THE BLOG
01/25/2012 03:19 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

Lessons of JoePa... In Case Next Witch We Hunt Doesn't Drop Dead

Joe Paterno, the postscript...

The witch hunt that ended his career meant something, after all, as an object lesson in case the next witch we hunt doesn't drop dead two months later.

Even if the press, so recently laden with scorn, is now lugubrious in its romanticism -- ESPN's Todd Blackledge, a former Paterno quarterback, noted, "As much as anything, he died of a broken heart" -- no one knows if the ordeal hastened JoePa's death.

If it did, this is a story with a lot more victims, besides.

Nevertheless, it's wrong that he was hounded into retirement for his tangential involvement in someone else's scandal... and that he'll now be remembered additionally for being martyred by a marauding press.

Paterno didn't have to die to make it wrong to have dispensed with him before he got to say what he knew, when he knew it and how he felt about it, providing some basis for accepting his story as heartfelt or dismissing it as self-serving BS, as a minimum requirement of fairness.

It was wrong from the moment the press and its new social-media-engaged audience began piling on, prompting Penn State trustees to fire Paterno on the spot, in the hope of saving what remained of their fund-raising program.

I wrote a column for Truthdig about the media crusade ("JoePa Gets Due Process of Us"), although I noted that his actions after being told by his assistant, Mike McQueary, that Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused a teenage boy, were "indefensible."

It wasn't a defense of Paterno, or even a story about him -- but it was close enough to inspire a firestorm in the comments published below my piece.

I was actually trying to show the the complicated working of the modern press, as raw emotion streamed up, as well as being handed down, from audience to blogger to mainstream pundit, in a justice-demanding feeding frenzy.

Rather than stay detached and offer critical perspective, as the press did in its post-tabloid, idealistic, we-got-it-right-for-Watergate phase, the modern press was like a posse galloping after the outlaws... and not beyond stringing them up on the spot.

Child abuse being so heinous a crime, and so legitimate a cue for outrage, Paterno's story showed the impact of the interactivity that media outlets value so highly in today's Neo-Tabloid Age.

If the press is accused of being an elite that tell the people what it wants to, news organizations have lived and died according to their ability to discern what the public wanted.

Now the public -- or its dark side, with anonymous contributions making it the equivalent of road rage -- is wired into the process.

As I noted in December:

Tweeted Sirius' Opie and Anthony, insulted at having their integrity questioned:

"To the C***S that think this is a bit, F*** OFF! Joe Paterno failed as a human being. Go defend football over a kids innocence somewhere else."...

I Googled "F*** Joe Paterno" and "F*** Paterno" and got 498 hits.

With "Paterno sucks," Google came back with 2,890 (in 0.21 seconds).

My piece occasioned comments on the Truthdig site like: "I continue to be amazed -- nay, gobsmacked -- by the intricacy of the knots into which child-rape apologists will tie themselves, all in service of defending the God of Football."

Not that it gobsmacked me. I didn't know about it until site founder Bob Scheer told me. Whatever I'm apologizing for, I'm not dumb enough to read comments under my stories.

A week before his death, Paterno, weakened by chemotherapy for his lung cancer, described his meeting with McQueary to the Washington Post's Sally Jenkins.

With the regrets and the holes in Paterno's story, and the hesitancy he described on McQueary's part, it was just what you would have expected.

"He [McQueary] was very upset and I said why, and he was very reluctant to get into it," Paterno said. "He said it, well, [it] looked like inappropriate, or fondling, I'm not quite sure exactly how he put it.

"I said, 'You did what you had to do. It's my job now to figure out what we want to do.'

"So I sat around. It was a Saturday. Waited till Sunday because I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. And then I called my superiors and I said: 'Hey, we got a problem, I think. Would you guys look into it?'

"... I had never had to deal with something like that. And I didn't feel adequate."

So, it was indefensible and/or human, after all, assuming how credible you think Paterno is.

As for Paterno's broken heart...

With all due respect for Blackledge, who knew him, if Paterno could turn down NFL millions to stay in the house in Happy Valley he bought for $9,000, he may have been past caring what "they" thought, from Penn State alumni who wanted his revered backside out of there until this almost-a-storybook season, to professional haters like Opie and Anthony.

As Paterno's wife, Sue, told Jenkins, taking a favorite picture of them, their children and grandchildren off the wall: "This is who we are. And no one can take us from us."

If we, the members of the new press-audience continuum, are left feeling like Romans who went thumbs down, then thought better of it... oh, we're too late for JoePa?

Most people will insist they were the ones insisting this was witch hunt all along, and believe it. If you're the exception, remember it the next time the press trusses, er, hands someone up to us, the jury.

We're going to need a lot more exceptions, within the press and without, since it and and its audience are now the same thing.