Reports Of Joe Paterno's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated: CBS Commits Two Cardinal Journalism Sins In One Night

CBS Sports reported on their website that former Penn State coach Joe Paterno had died. Only when word started to spread that Paterno was still alive did CBS conveniently decide to attribute their source of the false report, Penn State's campus newspaper.

Last November, CBS was promoting an “exclusive” interview with Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary. Note that it was less than 24 hours after NBC aired an exclusive interview of their own with another assistant coach from the Penn State football program, Jerry Sandusky. Also note that November is what is known in the television industry as a “sweeps” month – where networks and stations usually do anything and everything for eyeballs.

The end result of CBS’ “exclusive” Mike McQueary interview is that it lasted about as long as it took for you to read the previous paragraph. That’s right, an interview that was heavily promoted and highly publicized for most of the day lasted a whopping 25 seconds.

One source summed up the ordeal in their headline perfectly: “CBS Punks Viewers with McQueary Clip.”

On Saturday night, there was another development with regards to Penn State and the child sex abuse scandal that has been associated with them in recent months. This time, however, CBS punked folks on the Internet.

As the 8 PM (Eastern time) hour was winding down, posted a story with the headline, “Former Penn State coach Joe Paterno dies at 85.” The lead paragraph read as follows: “Joe Paterno, the man who for decades was synonymous with Penn State football and was known by the college football world as just “JoePa”, has died. Paterno, 85, had been receiving chemotherapy as part of his treatment for lung cancer, and complications from that treatment claimed the longtime Penn State coach’s life on Saturday.”

Just ten minutes after posted the story, this tweet comes in from Mark Viera of The New York Times: “Dan McGinn, the Paterno family spokesman… on reports about Joe Paterno’s death: “Absolutely not true.”

CBS had to act – and fast. They didn’t want blood on their hands from a man who wasn’t dead yet.

So at 9:13 PM, the story was updated. The headline now read, “Report: Former PSU coach Joe Paterno dies at 85,” and the leading paragraph now read something like this: “Joe Paterno, the man who for decades was synonymous with Penn State football and was known by the college football world as just “JoePa”, has died, according to Penn State student website Onward State. Onward State is reporting that the Penn State players were notified of Paterno’s passing via email. Paterno, 85, had been receiving chemotherapy as part of his treatment for lung cancer. However, Paterno family spokesperson Dan McGinn told a New York Times reporter that the report is “absolutely not true.”

So a source close to Joe Paterno says his death is “absolutely not true,” yet the story on still reads that he has indeed died – but according to a “report” from another source. It’s like you’re watching that part of the Chargers/Broncos game on CBS where the Chargers kicker appears to be urinating, only to be greeted by Mark McEwen to tell you that it’s raining.

But the worst was yet to come for CBS: ten minutes later, two people very close to Joe Paterno – in the form of his sons, Jay and Scott – would rush to Twitter to refute CBS’ report. And eventually, “CBS Sports” would be trending worldwide on Twitter – but for all the wrong reasons.

9:29 PM. New headline: “Reports of Joe Paterno’s death refuted by family.” New opening paragraph: “Penn State student website Onward State has reported that Penn State players were notified of longtime head coach Joe Paterno’s passing via email, and went on this report. Paterno, 85, had been receiving chemotherapy as part of his treatment for lung cancer. However, Paterno family spokesperson Dan McGinn told a New York Times reporter that the report of Paterno’s demise is “absolutely not true,” and Jay Paterno tweeted that his father “continues to fight.”

I guess the Paterno family spokesperson’s word isn’t good enough for CBS, huh? It had to take tweets from Paterno’s own sons for CBS to yank the “Joe Paterno Dies” headline from their website.

And only when reports – starting with said Paterno family spokesperson – started to surface that Paterno was not dead, CBS decided then and only then was the right time to credit the source that they had got the tip from: Onward State, Penn State’s campus newspaper.

You can’t have it both ways, CBS.

