Monday, January 23, 2012

Paterno death brings back memories

Former Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno is dead. It appears to be so. We certainly hope so.
PATERNO: What a diff'rence a day makes

For having a pair of screw-ups with relation to his health would just be too much to bear.

IT SEEMS THAT this particular incident started with a website that covers the Penn State scene. They reported Saturday that Paterno – who had been hospitalized for eight days – had died.

Actually, he was dying. He wasn’t actually pronounced dead until Sunday morning.

But in the desire to be on top of things, the website got a premature tip and went with it – one that turned out to be wrong. Several other websites helped spread the word by also writing about Paterno’s demise hours before it actually happened.

They based their reports on the Penn State student website, and all wound up having to take it back. Of course, they were quick to blame the student website, and my understanding is that someone officially gave up his editorial post with the website on Sunday – expressing shame at what went wrong.

OF COURSE, BY the time this happened, Paterno was actually dead. So it’s not like the report was all that far off the mark.

Now I’m not justifying the reporting of anything that was off the mark. If someone reports the death of a prominent person, the last thing one wants is that person being able to call up the reporter-type who wrote the story and say, “I’m not dead!!!”
DeANGELIS: Caught the error

But I also comprehend how such things can happen. Some times in the confusion of circumstances, people spread bad information and reporter-types get caught up in it.

One of the most-famed of these incidents involved one-time 26th Ward Alderman Vito Marzullo, who got to read his obituary on the front page of the Chicago Tribune some two decades ago – about a decade before he actually died.

BUT IN MY own time as a reporter-type person, there have been a couple of moments I experienced with this same circumstance.

One was back in the early 1990s when I was working for the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago. One day, my editors got a call informing them that one of the leaders of the Republican caucus of the Illinois state Senate – Aldo DeAngelis of Olympia Fields – had died that morning.

Supposedly, the person who spoke to us had got the information directly from a hospital official who “recognized” the man’s name as an important official when she saw the paperwork indicating he had been pronounced dead.

Unfortunately, the man who died that day was someone who had a name similar to that of the state Senate member. It wasn’t the senator, even though a hospital official had said it was.

SO WHEN I started making calls to try to piece together, I quickly found out from the senator’s staff that their boss had been in the office earlier in the day, and – unlike Generalissimo Francisco Franco – most definitely was NOT dead.

Of course, my editor initially didn’t believe me, and persisted with talk that I needed to write an obituary. It was only when I personally interviewed the senator later in the day and got his reaction (he thought it was humorous) that my editor became persuaded that the senator was not dead – and an obituary was not warranted.

I only wish I had been that fortunate a few years later – by which time I was working for United Press International in their Springfield, Ill., office. One day, I got a call informing me that state Sen. Kenneth Hall, D-East St. Louis, had been hospitalized – most likely in St. Louis.

I started making calls, both to St. Louis hospitals (none of which had him) and then to his district office on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. Nobody knew nothing.


A call was made by me to the office of the Illinois Senate’s Democratic leaders. I asked an aide what he knew about Hall’s health, and that aide informed me that Hall had been pronounced dead that very morning. He also informed me that he was preparing an obituary for the Senate Democratic leadership to release – and would I like to see a copy when he was done, so as to help me put together my own obituary of Hall for the wire service.
HALL: Too early

At that point, I wrote something that UPI called a “spotlight” – a two-sentence blurb that said Hall (at that point, the longest-serving member of the state Senate) had died. It was transmitted to the wire service’s clients.

I then started piecing together what information I had in the file cabinets about Hall so as to write a basic obituary that could back up the “spotlight.” It was during my preparation of that basic obituary that I learned Hall had not died. He was admitted to a hospital, and as it turned out he died two weeks later. Yes, I got an apology from that legislative aide – who admitted it was his error.

I WAS SPARED the sight of an obituary for Hall with my name attached. The wire service straightened out the mess, and that basic obit turned into a story about how long-time state Sen. Ken Hall had been hospitalized.

But I’m still the guy who “killed” Kenny Hall a couple of weeks prematurely. (And when Hall eventually died, the competition wire service managed to report that before we did; that really hurt!)

So I can appreciate how someone trying to be diligent managed to get too diligent in their efforts to report a tidbit that would catch national attention (unlike the death of Hall, which wasn’t noted outside of Illinois).

Just like what seems to have happened with Paterno this past weekend.


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