Late last month, The New York Times published a "Vows" column recounting how a woman accidentally ran over a young girl, killed her, and then found her future husband when she went to yoga after the girl's death. Here's the passage which pushed some readers over the edge:
On Aug. 17, 2008, Ms. Halweil was driving on Montauk Highway when a 5-year-old girl rode a red toy wagon down a steep driveway and shot out onto the road in front of Ms. Halweil’s car. When she recounts the accident (the child died and Ms. Halweil was not charged) you can really see her calm, philosophical and open demeanor. In an almost plaintive voice, she said: "It was clear sky, clear road. I saw a flash of red coming toward my car." She swerved but still hit the wagon. "I got out of the car and this really beautiful little girl with pale skin and blue eyes was laying in the road. Her eyes were glazed over. I knew the spirit had left her body."
The way The Times framed the death of the child into this story about true love garnered a Gawker post calling the column "unhinged" and the Tucker Carlson-founded Daily Caller, known for its tacky slideshows, asking if it was the worst Vows column ever written.
Despite the reader outrage and sharp criticism, The Times is defending how the story was written. "To gloss over it [the death] seemed even worse," editor Bob Woletz told Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, who explains that Woletz even pointed her to a story where the father of the young girl expressed sympathy for Halweil. "It was a terrible accident but it was a part of their story," Woletz added noting that a Vows column is "is not a reward for a life well lived" but about "real stories about real people."
Woletz's response somewhat answers the criticism put forth, but they also create more questions about this column and the intent of the Vows column. The first: There's a difference between a father expressing sympathy in an article five years ago at the time of his child's death and him being okay with a column reliving it. Is that young girl's father really okay with his child's death being a point in someone else's enlightenment? "The dreamy New Age language of this couple is missing the kind of down-to-earth expression of sadness or remorse about the accident that might have made this article less objectionable," Sullivan writes.
And there's this big question: If The Times was really intent to not gloss over the death of the girl, then why was her death in the parenthesis? Parentheses often indicate something that's often not necessary to the story, or something that ruins the flow of the story. Putting a death in those parentheses de-emphasizes the importance of it, treats it like an afterthought and makes it seem like just another experience for Halweil to add to her self-satisfying collection. Neither Halweil nor The Times seem to have any kind of self-awareness of how this story is making both of them sound.
But maybe that's the point. Woletz emphasizes that stories like Halweil's are "real stories about real people" and those people are real the same way that Bill Gates is real. He's alive, he's human, he's as real as you or me, but his reality is something 99.99 percent of us cannot fathom. And that's what we've come to expect from The New York Times weddings section where Vows columns have recently featured a gay couple being married by a Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, people who met in sailing school, and a pro basketball player getting married. And those columns are flanked by a Wedding & Celebrations section that favors rich, successful, powerful lawyers and investment bankers who spent their early adult years at some of the nation's most elite universities — American fairytales if you will. And this one, about a couple of yoga teachers brought together by a child one of them (accidentally) killed is just another one of those.