"I Thought the Pope Had Died"  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June 1997

"I Thought the Pope Had Died"   

By Kathy Kiely
Kathy Kiely (kkiely@usatoday.com) covers Congress and politics for USA Today.     


Everyone knows Washington is a cesspool of cynicism inhabited by a vicious breed of journalistic sharks. Politicians can't even sit down to lunch in the nation's capital without their motives being questioned.

But for someone with a lot of money and a few football tickets to give away, the magic inside-the-Beltway circle fills with "respect and admiration." That's how President Clinton eulogized Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke after Cooke died April 6. The press corps bought the spin.

Both the Washington Post and Washington Times gave Cooke the kind of monumental, march-of-time send-off normally reserved for world leaders. The Post ran nine stories on Cooke the day after his death; the front page stories jumped to two full inside pages. The Times carried a full page of color photos. Local television stations interrupted their regular programming to broadcast news of "The Squire's" death.

It was a remarkably eminent demise for a sometime deadbeat dad and octogenarian lothario whose ultimate consort was a woman with a drug-dealing conviction and a bad habit of drunk driving that sometimes landed her in the slammer as well as the headlines. Judging from the treatment Washington's newspapers and major television stations gave to Cooke's death, this was the passing of an emperor. Precious few dared to suggest that he was perhaps not fully clothed.

"I thought the pope had died," says Washingtonian magazine Editor at Large Chuck Conconi. In commentaries for "Entertainment Tonight," Washington's all-news cable Channel 8 and local radio station WMAL, Conconi called Cooke "a mean-spirited, ill-tempered, tight-fisted, cantankerous old bully."

Conconi's remarks were the bold exception. Other coverage included a few references to Cooke's vanity and tyrannical tendencies, but these were made in an indulgent tone that suggested his virtues far outweighed his faults.

Washington Post headlines expressed such sentiments as: "The Best Owner There Ever Was" and "The Squire Was a Prince." Dissent was limited to two lonely adjectives in a piece by gossip writers Annie Groer and Ann Gerhart. They described Cooke as "imperious and bombastic."

One sportswriter remembered Cooke as "a man who wrote music, read extensively..." Another described his impressions on hearing of Cooke's death over his car radio: "A gentle rain was falling... I thought I was part of a funeral procession that engulfed the entire Washington area."

Gentle is not a word normally associated with Cooke.

He sued Washingtonian magazine for saying mean things about him, and the commonwealth of Virginia for not buying his stadium plan after he spent $164,000 promoting it. At one point, Cooke even sued his wife, Marlene, to get back gifts he had given her.

When a neighbor had the temerity to complain about the Redskins' owner fencing off a public alley to use as his private driveway, Cooke yanked the man's season tickets. He refused to pay child support for his young-est daughter until his paternity was proven by a blood test and disowned his eldest son (they later made up).

Though he made his fortune in the media business, Cooke never missed an opportunity to censor his own press coverage. When the Washington Post dared to publish a story about an upstart football franchise in the region — the Baltimore Ravens — the Redskins boss ordered his coaches and employees to give the paper's reporters the silent treatment. One can't help but wonder how the paper that brought down Richard Nixon would react if Clinton or D.C. Mayor Marion Barry blackballed its reporters.

In Cooke's case, there was humble gratitude for whatever smidgen of time the Great Man could afford lowly scribes. "I was fortunate to have had lunch with him once," wrote sports columnist Michael Wilbon. His colleague Tony Kornheiser told readers: "I was lucky. He liked me."

Both television and print commentators lamented the fact that Cooke would never see a kickoff in the Redskins' new 78,600-seat stadium, piled high with luxury boxes, in Landover, Maryland — built, viewers and readers never failed to be reminded, with the multimillionaire's own money .

The Post's Wilbon scolded the "government jerks" who "gave Cooke the runaround." On WJLA, Washington's ABC affiliate, Frank Herzog hailed Cooke as a team owner who could have moved his team but didn't.

Did Cooke's eulogists forget that he did pull the team out of the city in favor of greener suburban pastures; that the same "government jerks" who erected a subway stop at RFK Stadium were ready to cough up $100 million — hardly chump change, considering that the nation's capital is virtually bank-rupt — to help Cooke build a new sports palace on the same site?

Even after Cooke reached a deal with more compliant Maryland officials, there were problems: The Post reported that Cooke balked at paying the going wage to stadium construction workers, and that a raid by federal immigration officials this year discovered 18 illegal immigrants working on the site.

Cooke had a soft spot for people with questionable immigration status: He was married to one such person. The infamous Marlene, Cooke's fourth and fifth wife (they had a little rift after she was picked up by police with a 25-year-old male friend on the hood of her car) has been fighting deportation back to her native Bolivia ever since a 1986
cocaine bust.

Such facts were sufficiently well-known in Washington that at least some readers and viewers spoke out against the press corps' beatification of Cooke. Conconi said his tart hail-and-farewell to The Squire prompted several thank-you calls. Post Ombudsman Geneva Overholser, responding to complaints from readers who felt, as it were, over-Cooked, decided they had some justification: According to her calculations, the paper ran twice as many column inches about Cooke's death as it did about former President Richard Nixon's.

Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. says Cooke rated the blow-out coverage because of the "very, very important" role he played in the community and "the very close relationship our readers have with the Redskins."

As for the tone of the coverage, Downie says he has no influence over what the paper's columnists write. The multiple news articles, he adds, were justified. "Despite how you might feel about how he used his clout," Downie says, "he was just a giant."

But why did so many of Cooke's obits have to be written with kid gloves? When it comes to public figures, reporters don't feel compelled to suspend criticism in the face of death. Why should Washington journalists, who show no mercy when it comes to any other public figure, suddenly go all marshmallowy over a crusty old man with a big wallet and, in recent years, a mediocre football team?

Longtime D.C. politics-watcher and American University law professor Jamin Raskin suspects that it's a matter of "converging biases: the bias [of] rooting for the hometown football team and the [bias of] general adoration of the very wealthy."

Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia government professor who writes frequently about the media, theorizes that Washington reporters were in mourning over their own professional loss. Cooke was "very colorful," Sabato says. "He made good copy."

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