Jerry, Who? News Media Irresponsibly Driving The Paterno Narrative

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(Newseum.org)

Just two weeks ago, I asked my wife, "I wonder what the next big court case the media will turn into a circus?" The Conrad Murray thing was dying down. Casey Anthony was over. It looked like we wouldn't have to be constantly bombarded with the latest "breaking development on the _____ case."

From now on, I'm just going to stop talking.

So the news broke--not as if we didn't know it was coming, since the grand jury was reported on months ago--about Jerry Sandusky, Tim Curley and Gary Shultz being brought up on charges. Sandusky, the long-time coaching legend, was a giant and founding figure in the Second Mile organization, which has possibly known about "something" since the late-90s. And then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary, who supposedly witnessed the most egregious alleged incident, reporting to Joe Paterno who in turn (correctly) reported it up the chain of command. All the while at least a dozen children were allegedly victimized and physically and mentally assaulted.

That should be the story, covered in the following order of priority: The alleged crime and its victims; The accused (Sandusky); The accused admins (Curley/Shultz); The charity used to execute alleged crimes (2nd Mile); The head coach who may not done enough (Paterno).

But it's not. The story is about Joe Paterno. Why did Paterno "allow" or "enable" this to happen. Paterno is a hypocrite, shameful, and should be judged as if he were the epicenter of this horrible, disgusting situation that the university administration put itself into.

I'm not defending Joseph Vincent Paterno. But I'm also not going to use this column to air my opinion on him or his actions. I'm not even going to really talk about the obvious negligence in dealing with this problem by senior university administrators. 

What I'm talking about the all-too-familiar character in sensational news stories: The News Media.

Jerry Sandusky is a familiar name inside the college football world and bubble of central PA, but not really anything more, especially to the nation at-large. His Second Mile charity is likely even lesser-known.

How many of you Penn Staters knew the name "Gary Shultz" before Monday? You did? Liar. And even if you did, you're one of about 1 percent who did know who he was.

Next, let's go to Tim Curley. Outside of Penn State sports fans, do you really think his name draws the kind of reader/viewer attention worth focusing the story on him?

Maybe a slightly larger portion of the audiences and readerships around the nation know Graham Spanier. He's a powerful university president, heavily involved in the NCAA and BCS.

The Penn State scandal and investigation would still be news if it were at, say, USC. Or Florida State. Or Michigan. Or Stanford. Figures similar to those above would still get coverage, but the media would have to actually work hard to explain who these people are and why they are important. Journalism would have to be exercised. The storyline--the narrative--would likely focus on the alleged crimes, the alleged criminal, the alleged victims, and rumored cover-up. Would the head football coach get a mention in there, specifically about his involvement in the situation? Of course.

But for the media, Penn State provided the absolute home run of a university and football program for this to come down upon. For the for-profit, capitalistic news media we read, listen to and watch, this scandal couldn't have happened in a more perfect location.

And there is only one man they can thank for it: Joe Paterno.

Paterno has, for decades, preached ethics, honor, and doing the "right" thing. For decades, he lived up to that self-set standard, as has (generally) the greater university. For all of us Penn Staters, this was always at the forefront of our dedication, our loyalty, our pride in the place that made us who we are today. Happy Valley was, as many considered it to be, one, if not the last, great bastion of good in college sports.

And that pissed off a lot of people. Penn Staters were snobby, full of themselves. A common train of thought among those resentful of what Penn State had going for it was, "And that Joe Paterno, man does he just love himself to death. Someday he'll come crashing down. And when he does, oh man, will I enjoy it."

In the backs of our minds, we all knew Penn State was walking on very thin ice. The longer something doesn't happen, the more likely it is to happen. For 60 years, nothing happened to seriously compromise Paterno's integrity or the university's image. That's a long time.

I remember thinking that to myself during the Ohio State "Tat-gate" scandal. When running Linebacker-U.com, those of us writing there were very cautious about throwing stones at the Buckeyes, because, frankly, we knew that if anything like that ever happened at Penn State, the world would pounce so quickly and harshly, it would lay waste to everything from Pleasant Gap to Port Matilda.

Penn State and Paterno's fall would be the story of the century for college sports.The media was ready and waiting. It would be big.

Now it's here. And it's not even in the same galaxy as what was expected to bring down JoePa & Co.

The most common narrative so far is that Paterno "allowed it to happen," and "enabled" the alleged crimes to occur, since it was brought to his (official) attention nine years ago. The narrative isn't just about laying blame on someone or some group at Penn State. If it were, then there would be a more even split between Paterno and the administrators/charity/university, than the 90-Paterno/10-Other ratio of coverage we're seeing today.

Paterno is the easy handle for the average target audience to grasp onto. And the media, despite their inherent and historical responsibility to report the news, not make it, is more than pleased to oblige the nation's love affair with the fall of the famous. It's not a juicy story to read of Spanier's downfall, or Curley's negligence. It wouldn't be so great (for the media) and the smashing headlines we're seeing this week had it not been for Paterno's place in the chain-of-command breakdown that occurred at Penn State.