Not only was CBS wrong by initially reporting the story without crediting Onward State, but they were way wrong in nonchalantly passing on the credit to them when the big story that CBS broke a half-hour earlier was not accurate.

And you can imagine what happened next: The hashtag #CBSSportsSays had now trended nationally, and folks were now starting to mock CBS’ epic journalism fail in the comments section of their own story, such as this nod to Monty Python from “midgetsarefunny”: “Bring out your dead! (Clank) Bring out your dead! Joe’s not dead yet.

Aside from the expected CBS “report” tweets, actual journalists were giving CBS a type-lashing on Twitter. “When reporting that someone has died, you cannot be “confident” your report is correct. You have to be sure your report is correct,” wrote Yahoo’s Pat Forde. “These kind of stories require the utmost caution… CBS owes the Paterno family a prominent apology. You cannot get that wrong.” (Update: They did post an apology to the Paterno family.) And Nashville-based sports radio host Clay Travis summed it up best: “Major egg on face for CBS. Wrong report. Ouch.”

And what about the source of that “wrong report,” Onward State? The turn of events confounded managing editor Devon Edwards so much that he abruptly resigned. “I take full responsibility for the events that transpired tonight, and for the black mark upon the organization that I have caused,” he wrote in a missive posted on Onward State’s Facebook page. “I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State would be cited by the national media, and today, I sincerely wish it never had been.”

Here’s a tip, Mr. Edwards: When you’re going to report the death of a person that has only been idolized by your school, it might be a good idea to wait until multiple sources confirm it. That way, you won’t be vilified when the story has to end up being retracted.

And as it turns out, look what happened – you fooled CBS enough to buy into your story and roll with it. And someone at CBS is probably going to follow you out the proverbial door.

That someone might be the person whose byline is attached to the untrue Paterno story: Adam Jacobi, the senior college football blogger for His Twitter bio reads, “Striving for equality and perfect cromulence.”

“Cromulence” is a word that means legitimate, authentic, and acceptable.

It was also a word created in a 1996 episode of “The Simpsons.”

Adam Jacobi? Devon Edwards. Devon Edwards? Adam Jacobi. Nice to see you two get acquainted. Now, why don’t you two have a seat next to Jayson Blair?

No matter how big your hatred is for ESPN, you have to respect them for not falsely reporting Paterno’s death. (Even though they have a vast history of reporting stories broken by other sources and not attributing credit to them – the other major journalism no-no committed by CBS on Saturday night.) It probably worked out in ESPN’s favor by not reporting any such “breaking news.”

And what about CNN and Fox News? Forget it: Saturday night was South Carolina Republican primary results night. When they weren’t busy carrying live speeches of the losing candidates, they were busy conducting interviews with the losing candidates that had just given speeches moments earlier, or Sarah Palin. You couldn’t even get a sniff of a chyron with a mere mention of the name “Paterno” on the air if you tried. (Though, to be fair, Bret Baier and Anderson Cooper, who were on the air with their respective networks that night, did make comments about Paterno’s reported passing on their personal Twitter accounts at the time.) It’s clear that the cable news networks’ bread is buttered in politics. So they probably wouldn’t have reported Paterno’s death even if it was ultimately confirmed. (CNN’s usual bottom-of-the-screen news ticker was replaced by a South Carolina primary poll and delegate results chart, at one point including a small live camera shot of the campaign headquarters of primary winner Newt Gingrich.)

You’ll probably be hearing this pun a few dozen times or so throughout the day, given their logo, but I’ll go ahead and say it: CBS has given journalism a black eye.

A black eye that no snowglobe can fix.

Right, Armen Keteyian?

One comment on “Reports Of Joe Paterno's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated: CBS Commits Two Cardinal Journalism Sins In One Night

  1. People have been waiting to jump on this story for a while, combine that with the fact that it was Saturday night (which is probably mostly staffed by rookie reporters) turns this into a giant FAIL for CBS. Personally, I saw someone post the original story by Onward on Facebook and I thought it seemed a little sketchy and unconfirmed…and my site is dedicated to rumors. ha

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