Philadelphia Metropolis


Wretched Excess

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Paterno.jpgWe all end up with adjectives attached to our names.  Penn State football Coach Joe Paterno had a number of them -- beloved and legendary are two. He added another on Sunday, when he died at age 85.  He is now the late Joe Paterno.

Or, if you prefer, the beloved, legendary, late Joe Paterno.

Paterno won a lot of football games.  He was a a God-like figure at his school and -- here's that word again -- much beloved in the region.

But, he did not cure cancer.  He did not found a major religion.  He was never the President of the United States.  He did not negotiate peace in the Middle East.  He was not the King of England.  He did not win a Nobel prize. And, although he was God-like he was not God.  Nor Jesus. Nor Moses. Nor Buddha.

He was, if you strip away all the adjectives, a football coach.

So, how to explain the wretched excess of local coverage of his death? Take the Philadelphia Inquirer, please.

On the front page of the Monday paper we were greeted with an above-the-fold '9-11-bombing' sized headline  Lion at Rest, along with a five-column, 7-by-11-inch picture of the coach (who wasn't the Pope either.)

In the front section, the paper ran a 5,000-word obituary and seven sidebars spread over 6 1/2 pages.  There also was an editorial about Paterno.

But wait there's more.

In the sports section, there was another 5 pages of coverage including tributes/remembrances/critiques of Paterno by six -- count 'em -- six columnists, most of which -- again stripped of adjectives -- said he was a winning football coach who was much beloved, but whose final days were tarnished by a scandal involving former

much beloved, but whose final days were tarnished by a scandal involving former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky who was accused of having anal sex with a boy in the showers at the school.

Paterno was unceremoniously fired after the scandal broke because when it came to reporting the crime he (to use a football phrase) punted to the folks upstairs who were (nominally, I assure you) his superiors.

So, the beloved, legendary coach hears a a report of a crime from a young assistant coach who witnessed it and he does nothing. Not good.

But, I digress, Let's add the coverage up: a total of 11 full pages and about 25,000 words of text, headlines and captions to tell us that Joe Paterno was dead at age 85.

What could they have been thinking? Did someone put amphetamines in the water coolers at the White Tower? And why did 85 percent of the coverage deal with the beloved, legendary part and not about the disgraceful/negligent behavior part that led to his dismissal?

The whole package reminded me of George Bernard Shaw's observation that newspapers seem unable to tell the difference between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.

Paterno's death was certainly not a bicycle accident. It was front page news -- though not the entire front page. And devoting five-pages to Paterno's life and times in the sports section wouldn't be excessive either -- unless you consider the six-and-a-half pages devoted to the same topic in the A section.

Metropolitan newspapers have taken a lot of hits in the last 10 years, but they still have the ability -- as no other local media has -- of flooding the zone. They can still send a mass of reporters to cover a single news event on any given day.

But, if they do it on something like a football coach's death, it makes them look ridiculous.

When something like a Paterno story breaks, the job of a newspaper isn't to go hysterical and lose all sense of proportion. That's TV's job.

At newspapers, you have to have some sense of proportion. Otherwise, people will think that you have gone mad or, worse, that you are silly.

We can't afford that. Newspapers have too important a job to do to look silly.

-- Tom Ferrick

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