Unraveling Memes

If you follow the intricacies of the New York intelligentsia and cultural class, you probably already knew that Annie Leibovitz is having serious financial troubles that have gotten worse since the death of her lover, Susan Sontag. You may also believe that the cause of Leibovitz’s financial problems is inheriting assets from Sontag that resulted in a huge tax bill. But according to the New York Times, that story just isn’t true.

There has been speculation on blogs and in news articles that Ms. Leibovitz’s financial problems arose because Ms. Sontag left her a large inheritance, with steep taxes due because the two women were unable to be legally wed.

But Mr. Rieff, the executor of his mother’s estate, said that all Ms. Leibovitz received from Ms. Sontag were sentimental items.

So where did this “meme” connected to the same-sex marriage debate begin? From all indications, it started with a blog posting on AfterEllen by Julia Miranda. Miranda speculated that “most of her financial woes stemmed from her inheritance of her long time partner, Susan Sontag’s, estate.”  Miranda than quotes Suze Orman’s video about inequities for same-sex couples, adding “[w]hen Sontag died in 2004, she bequeathed several properties to Leibovitz, who was forced to pony up half of their value to keep them.”

That story was then picked up by Salon’s Nancy Goldstein, who recited her own financial woes linked to not being able to marry in New York.  She then repeated the Miranda story.

But what the NYT missed, along with every other straight newspaper that picked up the story, is why Leibovitz suddenly found herself in such dire financial straits. It took AfterEllen’s Julie Miranda to put two and two together and figure out that “most of Leibovitz’ financial woes stemmed from her inheritance of her longtime partner, Susan Sontag’s estate.

Brooklyn writer Caleb Crain quickly called “foul” on the meme, noting that the inheritance story may have originated with a story in London’s Daily Mail.  But Crain questioned whether the story was true, noting that it had been reported on the Trusts and Estates blog–“the town center where experts who serve the planning needs of the ultra-wealthy gather to gain insight into their specialties and to learn about related professions”–that the Sontag estate valued at $3 million was going to Sontag’s son, David Sontag Rieff.

So why does all this matter?  Well, I think the meme began because it (a) made sense and therefore didn’t raise any eyebrows and (b) was politically expedient.  But those are not good reasons for any journalist to recite a meme, because there is always the chance the information is just wrong.

One of the challenges for bloggers is that there often isn’t any editor looking of your shoulder or even checking facts.  But  as NYT Public Editor Clark Hoyt said Sunday about the botched obituary of  Walter Cronkite, “even a newspaper like The Times, with layers of editing to ensure accuracy, can go off the rails when communication is poor, individuals do not bear down hard enough, and they make assumptions about what others have done.”

Ironically, there is still an interesting story to be told about the Leibovitz financial problems that could be connected to the cause of same-sex marriage.  If Sontag and Leibovitz had actually married–and, admittedly, that’s a big “if” given everything we know about them–Leibovitz could not have been left out of a will in New York state since the “surviving spouse” would be entitled to a “forced share” of the estate, even if there was no mention of the spouse in the will.  That’s one of the benefits of marriage.

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