Tony Dow, who played the big brother some of us wish we’d had growing up, died Tuesday. It turned out that his celebrity obituary was wrong.
Actor Tony Dow played Wally Cleaver, the big brother to Theodore on the classic series Leave it to Beaver. The series ran from 1957 to 1963, originally on CBS before moving to ABC for the last few seasons. Those of us grew up with the show — at one point or another — were likely moved by that celebrity obituary for Dow which broke Tuesday.
Since the show has run so long in reruns, many of us grew up with Wally and “the Beave” long after the series had long been canceled. We got to feel like we knew those siblings. Through the magic of reruns and fan conventions, the news about Dow’s death Tuesday still managed to hit home.
His obituary reported he was 77, which is still a hard pill to swallow, since we still remember him as a teenager.
His management team released a sad statement about his passing. A Hollywood insider I know posted one. Even his ‘Beaver’ co-star, Jerry Mathers — the Beaver himself — posted condolences about having lost someone he came to know as a real brother.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral.
Suddenly, that sad statement from Dow’s management team was taken down. Dow’s son told Fox News that word of his father’s demise was a bit premature.
Dow, was battling cancer and was in hospice, he said. But he was still alive, though “in his final hours.”
Naturally, since everyone likes to criticize the media, the media became the easy target.
But it really wasn’t exactly their fault.
What seems to have happened is that Dow’s wife, understandably grief-stricken, believed that her husband had died. She, apparently, then alerted Dow’s management team so they could get the word out.
When a family is dealing with the loss of a loved one, particularly a high-profile loved one, any such responsibility they can pass to others, is, I would think, a blessing.
The management team dutifully did what they were supposed to do: make an announcement about the death.
The media, in turn, did what it was supposed to do: It looked at the people closest to Dow, who would normally be regarded as a credible source, and reported Dow’s death. Every media report I saw credited that management team, which is also what journalists are supposed to do.
Let’s face it: The coroner’s not going to let reporters in to examine a body. A hospice likely won’t even confirm or deny he was a patient under their care. We have these pesky little things called privacy laws, you know.
It’s not like the media had a lot of options in terms of who to “verify” the information with. The celebrity’s own people, after all, should be able to be trusted with that level of information.
You’d trust them to be able to give you the accurate story, wouldn’t you?
So what really happened with this celebrity obituary?
Dow’s son probably didn’t turn on the television while his father was still alive to see if anyone was reporting otherwise. I doubt seriously if it would have even occurred to him to do so. I’m sure he, like any other person, would assume no one would report the death until after it happened.
That could explain why it took so long for the story to be changed.
Christopher Dow told Fox News that his father’s wife, who was said to be “very distraught,” gave the incorrect information to Dow’s managers. That started the machinery. The managers did their part…and so on.
Many a celebrity obituary was published before the celebrity actually died.
Mark Twain, credited with the phrase, “The report of my death was an exaggeration,” was actually reported dead in 1897. He was again reported dead, possibly lost at sea, in 1907. He died for real in 1910.
Legendary comedian Bob Hope was also given the obituary treatment erroneously on two occasions. The first cae in 1998 when the Associated Press acidentally published it. A member of the U.S. House of Representatives made the announcement during a broadcast on C-SPAN. In 2003, CNN accidentally published a draft of his obituary, about three months before he died at age 100.
Other victims of premature obituaries included Bob Barker, Jeff Goldblum, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Fats Domino and Winston Churchill, just to name a few.
How does the media avoid it?
Well, some mistakes are more easily avoided than others. But the Dow example this week falls under the “harder to avoid” category. It’s next to impossible for the media to find a credible source more credible than a celebrity’s own management team. When said team makes a statement on behalf of the family, which is too grieving to speak themselves, it’s difficult for the media to find another way to confirm the information.
The media always does its best to report what it knows to be true as carefully as possible.
Even citing specific sources doesn’t seem to get them off the hook, even if the sources themselves turn out to be wrong.
The media is only good as its sources, of course. If the sources themselves turn out to get it wrong, in some cases, there’s not much the media can do other than to correct the mistake as quickly as possible and explain — as carefully as possible — exactly how they got into this fix.
The media seems to have done a good job in the latter in this case. When a mistake does happen, I think transparency is critically important to explain why it happened.
I feel bad for the Dow family. They’ll likely have to deal with the deluge of sympathy twice now.
One can only hope Dow himself was in a lucid enough state for a few moments to get a glimpse of the tributes that came pouring in for him. Maybe that might have helped him find a little comfort.