Chris Krewson

The failure of journalism around Penn State (not where you might think)

Posted in Newspaper by ckrewson on November 14, 2011

Over the weekend, I saw several variations on a theme that goes something like this: Was the media responsible for the Penn State Board of Trustees’ abrupt firing of Joe Paterno?

Initially my answer was “no way.”

I don’t believe the Board of Trustees read the Patriot News’s front-page editorial and decided at once to fire both University President Graham Spanier and Paterno. If anything, this weekend story by The New York Times seems to say Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett applied pressure on the University – he’d lost confidence in their leadership. When the story first broke nationally two weekends ago, I’d assumed both Paterno and Spanier would step down or be forced out in a matter of days, certainly before the next televised football game.

Full disclosure – before starting my gig at Variety, I spent a decade working in newsrooms across Pennsylvania. The earliest part of that tenure was as a cops and courts reporter for the Centre Daily Times, so I have some experience with the people and places that have transfixed the nation for the past week. I spent almost eight years at The (Allentown) Morning Call before a couple of years at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Many of my friends and former colleagues have done yeoman’s work covering this huge story. I don’t mean to criticize any one person directly.

But I am beginning to think the media bears some responsibility for the way this mess has borne out, though not because of the reporting immediately following the Grand Jury’s 23-page indictment. My critique starts months earlier, in March of this year.

That was the month that Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim – justly earning praise these days from media cogniscenti first wrote what she said she’d been hearing for years: A grand jury was investigating former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky in connection with the sexual abuse of a young boy on campus. Ganim’s first story, and the editor’s note that ran with it, are prescient. While the grand jury report was ultimately more damning and contained the stories and sordid details of more alleged victims, the initial word (and the sensitivity with which the Patriot-News reported it) was pretty spot on.

This should have provoked a firestorm.

Newspapers and televisions stations across Pennsylvania – the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, sports talk radio in Philly and Pittsburgh – should have piled on, the former assigning investigative teams to start their own digging, the latter keeping focus on this impending report. At the very least, the state Associated Press should have sent the story out on its wire and assigned resources to look into it. ESPN would have noted the fuss, as would Fox Sports, Deadspin, The Big Lead and the rest of the sports media world.

*Update: I’ve received word that the AP did, indeed, move the story on its state wire – why subscribers across the state failed to pick it up remains a mystery.

That scrutiny might have caused Penn State’s Board to sit up and pay attention, and start asking hard questions of Spanier, perhaps spurring them to start their own probe. Conversations with both the University President and Paterno would have happened outside the frame of football season – more importantly, over the summer, when there are far fewer students in State College.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Instead, all I could find following Ganim’s initial story was one column in the Beaver County Times a month later.

Then, silence. For seven more months, silence.



2 Responses

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  1. Dana Harris said, on November 14, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    Excellent point.

  2. Joe McDermott said, on November 14, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Chris, you make some good and valid points here about the media’s lack of interest in this story before the release of the grand jury report. I contend that the PSU Board of Trustees also had to have known about the grand jury investigation — several key university officials were called to testify. In fact, I would argue that there would have to be intentional negligence if the trustees did not know or were not informed of it. They could have and should have started their own investigation more than a year ago, at the very least.

    That said, I think they did react to the breaking coverage last week, as well as political heat from Gov. Corbett when they voted summarily to fire Paterno and demand Spanier’s resignation. I also believe their actions go right to the heart of the issue from the very beginning — they were more concerned about the university’s reputation than doing what was right. They admitted to feeling pressure from the media — indeed, how could they not feel it with just about every major news network camped on or near campus by then?

    Where I find fault with the media is in two places: One, it couldn’t have been just campus personnel who heard rumors about Sandusky’s alleged behavior. As you know from your Penn State/CDT days, it is a very small circle there. We’ll probably never know how many sports or news reporters heard inklings over the years and dismissed it with the standard “no reputable witnesses/no police report” excuse.

    Two, and this pertains largely to the broadcast media though print is not without blame, the media for too long now has tended to equate “charged” or “accused” with “guilty.” Commentators and talkies demand action, demand punishment without waiting for a trial or jury. Ask Casey Anthony about that one. Ask Richard Jewell, for that matter. This is nothing new.

    The media is not judge and jury. Trials occur in courtrooms, with proper legal representation. When someone is accused of a crime, we have to all take a step back and remember that the Constitution mandates that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. The media leaders, not just the reporters in the field, must remember that the consequences of their actions could destroy an innocent person as quickly and completely as an improper lynching. I go back to the first thing I heard in my first journalism class by my first professor: “Get it first, but first get it right.”

    The failures in this case have occurred at so many levels it is downright scary. But there is little doubt that the coverage of the story over the past 10 days or so has brought far more heat than light. And that helps no one — not the university, not the people who are involved, and certainly not the victims and their families.

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