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"The Betrayal of Joe Paterno" Chapter Four: The Media Firestorm

CHAPTER FOUR: THE MEDIA FIRESTORM

In retrospect, it is really quite amazing how close Penn State and specifically Joe Paterno came to escaping this situation largely unscathed. For the first two days of the story, that is essentially what happened.

The story broke nationally on a college football Saturday, one which, just “coincidently,” Penn State’s team had off (Graham Spanier has told me that he had gotten word that the indictment of Sandusky was likely coming at the end of the following weekend and he had begun preparations to notify the Board of Trustees at their scheduled meeting just before then). ESPN was so concerned with covering actual football games all weekend that they barely mentioned the arrest at all. In fact, I purchased the closed captioning for all the major television networks that weekend and a search for the words “Sandusky or Paterno” turned up shockingly few results.

The most significant mainstream news article focusing on Paterno that weekend came, ironically, from Sara Gamin, who would later win a highly suspect Pultizer prize for her Sandusky reporting.

The very short item, which featured an obvious source inside the prosecution (which was where almost all of Ganim’s “reporting” in the case came from), “praised” Paterno for “acting appropriately” in reporting the suspicions about Sandusky. I don’t know who the source in that case was, but a good guess would be Jonelle Eshbach, who questioned Paterno and others in the grand jury, posted on Facebook that she didn’t think he should have been fired, and later left the Attorney General’s office. There is also significant circumstantial evidence that she approached ABC News with the story that the prosecution lied about when it knew about the 1998 investigation so as to justify why it took so long to indict Sandusky (ABC didn’t run the story because it seems Eshbach didn’t want to appear on camera). I exchanged a couple of terse emails with her, but she refused to speak to me. My gut tells me that she may be one of the few people who could really break this case open if she ever came forward with the full truth.

As late as that Sunday night, ESPN had still not decided that an unidentified Penn State “graduate assistant” supposedly witnessing Sandusky subjecting a young boy to “anal intercourse” nine years ago was a huge story. To them and most of the rest of the sports media which follows ESPN like lemmings, this was a “Jerry Sandusky” story, which meant it had very limited ratings appeal.

The major exception over the weekend to this take came from the popular renegade sports website Deadspin, which was most well known at that point for publishing pictures of Brett Favre’s penis.

Deadspin is hardly a “news” organization, but they were the first major entity to drive the story towards Paterno and predict his firing. Their hypocrisy on this issue was laid bare months later when their then editor A.J. Daulerio practically bragged in print that Philadelphia sports columnist Bill Conlin had essentially confessed to him that he had sexually molested children in his own family. Daulerio wrote of counseling him on how to handle the story and then coddled him in their extremely light coverage of the revelations which would end his career. Deadspin never even thought to question whether Conlin’s employers and colleagues (at the Philadelphia Daily News and ESPN) should somehow be held responsible for his horrendous acts. I exchanged several email with Daulerio about the Sandusky case and set up a phone call (we happen to be from the same small hometown in Pennsylvania), but when I called him at our prearranged time to talk he did not answer and never returned the message.

Unfortunately, despite their obvious lack of credibility, there is no doubt that the efforts of Deadspin had an influence on how the rest of the “respected” media would soon come to view the Sandusky case.

The ultimate proof that something other than actual facts dramatically altered the media narrative from being about Sandusky to being focused on Paterno was the arch of the coverage of the story by Sports Illustrated.

Early Monday afternoon is usually the deadline for stories to make it into any particular edition of Sports Illustrated, though if a national championship is played on a Monday night they can make an exception. Amazingly, the Boston Marathon Bombings, which occurred on a Monday afternoon, made it onto the cover of that week’s magazine (interestingly, the media didn’t have remotely the same vigor when it came to examining the warning signs the FBI missed about the older Boston bomber in comparison to the zeal with which the media decided Penn State had to know about an ex employee, or for that matter, how no one knew that that three young women and a baby were being held captive for many years in a densely populated Cleveland neighborhood).

This is relevant because the magazine went to print with that first edition over two full days after Sandusky’s arrest and the release/leak of the grand jury presentment. And yet there was not even one “news” article about Sandusky in that week’s edition. Absurdly, he didn’t even make the “For the Record” section under “Arrests.” The only mention of him came in a back page column which almost read as if the writer thought he was chronicling the end of a story rather than the beginning of one.

