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How Could the New York Times Screw Up Ed Koch's Obituary?

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Love him or hate him -- and plenty of people did both -- former New York Mayor Ed Koch deserved better than he got from The New York Times on Friday. So did we.

By mid-afternoon, the Times had made at least three revisions to Koch's obit, according to Poynter.org, to address an initial blackout of the criticism Koch received for the way he handled the AIDS crisis. Unfortunately, the reporter and his editors seem willing to let a shameful, breath-taking error stand. The obituary describes the Koch years as a time when "hundreds of New Yorkers were desperately ill and dying in a baffling public health emergency."

Hundreds? Are they kidding? Tens of thousands of people in New York perished during that decade as the terrifying epidemic blindsided the city. Koch came to office in 1978, two years before a Brooklyn school teacher named Rick Wellikoff became the fourth American to die from the disease. By the time he left City Hall, the death toll, according to am New York, was approaching 30,000.

The AIDS crisis was Koch's greatest failure, as David France, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary "How to Survive a Plague," wrote Friday. Its movement from the shadows into a full-blown pandemic dovetails Koch's administration. It is unconscionable for the Times to first ignore a health crisis so intricately associated with the mayor -- then compound the mistake and insult the memories of people who lost their lives in horrific ways during those years by nonchalantly guessing at and callously low-balling the number who died.

(The Times online archive has stories that report at least 7,851 deaths and 14,985 cases in New York City by the mid-1980s. New York Magazine puts the toll at 24,835 by 1990.)

A lot of gay people and a lot of high-profile New Yorkers never forgave Koch. They have hated him for decades and speculated about why he failed to develop a sufficient moral imperative at such a critical moment. In a moving tribute, Charles Kaiser, a respected journalist and friend of Koch, noted Koch's long history of support for gay and lesbian civil rights, and wrote that Koch told him he regretted his mistakes on the AIDS epidemic for the rest of his life.

The point is that Koch was an historic figure. We deserve the truth about his public life and decisions -- especially something as central to his legacy as his response to the AIDS epidemic. Those who died of the disease during Koch's time in office deserve to have their memories respected, too. They deserve an accurate counting of their numbers. And Koch deserves the respect of having his policies fully reported in their proper context in his obituary. It isn't a question of speaking kindly or irreverently of Koch at the time of his death. Koch chose elective office. It comes with the territory.

New York Times obituaries are great signifiers of American history. Not everyone gets one. Those who do rarely get the 5,000-word treatment Koch received (and deserved). Obituaries of historic figures are special cases that often give journalists days, weeks, even months to prepare a report that will run as a breaking story. There is no excuse for an oversight like this.

The clamor that caused the corrections apparently came from people who believed speculation about Koch's sexual orientation should have been included. Anyone familiar with Koch's personal life or the politics of the era knows the answer to that. It's been widely written about by various authors in various ways, including Koch himself in his autobiography. Obituaries aren't places for speculation; they are places for fact.

A three-term mayor of America's largest city deserves a first-rate, error-free obituary, a draft of history that can be used perpetually when people research the events and realities that propelled him to office and kept him there for more than a decade. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers -- not "hundreds" as the Times obituary reports -- died from AIDS during the Koch years. Each and every one of them is also part of the story.