Was it media’s nature to be a Coe-conspirator?

No, you haven’t read this before — although the subject is painfully familiar.

In the aftermath of the still shocking, self-inflicted death of State Attorney Harry Lee Coe III, the post-mortems have been both profuse and predictable.

No one, of course, denies the tragedy of it all. No one doesn’t lament the sad demise of a good man.

There certainly was a consensus that the late Judge Coe was an eccentric, complicated, conflicted, loyal, powerful prosecutor with a track record of bizarre behavior and conscientious public service. The aberrant antics inevitably invited controversy as well as scrutiny, initially from the media, eventually from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. In time, the unflattering attention would overshadow the 30 years of service Coe rendered as a judge and Hillsborough state attorney.

At his death, Coe was better known for quirks and questionable practices than community contributions as an effective juvenile court prosecutor and stalwart in the struggle against spousal abuse. He also had an incongruously private side rarely seen in public officials.

Also among the post-mortems was an acrid, accusatory chorus of public sentiment blaming the media, both print and electronic, for the suicide of the harried Coe. For using its coverage to push him past the perilous precipice he had been teetering upon.

Predictably enough, the media responded largely with knee-jerk, self-serving rationalizations articulated by editors, columnists and news executives. “We’re just doing our job” and “Don’t shoot the messenger” became the media’s shields and shibboleths.

There is, of course, truth in those responses, but it must be qualified. That’s because the media did play a major, albeit unwitting, role in Coe’s suicide. It wasn’t by design — but by culture.

An anecdote involving Walter Cronkite is illustrative. In answer to a question regarding the media’s seeming obsession with all things bad and scandalous, the erstwhile dean of TV journalism replied: “Most people don’t care about all the cats that did not get stuck in trees today.”

Cronkite was correct. That which is supposed to happen is not news; the unexpected is. The uncrashed plane or the unmurdered convenience store owner is as much non-news as a safe intersection or a squeaky clean public official.

“If it bleeds, it leads” is more than insiders’ gallows humor. It’s local TV news dogma — and won’t change unless tabloid competition disappears and TV news reverts from profit-center and network lead-in status to the loss-leader standing of television’s early days. Or somebody does some serious soul searching.

The question begged, however, is who can reliably draw the line between informing the public and pandering to it? The First Amendment permits both; the bottom line doesn’t always favor the former. And more to the point here, who, if anyone, credibly defines that line between holding a public official accountable and hounding him during “sweeps” month? Presumably, the people’s right to know about Coe’s greyhound gambling and $12,000 in loans from office employees last year would be no less important in a non-sweeps period. Moreover, imagine the coverage if a crime had been committed.

Most TV newsrooms are hard pressed to make the tough calls on the side of sensitivity, especially where a high-profile, “good copy” person is involved. Reporters are, by training and inclination, skeptics; many eventually morph into cynics, and we’ve all seen the results. And everybody lives and dies by ratings.

The crashed plane is obvious news, but is there a compelling public interest in knowing, say, how the disaster feels to next of kin? We’ve all seen and heard that question asked. How do you think they feel? Viewers don’t need to become voyeurs in the name of their right to know.

It is absolutely the media’s “job” to report that crash, murder, traffic accident or alleged public-trust violation, but it needn’t be anyone’s “job” to sensationalize or serialize it. And that goes even if it’s July sweeps, and you’ve got an investigative series to promote and tease around the clock. Is it possible Harry Coe caught some of that tabloidy, investigative hype?

While TV news has a sense of relentless ubiquity, the daily newspapers were more of a drumbeat the week leading up to Coe’s death. The morning that Coe’s body was discovered by a Channel 8 investigative reporter and photographer, both dailies had page one stories of the FDLE’s preliminary investigation of those repaid employee loans and allegations that Coe may have visited greyhound racing Web sites on his government-issued laptop computer. Among other front page stories the Coe pieces took layout priority over were: findings that most cancers are caused by lifestyle not genes; a proposal that pushes an improved Medicare drug plan; news that huge profits are being reaped by oil producers and refiners; and a FAA report that finds nothing amiss in the controversial lease of TIA-owned property to a mall developer. All important stories, to be sure, just less so than another Harry Coe update.

The following morning, the front-page headline in the St. Petersburg Times actually asked: “Why would he do it?” Part of the answer might have been directly below that incredulous headline. It was a large, color crime scene photo showing the covered, yet still obviously outlined and slumped body of Coe. Nice touch.

That’s why.

And one final post-mortem. Would that the local media look inward in the aftermath of the Harry Lee Coe tragedy. If so, this is what they should see:

That the continued need to not pull any reporting punches is compatible with putting away the brass knuckles until they’re needed.

That while theirs is a highly competitive business, it’s still the only one with a sacrosanct First Amendment mandate to inform — not pander.

That there are human beings behind their news-product stories — and that skeptics can be empathetic.

If this were to happen, Coe’s death would be much more than a tragic footnote in the governmental annals of Hillsborough County. It would be an ironic tribute.

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