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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: No excuse for leaving out these ‘details’

Phil Spector died in hospital on Jan. 16 while serving a prison sentence for murder. He was 81. — Reuters file photos

I’ve worked with geniuses. I’ve interviewed even more of them. Some are excellent, well-rounded human beings, supportive of others and eager to share their knowledge and skill.

On the other hand, some of them have been, to put it simply, absolutely awful.

Some have been awful because they seem to lack the cues to function in a normal way; focused intently on a particular goal, everything else gets bulldozed out of the way as unnecessary.

Sometimes it’s because the brain pathways that make them unique in the first place work differently and bypass the socialized world that many of the rest of us live in.

But while many are unintentionally absolutely awful, some become keenly aware that their sheer excellence in one field or another gave them a licence to behave in ways that, in others, would be boorish, offensive, often downright unacceptable, and sometimes criminal.

He was convicted of shooting her in the forehead and killing her.

And they’ve used that licence to the fullest extent possible, whether it’s in a newsroom, a university laboratory run under rules like a prison yard or companies where the boss seems to think they are to be treated like royalty. They’ve learned what they can get away with.

I’m not the first person to raise the issue of very bad people doing very good work, and, to tell the truth, I’m raising it because of a murderer who died in prison this weekend of COVID-19 in California.

He was a rich man who brought an aspiring actress named Lana Clarkson home to his mansion from a bar. He was convicted of shooting her in the forehead and killing her.

Lots of other people can talk about the murderer, Phil Spector. And they have. He was a famous music producer.

The thing that bothered me, upon hearing about his death, is that the first three news stories that I heard and read completely left out the fact that he was convicted of murder at the top of their stories. It was an issue for much later on, after a discussion of the music he had worked on, the musicians he knew and the style he developed.

Some would argue that it’s simply setting up context, and that’s true: people die every day, and a news outlet doing any sort of obituary has to interest you quickly in who it was that died to keep you on the hook. “Why do I care?” is close to the surface in many viewers’ minds.

Talking about a murder conviction doesn’t have the same hook with viewers as the first few bars of a Beatles song. Telling the audience that a music producer was renowned for his offensive behaviour won’t trump the sound of “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.”

But this was a murder: a real, live person was killed, and the story of her death should be at the top of every single obituary.

Lana Clarkson was mentioned in four paragraphs of the 39-paragraph New York Times obituary for Spector — the third paragraph, and the last three. And those last paragraphs are mostly about the court proceedings that led to Spector’s 19-year sentence.

At least, unlike the earliest reports of Spector’s death, the Times included “convicted murderer” in the headline.

I’m having a very hard time explaining exactly why the treatment of Spector’s death bothers me so much — perhaps it’s because serious issues get downplayed almost to the point of being a foible.

Amazing work can, and is, done by truly horrible people. It’s still amazing work.

But that work does not make them any less horrible, and it doesn’t excuse their behaviour.

It may not show in the work they create, but it is still part of them right to the core.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at [email protected] — Twitter: @wangersky.


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