Words Fail

There was something that bugged me about coverage of the Penn State horror thus far, other than the nauseating, rage-inducing details, of course. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I read David Roth’s post at The Classical about the whole dismal thing. This line, in particular, stuck with me:

Further down the line there will be assessments of how the fallout from “the scandal” – the same word used to describe Ohio State players swapping jerseys for tattoos is already being used to describe the horrors Sandusky is alleged to have forced upon needy kids for a decade and a half – will impact Penn State’s program.

This helped me realize that it’s this use of the word scandal that so bothered me. It is a word that is grossly inadequate to describing what happened. The fact that so many people covering the case use it anyway it is indicative of what the news has become, and how ill equipped it is to deal with a story like this.

The word scandal is the first one out of the toolbox because that is what powers The News: salacious coverage of sexual misconduct, be it by a celebrity or a Congressman. It is the one thing that can still guarantee people will tune in/read. A few days ago, I actually heard a local radio station refer to the Penn State story as a “sex scandal” (!), which is so off the mark it’s not even in the same continent as its target.

In the same way that “controversy” = “any topic on which people can disagree,” “scandal” = “something juicy.” It is the same lazy impulse that, for the last 30+ years, has named any government misdeed “_____Gate,” thus lowering one of the most egregious and vile abuses of presidential power in our nation’s history to the same level as parking ticket payoffs and other petty offenses. That’s why you will hear people routinely say, “Nixon just got caught.” Which is true, except we no longer have the perspective to realize the true evil of what he was caught doing.

The biggest problem with using the word scandal is that, as Roth points out, it equates what happened at Penn State with the piddling violations that the NCAA arbitrarily punishes from time to time to keep up its cheap facade of amateurism (a sham that applies solely to its uncompensated players, not to any of the coaches or schools and certainly not to the NCAA itself). It should be obvious to any rational human being that Sandusky’s crimes far exceed any “wrongdoing” that, for instance, Reggie Bush committed years ago while at USC. But by using the word scandal, you’re essentially saying these two things are equal.

I believe this is why we saw morons “rallying” for Joe Paterno last night. They don’t believe he is someone who, at best, did the absolute legal minimum in a situation that called for far more. They see him as a victim, someone who needs support to get through this tough time. And I can’t help but feel that using the catch-all word scandal for this monstrosity is partly responsible for such hamfisted, misguided reactions. If only people had rallied on behalf of abused children. If only Paterno had.

Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky is a scandal. Herman Cain getting grabby is a scandal. John Edwards cheating on his dying wife is scandal. Congressmen frequenting male prostitutes is a scandal. Penn State is something else altogether. Calling it a scandal says you regard it in the same light as those other things. Something to snicker at. Late night joke fodder. And all because someone in a newsroom can’t be bothered to use a more appropriate word.

You may not think this is important, but it is, vitally so. Language still means something. The words we choose mean something. That may not seem true in the age of texting and Internet shorthand, but it really is. The absolute bare minimum that can be done for the victims of Penn State–and Lord knows precious little else has been done on their behalf–is to discuss what happened to them with a proper vocabulary, not with the impoverished thesaurus of the 24-hour news cycle.