Greatly Exaggerated NBC's erroneous report of Joe DiMaggio's demise is part of a pattern of morbid fascination

February 08, 1999

When NBC broke the news of Joe DiMaggio's death on Jan. 24, it
did so with a "crawl" across the bottom of America's television
screens. Regrettably, no news anchor was available to affect the
brow-furrowed gravitas such a moment deserves. ABC anchor Frank
Reynolds was movingly Cronkite-like in announcing the death of
presidential press secretary James Brady in 1981, and ABC radio
ponied up similar tones of solemnity in reporting the passing of
Bob Hope last June. That none of the aforementioned men is
actually deceased--with the exception of Frank Reynolds--is
hardly relevant. In journalism it is better to be first than to
be right. There are two kinds of people in the news business:
the quick and the dead. And "dead" is now merely a matter of
opinion.

Consider the case of the 84-year-old DiMaggio. His name has
appeared in headlines in The New York Times roughly once every
three days since October, when he entered Memorial Regional
Hospital in Hollywood, Fla., reportedly for treatment of
pneumonia but also, as it turned out, for lung cancer. The
relevant words in the ensuing 14 weeks of headlines were, in
chronological order: WORSENS, IN INTENSIVE CARE, IMPROVEMENT,
IMPROVES, FAILING, CONCERN GROWS, SIGNIFICANT SETBACK,
IMPROVING, TAKES TURN FOR WORSE, HAS STABILIZED, TENUOUS,
IMPROVES DRAMATICALLY, DOING WELL, and, on Jan. 19, LEAVES FOR
HOME. Five quiet days followed, during which no news was
presumed to be bad news, culminating in NBC's announcement of
his death. (The next day the network apologized for a
technician's "inadvertent" error in activating the crawl.)
DiMaggio reportedly watched the bulletin, like Tom Sawyer at his
own funeral, and a nation that once asked, "Where have you gone,
Joe DiMaggio?" was left to wonder... "Have you gone, Joe
DiMaggio?"

The confusion owes something to DiMaggio's admirable obsession
with privacy, to which he is eminently entitled. The man's first
words upon waking from a coma on Dec. 13 were to tell his doctor
to stop speaking to the press, an endearing act that forever
secures the Clipper's position as the consummate 20th-century
athlete. His friend, attorney and spokesman, Morris Engelberg,
has begun declining interviews of late, further rocket-fueling
media speculation. It is the very same kind of speculation that
takes place in the stock market.

The Dow Jones analogy is frighteningly apt: It wasn't merely the
hourly up-and-down updating of DiMaggio's health that was
uncanny--the human ticker as stock ticker--but the notion that
people stood to gain by gambling on all of this. Networks and
newspapers fight to be first with the news, a battle already won
by the Pyrrhic Peacock. Scores of "dead pools" proliferate on
the Internet, hundreds of people competing to reap (if you will)
profits should any number of sports figures, most of them
elderly or HIV positive, pass away in 1999. It's like Rotisserie
baseball. The speculators compete in teams, have names like
Six-Foot Divot and celebrate the death of, say, Harry Caray.

So we chart another valley on the EKG of civilization's decline.
As human decency begins to flatline, we can only hope that
life--rather, death--imitates Flatliners. In that film, you were
treated in the afterlife precisely as you had treated others in
life.

Should that be the case, we know this much: Somebody will spend
eternity as divot mix.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO

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