And yet, the next week, with essentially the very same set of facts which existed the previous week (other than the ensuing firing of Joe Paterno which resulted from them), they filled their cover with Paterno’s photo and multiple Penn State related headlines, including one calling this the biggest scandal in college football history.

So, what changed in that week? Well, obviously Paterno was fired, but I would argue that his firing was not, in itself, evidence of scandal. Instead, what really happened was that the story shifted from being about ratings loser Jerry Sandusky, to being about ratings magnet Joe Paterno and that the rest of the media then converged on that story like hornets swarming an enticing new nest (in a development which has been devastating to journalism, overnight TV ratings and instantaneous Internet traffic reports have enabled news organizations to immediately “focus group” particular stories in order to pick the “winners” and the “losers”).

In this era of extreme media fragmentation, the influence of pack mentality of the media simply can not be underestimated. Every outlet is terrified of two things: being out first and being wrong, and being left behind while all the others find a fresh juicy carcass from which to feed. It is obvious that Sports Illustrated originally examined the basic facts of the case, didn’t see any legitimate Paterno angle, looked around and saw no other major media outlets focusing on him, and decided Monday afternoon to essentially take a pass on the story because it revolved around a former assistant coach no one outside of Pennsylvania remembered because he hadn’t coached in twelve years.

This would end up being one of the very few journalistically sound decisions that the nation’s premiere sports magazine made during the course of the entire saga.

Sports Illustrated’s initial treatment of the Sandusky scandal is crucial to understanding what really happened with regard to the media coverage of this story. It is the “smoking gun” that the initial narrative dramatically shifted almost the moment they put that first edition to bed.

Many people close to this case point to the press conference that Monday afternoon of Attorney General Linda Kelly and state Police Commissioner Frank Noonan as the turning point in the media narrative. Kelly, who had said that Paterno was not a focus of the investigation and had done his legal duty, praised (bizarrely) Central Mountain High School’s reaction to the situation. Noonan, importantly in response to a media question clearly intended to drag Paterno more intricately into the story, went way beyond the bounds of normal police discussion at a press conference and actually pontificated that while the legend had done what he was legally supposed to, it was possible that he had failed his “moral” responsibility.

I have spoken to some close to this story, including Penn State BOT member Anthony Lubrano, who believe that the developments from this press conference were directed by Governor Tom Corbett. The thinking here is that Corbett was not happy with the level of media heat that Penn State was taking in the first two days of the story and he gave the directive to make sure that changed.

While there is ample evidence that Corbett had disdain for Penn State, and a few days later even bragged to his friend Robert Capretto (a huge Paterno supporter) that he was the person who brought down the famous icon, I am not sure this theory makes complete sense.

Thanks to his God-like status in the community and the fact that he remained somewhat of a media darling, going after Paterno at that point was still an extremely risky proposition and would not have been seemingly necessary. The risk/reward ratio for such a gambit just doesn’t seem to be there from Corbett’s perspective, especially since his attorney general’s office needed Paterno to prop up McQueary’s testimony and, ironically, help in the perjury case against Curley and Schultz. (However, there is apparently evidence of quite a bit of communication between Corbett and Board of Trustee member John Surma who would play a key role in Paterno’s firing. Also, Corbett, whose campaign had strong financial ties to the Second Mile, had an incentive to make sure the blame was placed on Penn State, so I don’t discount Lubrano’s theory entirely.)

I am of the belief that Noonan simply found himself in a situation where, when asked to give a moral rather than a legal opinion, in front of a room full of national media, he decided to give them what they wanted. Once he made the choice to offer an answer (which he obviously had no business providing), he obviously wasn’t going to furnish a politically incorrect response. How could he have told the press that there was nothing morally wrong with doing only what you were legally required to do?

In some ways, I actually think that what Attorney General Kelly said about Central Mountain High School was both more suspicious and, in a subtle way, impactful.

I say this for several reasons. First, it was an obviously false statement and in direct contradiction to what Aaron Fisher’s own mother (who, interestingly, Fisher never told about his abuse and who said she never suspected anything while it was going on) would tell a reporter from the Huffington Post just days later. Secondly, by lavishly approving of the way a high school handled the situation she was essentially further indicting that lack of courage and morality at Penn State. Finally, there was what happened later that night after the pivotal press conference.

That evening Sara Ganim wrote an extensive piece about the mothers of Victims 1 & 6 (the two most important victims in the grand jury investigation) with the headline, “Mothers of two of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged victims lash out at Penn State officials’ handling of scandal.”

