, Duff said, she tried to pick at her mom’s brain to figure out why she seemed much more invested in politics than anyone else she knew. She told her daughter it was perhaps because she grew up in the Great Depression, experiencing and witnessing poverty that she felt could have been prevented, and also because her husband was a World War II veteran. A member of Daughters of the American Revolution, she was in love with the country, Duff said, and so she cared a great deal about who was in charge of it.
“She just always, and consistently, kept saying, why don’t people see what’s going on?” Duff said. “She would shake her head and say, ‘I can’t believe the country has come to this.'”
She would have hated to know about what Duff described as political censorship in her own obituary — but she might have been happy too, Duff said.
“It’s getting people talking about something that was really important to her,” she said.