Category Archive 'Penn State Scandal'

24 Jul 2012

How the Media Misreported the Penn State Scandal

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detail, former Paterno memorial

John Ziegler described how misreporting and media sensationalism destroyed the reputation of Joe Paterno and the nation’s most admired football program.

Regardless of what the final facts eventually say about what Joe Paterno knew and when he knew it about Jerry Sandusky’s criminal behavior (contrary to what the media has told you, they aren’t in yet and I have confronted very anti-Paterno “reporters” who admit this privately), the media coverage of him has been as unfair as any I have ever seen. In some ways, the media coverage of Joe Paterno has combined some of the worst elements of both the reporting of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 presidential election. …

After the grand jury presentment was made available at a Saturday press conference which announced the Sandusky indictments last November, the initial media coverage was, in retrospect remarkably, and tellingly, rather muted.

ESPN, who would later the next week drive most of the narrative of the overall story, limited most of their coverage over the weekend to a passing news mention and a perfunctory place on the ubiquitous scroll on the bottom of the screen. After all, they had actual college and pro football games to broadcast/cover and no need to interrupt those ratings winners for the story of some guy who hadn’t coached football in over a decade.

The first edition of Sports Illustrated (which went to press about 48 hours after the indictments) after the news broke does not make mention of the Sandusky story in even one news article. Sandusky didn’t even make the “For the Record” section under “Arrests.” The story is only cited in an opinion column on the back page which reads somewhat like the “last word” on a story which is horrible but which may not provide much opportunity to write about in the future.

By the next week, Joe Paterno was somehow on the cover of SI along with multiple banner headlines, including one indicating that this was the biggest scandal in college sports history.

What changed in the ensuing week? Well, Paterno was fired, but not because we learned anything significantly new about the scandal during that time. Instead, what happened was that ESPN, with the help of popular website Deadspin (which was the first outlet to jump all over the story and predict Paterno’s demise), decided that they could change the rules of this game and make what was an otherwise dead sports week into a dramatic, ratings winning, passion play.

The initial take of the mainstream media was that this was not really a Joe Paterno story because, while Sandusky had been his assistant coach and there was a major allegation which occurred on campus, it was after he had already left the program. Paterno had testified but had not been charged. The prosecutors said that Paterno had done what was legally required of him, though they did raise the issue (in the response to a leading question from the media) of whether Paterno had fulfilled his moral responsibility with regard to making sure the allegations were properly followed up.

Seemingly lulled into a false sense of security by the relative rationality of the initial coverage (which was neither as intense nor as insane as it soon would be), Penn State made a couple of critical errors. The first was that they failed to make it clear that when Paterno had made sure the Mike McQueary allegations were reported to Gary Schultz, that he was doing so to the person in charge of the campus police. The media, either out of incompetence, deceitfulness, or both, never made that clear and in fact often reported that Paterno “never went to the police.” This omission created a huge hole in Paterno’s ship, which should have been easily plugged. Instead, it was an unnecessary leak in his story which still exists in public perception today. …

Now the media had what they wanted. They suddenly processed all the excuses they needed to turn a story about a likely child molester who hadn’t coached at Penn State for twelve years, into a tale of whether a legend had failed in his moral responsibility to protect children he may or may not have even known were ever in danger.

The public wouldn’t care much about Sandusky, but everyone knew Joe Paterno. The tearing down of a pious legend makes for incredible copy and it transformed that week from a remarkably slow sports period (the NBA was still on strike, baseball was over, and football was in a midseason lull) into a ratings bonanza.

Now it should be noted that one of the primary weapons which drove the deep passion and anger on this story at the outset was the misuse of one key phrase in the grand jury presentment. The prosecutors brilliantly (though deceitfully) claimed that Mike McQueary had witnessed Sandusky having “anal intercourse” with a ten year old boy in the Penn State showers.

Quite simply, there is very little in the human condition which makes our brains turn off their logic mechanisms faster than the concept of a child being anally raped by an old man. Like the color red to a raging bull, this phrase turned what would have been reasonable outrage into a communal blind fury. It also made it nearly impossible to discuss the actual facts of the matter because people understandably don’t like talking about the subject.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that had the grand jury presentment not used the words “anal intercourse,” that Joe Paterno would not have been fired the way that he was and likely would have coached out the season. I also have little uncertainty that the phrase was purposely misused in the grand jury presentment because prosecutors knew exactly what kind of public reaction it would provoke.

I also believe that part of the reason that the phrase “anal intercourse” was placed in the grand jury presentment was because, at that time, contrary to public perception, the legal case against Jerry Sandusky was actually remarkably weak.

Incredibly, despite a huge civil settlement being there for the taking, somehow there was/is no known victim in the McQueary episode (Don’t tell the media that! They still don’t realize it!), and, though somehow no one knew it at the time, McQueary had inexplicably testified incorrectly about which day, month and year the incident he supposedly witnessed took place.

Few people, and fewer media members, realize that at the time of the indictments there was only one allegation of actual “sex” from a known witness, and that person’s story had been disbelieved by officials at his own school (interestingly that boy’s mom doesn’t blame Paterno or Penn State). The prosecution needed a big explosion in order to blow the case wide open and bring in other accusers they had to be sure were still out there. Their tactic worked perfectly, but it also had the side effect (one with which it seems they weren’t unpleased) of making it impossible for Paterno to get a remotely fair public examination.

As it ultimately turned out, the “hanging” jury in the Jerry Sandusky case actually rightly acquitted him of “anal intercourse” in the McQueary allegation (for the record, I believe the evidence indicates that McQueary did not witness an assault, but rather a botched “grooming”). But by that time it no longer mattered and this inconvenient fact was almost universally ignored by the media.

Read the whole thing.

He has a terrific article which makes vital points on this sad affair. I think it is, however, too long and needed a bit of editing which it did not receive.


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