Ed Driscoll

Joe Paterno, 1926-2012; CBS Jumps the Gun Reporting Obit

As you may already know, legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died today at age 85, having spent the last months of his life embroiled in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. (And understandably so, given that Paterno apparently did indeed look the other way regarding the scandal). Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel writes:

Paterno died Sunday at a State College, Pa., hospital, suffering in his final days from lung cancer, broken bones and the fallout of a horrific scandal that not only cost him his job, but also his trademark vigor and a portion of his good name. He was 85 years old.

This is a complicated passing. What was once the most consistent and basic of messages – honor, ethics and education – seemingly lived out as close to its ideal as possible was rocked Nov. 5, 2011, when a grand jury indicted Paterno’s former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, of multiple counts of sexual abuse of children.

Many, including Penn State’s Board of Trustees, believed Paterno could have and should have done more to stop Sandusky, especially after allegations of misconduct arose in 2002. Within days Paterno was fired from the program and school to which he’d become synonymous.

Now, a little more than two months later, he’s gone for good, a bitter, brutal ending for an American original.

He was the winningest college football coach of all time, compiling a 409-136-3 record. He won national titles in 1982 and 1986 and recorded four other undefeated seasons, including consecutively in 1968 and 1969.

He was a bridge from a simpler time to the cutthroat business college football has become, somehow serving as both a progressive force (he believed in players’ rights, a playoff system and welcomed advancements in television) and a stubborn traditionalist (the Penn State uniforms remained basic, he never learned how to send a text message and he still used old-school discipline).

If you’ve got a mild sense of deja vu over this news, perhaps it’s because several news and opinion sources jumped the gun badly last night.  Perhaps the biggest media source with a slight case of egg on heir face was CBS — whose news reputation is already shaky (see also, origins of this Website’s original name) — flashed this on their sports division’s homepage last night in their attempt to be the first of the Big Boys to break the story. The Washington Post reports:

The Paterno incident demonstrates the consequences of reporting unverified information from an obscure source. It also suggests once again how quickly information, including the inaccurate kind, can move in the digital age. The entire life cycle of the Paterno story — from initial death reports to face-saving corrections — took about 45 minutes.

The episode brings to mind the media chain reaction that followed NPR’s erroneous report a year ago that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) had died after being shot in Tucson. Giffords was severely wounded in the shooting, but survived.

Even as news organizations and journalists scrambled Saturday to correct their misinformation, the initial accounts touched off a massive wave of Paterno-is-dead postings on Facebook and Twitter.

“Say it ain’t so,” one Penn State student posted to Facebook around 9:45 pm. “RIP, JoePa.”

Another student posted a quote he attributed to Paterno: “’They asked me what I’d like written about me when I’m gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not that I was a good football coach.’ Joe Paterno, RIP.”

A few minutes after that, another student responded, “I heard he’s not dead.” And still another scolded: “Just thought everyone should know: Paterno family is denying the story he’s dead. Do some research, people.”

Several journalists took to Twitter late Saturday and early Sunday to criticize their own. “Paterno mess should teach journalists to — G-forbid — report before reporting,” tweeted Joe Flint, the Los Angeles Times’ media reporter. “Unlikely, as we we live in age of shoot first and aim later.”

In a note posted Saturday night on Onward State’s Web site and Facebook page, managing editor Devon Edwards retracted the Paterno story and said he was resigning. “There are no excuses for what we did,” he wrote. “We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude. Right now, we deserve all of the criticism headed our way.”

Of course, for the Washington Post, the problem typically isn’t in breaking news too quickly; it’s keeping the news bottled up in their palace guard role as the President’s Official Gatekeeper.