Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Bungled Passing of Paterno

Joe Paterno is dead. We're pretty sure of that now. He died Saturday night, then came back for a few hours, and now he's gone again. And so, even in the last chapter, Paterno's life could not pass without confusion and controversy. Penn State may be a nest of vipers, but the man deserved better.

Here is a pretty good rundown of how the events of Joe Paterno's death announcement in the media played out. Given the short amount of time, I'm impressed how quickly this all got traced. I give credit to Onward State for coming clean fairly quickly. It's a tough lesson for student journalists to learn, but perhaps they'll be better journalists and broadcasters in the future having learned from this.

So, looking at a potential Frequently Asked Question for this blog, how does this keep happening? Seems like a simple enough thing to get right; either a person is dead or they're not. Get it right.

The simple answer: the person in question can't answer the question.

We expect it go something like the Munchkins producing the death certificate and singing the official proclamation - Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg adding a modern crime scene procedural gag to a children's story. The ruby slippers apparently constituted positive identification of the corpse, although the footwear's sudden transposition to Dorothy calls into doubt whether the slippers' location is subject to verification. The magical qualities of the slippers render their veracity capricious in nature at the very least, thus giving Elphaba just cause to dispute Dorothy's inheritance of said footwear. The witch should've just called a lawyer.

But it rarely goes that way. Munchkins don't come out to the gathered press with a death certificate. There are no ruby slippers to confirm the identity. And as we learned with the death of Michael Jackson, sources closest to the subject are not always the most trustworthy.

Celebrities, whether they be good celebrities or bad celebrities, are usually surrounded by staff and family. These people act as a buffer against among other things a prying media. Sometimes, the staff knows what they're doing; sometimes they don't. Sometimes the relations with the media are well handled; other times the media relations are less than acrimonious. In the case of Joe Paterno, you have a legendary coach at the center of an ethics scandal where the reputation of Paterno, Penn State, and the careers of just about anyone connected with the two are on the line. Statements to the media are highly filtered and scripted. A year ago, someone might've called someone at the State College newspaper to say, "Heads up. He's not well." Nowadays, it's more like trying to confirm the health of a North Korean dictator - an unfortunate comparison, but but for the journalist it's true.

So, instead of a "heads up," we got a campus rumor. And, as typical in this era, it started with an email. Folks, email is a lousy way to inform anyone of anything timely in nature. It's a "pull" medium, as they say in IT parlance: in other words, you have to take action to make the info come to you. When a celebrity dies and you want to notify people, you use a "push" medium: something that pushes the info out to the receiver. You, as a press agent, take hold of this gadget that was devised back in 1876 and talk into it. So my first question had I been on duty at the time would've been, "Where's the phone call?"

Then, as an always skeptical news reporter, I pick up that aforementioned magic talking device and push a few buttons to contact a trusted source - if one exists - to get closer to the truth. "No, sir. He's not well, but he's not dead. Now leave us alone, you insensitive pinko vultures! (click)" Just another day in the news business. But when you're 19 and scared, yes, scared half to death to take that kind of abuse, you don't even think of calling. You go with the email... the same medium that told you about this great recipe for Neiman Marcus cookies.

But collegiate news media are the little league training grounds for aspiring reporters - the places where you make mistakes. Believe me, I know. I made a lot of them. The professional media is supposed to know that. Yes, on occasion, campus papers and radio stations break important stories. That's commendable. But not all campus media operate at the same level of competence. Careful scrutiny by the pros should be engaged before relaying the story any further. That did not happen.

Well, it was a Saturday night, see. The "B" listers were on duty. It's a slow night, and the programming is burn offs of canceled or near-cancelled shows positioned in this time slot to basically keep the affiliates from going to infomercials, a test pattern, or in the case of NBC off the air. There are reports of Paterno being dead so they figure let's break in an liven up this shift. These folks, having never faced the fear of making unpleasant phone calls back when they were 19, still avoid it at 25, and the word of wildfire emails and twitter messages is used as "sources."

For what it's worth, I was completely off the grid Saturday night. I was off duty and my phone was turned off as my wife and I enjoyed live performances by actual musicians and actors in our community: The Lima Symphony Orchestra and Encore Theater. We missed the Paterno "he's not dead yet" debacle, and I'm not sorry we did.

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