Five Mandela Leads: Which Is Best?

By Mike Feinsilber

You’d think writing something like the lead for an obituary of Nelson Mandela would be easy. After all, this story can be—and was—researched, written, edited, polished and re-polished over a long time. Most news organizations do their obituaries of important figures well in advance.

But it’s not so easy. For one thing, the writer is denied the customary alibi: I did the best I could under deadline pressure. Moreover, since almost every reader knew who Mandela was, the obituary had lost a news story’s most critical element: newsiness.  That puts extra pressure on the writer—the writing has to tell more than the news.  Moreover, whether they say so or not, writers on big stories like this are competing with all the other writers, at keyboards everywhere, to outwrite the other guy.

And there’s no way to outreport the competition. Everyone is dealing with the same readily available facts. So that element is gone, putting yet more pressure on the writing.

Finally, a story like this—big and prepared well in advance—leads to writing by committee. Everyone—possibly even the paper’s editor—gets input. That kind of group journalism leads to characterless writing. What’s called “the writer’s voice” vanishes. It is a great danger: the writer has lost control of his story.

So let’s take a look at five news organizations’ Mandela leads to see which best sidestepped these hazards.

The Washington Post, by Sudarsan Raghavan and Lynne Duke

Nelson Mandela, the former political prisoner who became the first president of a post-apartheid South Africa and whose heroic life and towering moral stature made him one of history’s most influential statesmen, died Thursday, the government announced.  He was 95.

My reaction: A  pretty good workmanlike lead, but it doesn’t give me goosebumps. I like “towering moral stature”—it rings true. But when I come upon the phrase “made him one of history’s most influential statesmen,” my mind starts wondering “Well, who were the others? Would Henry Kissinger fall into that class?” Doesn’t it understate Mandela’s place in history to call him a statesman? Isn’t that like calling the pope a cleric? Is “the government announced” attribution really necessary? Can’t we take the government’s word for it? (Others did.) Attributing this would be like writing, “It snowed yesterday, the Weather Bureau said.” Or “Obama won the election, the returns show.”

The Los Angeles Times, by Robyn Dixon, Bob Drogin and Scott Kraft

Nelson Mandela, who emerged from more than a quarter of a century in prison to steer a troubled African nation to its first multiracial democracy, united the country by reaching out to fearful whites and becoming a revered symbol of racial reconciliation around the world, died Thursday. He was 95.

Reaction: I like this lead. It tells a narrative. “A revered symbol of racial reconciliation” is more powerful than the Post’s “influential statesman.” More powerful, and more to the point, too.

The Wall Street Journal, by Peter Wonacott

Nelson Mandela, who rose from militant antiapartheid activist to become the unifying president of a democratic South Africa and a global symbol of racial reconciliation, died at his Johannesburg home following a lengthy stay at a Pretoria hospital, the government said Thursday. He was 95.

Reaction: Again with the needless attribution. What flunks this lead is the space wasted with mundane facts—where he died, where he had been hospitalized. Also, “antiapartheid” is a clumsy word. This lead reads like it came off a shelf. Or just out of journalism school.

The New York Times, by Bill Keller

Nelson Mandela, who led the emancipation of South Africa, from white minority rule and served as his country’s first black president, becoming an international emblem of dignity and forbearance, died Thursday night. He was 95.

Reaction: This lead is okay, saved from prosaicness by the words “dignity and forbearance,” which is what everyone thinks about Nelson Mandela; those words capture the man.  I like “emancipation” here, too, because of its Lincolnesque echo. (Obama, in his tribute, also called Lincoln to mind with his “belongs to the ages” comment.) But calling Mandela “his country’s first black president” understates his achievement.

The Associated Press, by Christopher Torchia and Marcus Eliason

Nelson Mandela, who became one of the world’s most beloved statesmen and a colossus of the 20th century when he emerged from 27 years in prison to negotiate an end to white minority rule in South Africa, has died. He was 95.

Reaction: An old bugaboo—“one of the world’s”—raises its ugly head here in a lead by my old beloved employer. Let’s see now, let’s name some other “beloved statesmen.” Can’t? Me neither. And doesn’t “negotiate” understate the enormity of what Mandela did? It is such a mechanical word. And, incidentally, wasn’t he more than a colossus of the 20th century? Wasn’t he a colossus of all time? One nice element in this lead: “has died.” That lack of a time element carries a never-again-shall-we-see distinction.

So which lead would you call the best?  Add your choice, please, in the comment section below. This is important; we’re doing some journalism here.

Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.


  1. Rahel Crowley says

    The long walk to freedom for Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, a Xhosan Revolutionary who walked out of prison to lead South Africa from its dark Apartheid abyss into a dawn of Democracy has ended after ninety five years.

  2. Rahel Crowley says

    Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom ends. The ANC’s revolutionary freedom fighter survived prison to lead his country from dark Apartheid into a new dawn of Democracy. [It’s so hard, Jack!!]

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