Herman: Superman rappelling. What’s wrong with this picture?

I’m proud of this newspaper. Despite unprecedented challenges, the American-Statesman continues to do fine work in covering day-to-day doings and in time-consuming investigations about an impressive variety of topics.

OK, that ought to inoculate me with the bosses as I launch into some workplace introspection intended to be constructive.

It is important that words and images in this paper reflect reality. That is a basic tenet of journalism. And we fail when we — as we did in this case — capture and reproduce an image that is wrong, especially if it could confuse children and leave parents having to confront troubling questions from their kids.

PHOTOS: Super Hero Day at Dell Children’s Medical Center

Last Thursday, alongside big letters that said, “Here he is to save the day,” we published a photo with this caption: “Superman — aka Austin police officer Matt Harmatuk — gives Phynix Davison, 5, a fist bump as he makes his way to the ground during Wednesday’s third annual Superhero Day at Dell Children’s Medical Center.”

Readers were told that local cops, including Superman/Harmatuk, were “rappelling from the roof and down the hospital windows for children to watch.” Nice.

But we must pause to ponder this photo and its potential impact on impressionable children who might see it. What’s wrong with a photo of Superman rappelling down a building? Think about it.

Yes! You are correct! (Newspaper readers are so smart.) Why would Superman rappel down a building? The dude can fly. Everybody knows that. That’s his biggest deal — though I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities of X-ray vision. So why would we publish a photo casting doubt on Superman’s signature talent?

How about if, in mid-December, we show a photo of a Santa Claus jamming a pillow under his suit and complaining about having to hear the holiday party wishes of whiny, overprivileged children?

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That would be wrong, just as it was to publish something that could shatter childhood fantasies about Superman. (And thanks, but no, I don’t want to hear your particular childhood or adulthood fantasies about Superman.)

“Mommy,” some disillusioned young Superman superfan might inquire upon seeing this photo, “is Superman OK? Why does he presently need an intricate series of ropes and pulleys to counter the forces of gravity to achieve progressively declining altitude along the edifice?”

Wow, nice vocabulary, kid. Any more questions?

“Yes, is Superman really merely like Batman, a financially advantaged individual whose aggressive investment stratagem — probably utilizing tax-advantaged offshore investments — has allowed him to acquire an impressive myriad of gadgetry that can be used to combat the scourge of anti-social and criminal behavior?”

This is a very well-spoken child, probably actually pronouncing “mommy” as “mummy.” And, as you’re about to see, the kid’s a small-government conservative.

“Mummy, has some misfortune or malady befallen the man who self-identifies as super such that he can no longer leap buildings in a single bound?”

“And, I shan’t believe this, but is that safety equipment I perceive him utilizing? Is he perhaps a victim of overregulation by big government run amok? Or is it possible that he now is semiretired and enjoying the autumn of his days in superhero assisted living?”

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I pity the parent who has to deal with those good questions. And, good questions aside, this kid is obnoxious.

The core question we must confront is whether the ability to rappel while using rappelling equipment is evidence of one’s superherosity. I have my doubts.

Wait a minute, I’m wrong. I now recall that the publisher of this newspaper helps lead an annual rappelling effort that raises money for the Make-A-Wish charity. Anybody with final say over my continued employment is a superhero. I shan’t question that.

But I do have a quibble with whoever wrote the “Here he is to save the day” verbiage with the photo. It is (was?) Mighty Mouse whose signature line was “Here I come to save the day!” (And who can forget the late Andy Kaufman’s twisted karaoke performance of that song?)

The opening of the old Superman TV show told us that in addition to being “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive,” Superman was “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” One must assume that includes multistory health care facilities.

“Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. …”

No, it’s just some guy using an intricate series of pulleys, ropes and safety equipment to climb down the side of a building. He calls himself Superman but, you know what, somebody probably should call the cops.

Actually, I’m glad somebody calls the cops every year to participate in this day-brightening event for kids at the hospital.

So let’s give the final word to Austin Police Department interim Chief Brian (Super) Manley, who tweeted his pride in his troops’ efforts at the hospital: “I always knew I worked with heroes every day.”


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