Simply put: Without Paterno, we wouldn't be witnessing the collective hair-on-fire, ratings-generating outrage on anything close to what's going on around the nation today.

It's sad.

No, it's not sad because this is supposedly the media that is our very own watchdog, our public record that is not beholden to those with power and influence, covering this story with nothing more important in mind than the windfall it will generate come next fiscal report.

It's sad because there are children out there, bravely coming out to testify in front of a watching public (even if they remain "Victim #'s") about the heinous atrocities they were allegedly forced to endure at the hands of the accused Sandusky. How much coverage of the actual trial has there been since the story broke at the beginning of this week? On the first 24 news cycle, it was about reading the grand jury report, along with names and dates.

Since then, the narrative has turned sharply toward Paterno, the aged figurehead of a once-revered football program and university. It's turned toward the man with the rolled up khakis and black cleats because he was easy to target.

Things have gotten so bad the last 36-48 hours, that those who are actually reporting the news--the fantastic, Pulitzer-level work by Sara Ganim at the Patriot News--has been pushed to the wayside, all in favor of opinion pieces, speculative garbage that doesn't do anything but make this terrible episode into nothing more than a circus, a freak show.

The past two days of media coverage is voyeurism at its worst. Everyone wants a piece, but only from a distance. No one in the media has had the guts to do anything other than take their long-awaited shots at Paterno, who also just happens to be one of the men not charged with anything.

Why isn't the media focusing on Sandusky's involvement and seeming usage of the Second Mile charity for what he is accused of doing?

Why isn't the media digging into what and when the decisions were made at the top of the university administration to pull the plug on any possible investigation?

Where is the literal, not just moral, outrage in the media that the attorney general and others refused to open investigations into the matter when the most recent allegations were reported back in 2009?

When will the media get off its collective ass and do its job? Because, to be completely honest, I've seen more responsible coverage of this scandal in not just this (gasp!) blog, but even our rival schools' blogs, like Ohio State and Pitt.

This is the problem. For the media to get off its collective rump and do a real service to the public, it would require that they sacrifice the potential financial gain coming from covering "Saint Joe" instead of the serious criminal matters and possible high-level cover up that are right there, ready for investigating.

Every news outlet, not just those focused on sports, have seen bumps in hits, readers, viewers, listeners this week. They are making money off of this story. That's what the media does. They report, you pay to see it. It's simple, and perfectly normal.

But the system goes off the tracks when the media sees they can make even more money by covering a more specific angle of the story, even if it's not the most important or relevant to the public. In this case, it's the involvement of Paterno in the initial reporting of the incidents. It is such an incredibly small part of such an incredibly far-reaching scandal, my mind is spinning today at the very thought of the Paterno Factor dominating the news cycles and headlines.

I have stayed relatively quiet during this entire open-ended episode, from the moment it broke on Saturday, right through last night. It's no coincidence that I've broken my silence this morning. For the last two days have showed me nothing more than a media hell-bent on creating entertainment out of news. From ESPN, to the national newspapers, and every NBC, CBS, Yahoo!, and FOX sports pages, it's been one big get-your-shots-in-now scrum for the best, most scathing, hit-generating column, most likely from a guy who's been to a Penn State game once in his sports "journalism" career.

In turn, the Paterno coverage has spilled over into coverage of those who are holding out judgment on the man.

It reminds me of the "Either you're with us, or you're against us," mantra. The issue here is that the media is the one spouting that theme. Articles and tweets (did you see what Sports By Brooks wrote last night? Or what Herbstreit said?) describing the "blind" loyalty of the Penn State community to Paterno--in reality, the "supporters" only want a fair perception of Paterno until more facts come out--prove beyond reasonable doubt one thing: The media will drive this narrative as hard and fast as it can, and if you get in the way, watch out, because you ain't stopping it.

These are the times when I start watching PBS Newshour, or very selectively reading reports about what is going on in the case. I usually do this during election season, so it kind of works out.

But I simply cannot stomach another hour-leading report from a news outlet that has no idea what the fuck they are talking about. Just because they've sent their crack correspondent to State College doesn't mean jack shit. Our very own Ben Jones has been one of the most responsible, accurate, accountable reporters working this story. He's actually pounding the pavement, digging through sources, to find out what is really going on. You know, reporter stuff.

What Ben hasn't done is file speculative reports, with blinders on, blocking out almost anything that doesn't have to do with "What does this all mean for Paterno?"

The news media, in general, has not only dropped the ball on this one, it has done harm to the coverage this story should be getting. It's a disappointing display of what journalism should not be, particularly when such dynamic, emotional, downright disturbing events are under the public scrutiny.

I can only hope the media gets its act together over the coming days and week. But I'm afraid I could be waiting for a very long time. Once this story dies down, nothing will be clarified later. All the erroneous and suspect reports and information filed by various news outlets the past few days will go uncorrected, unaccounted for, and the public will be left with only warped understanding of what exactly is in that cloud hanging over University Park.

*This post is not meant to reflect anyone's opinion or views but my own. To better understand why I feel qualified to opine on this subject, you can view my full bio here.

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