That headline was as inaccurate as it was incredibly influential.

First, a local paper was directly connecting the words “Penn State” and “Scandal,” as if this was indeed a “Penn State story” and not a “Jerry Sandusky story.” Secondly, as previously stated, the mother of Aaron Fisher (Victim 1) has not directly blamed Penn State for what happened to her son and does not really do so within the body of the Ganim article itself. Thirdly, the mother of Victim 6, as previously chronicled, was, at best, a person of highly questionable credibility/motive who should have had no right to be criticizing Penn State for her son maintaining, with her approval, a close and clearly non-criminal relationship well after the 1998 investigation was closed; none of which was mentioned in Ganim’s piece.

Now, such an article in a small local paper would not normally have had all that much impact, but these circumstances were very different. The national media was very slow to jump on this story and they descended on State College having almost nothing to go on. Here Ganim was providing, like manna from media heaven, exactly the narrative they wanted with what appeared to credible sources (no one seemed to ever question how it was that Ganim was somehow miraculously able to immediately contact the mothers of the two most important witnesses from a supposedly highly secret grand jury investigation). None of the national media had a clue about either situation at that point and probably didn’t even bother to read Ganim’s article all the way through.

So what happened next? Ganim was naturally interviewed by numerous national television outlets about her big “scoop.” In none of the interviews I researched did Ganim make any effort whatsoever to clarify that Victim 1’s story was completely focused on the high school and that Victim 6’s mother had huge credibility problems on the issue. (This is even forgetting the fact that this mother had claimed, according to discovery for the Sandusky trial, that Ganim had urged her to help the prosecution find more much needed victims, several of which ended up, just coincidentally, knowing Victim 6 and, surreally, were all pictured together in Sandusky’s book. When just a couple of weeks ago I confronted the mother on Twitter about some of the issues surrounding her “unique” role in this case, she didn’t respond and instead took the extremely dramatic/suspicious action of instantly closing off both her Twitter and email accounts before urging her allies to attack me for somehow “bullying” her. Tellingly, there were several tweets in her history where she corresponded with Sara Ganim and others which criticized me.)

ESPN in particular ran with this Ganim-created narrative like a young Bo Jackson in the open field heading for the end zone. On that Tuesday morning they must have highlighted the story at least once every 15 minutes. On a traditionally slow sports day during football season (made worse by the fact that baseball had just ended and the NBA was on strike), the Ganim story easily filled, and even dominated, the void. This drumbeat of having the “ultimate moral authority” (the mothers of male victims of sexual abuse) tearing apart Penn State, and by connection, Joe Paterno, took an enormous toll and gave the rest of the media all the marching orders they needed.

Meanwhile, the other side of the story was being forced into silence.

As yet another aspect of the “Perfect Storm” here, Curley and Schultz were immediately gagged because they were under indictment (though one of Curley’s lawyer did give a memorable, fire-breathing, “press conference” over the weekend which I personally saw as the first sign that the charges were likely bogus). Jerry Sandusky was in an even worse situation and couldn’t talk. Graham Spanier, after initially releasing a strong written statement in support of Curley and Schultz, was now seeing a weakening of support and was worried about provoking his own firing or even indictment. That left an 84-year-old Joe Paterno as the last line of defense to speak out on behalf of Penn State.

That Monday night it was widely reported that Paterno’s normal Tuesday press conference would go on as scheduled, but that Penn State had declared that the Sandusky indictments would not be discussed. I have never been sure how that report got out there, but there is no question that it had a hugely negative impact on how events would transpire from that point forward.

The media, being the child-like narcissists that they are, wants nothing more than what they are told they can’t have. Before word spread that the Sandusky topic would supposedly be off limits at the press conference, that event was going to be “must see TV.” After that development, it instantly became a “must be there in the front row ready to ask Sandusky-related questions” happening.

Not only did it greatly heighten interest in the press conference, this also caused several hundred vultures to instantly descend on Beaver Stadium (who could possibly resist the sight of an 84-year-old legend with poor hearing trying to not respond to questions he isn’t being allowed to answer?) but it also created the impression that Paterno didn’t want to tell the full truth here.

So when, after a huge buildup (ESPN basically did a countdown to the press conference all morning long) the Paterno media availability was suddenly cancelled, the ensuing narrative was very clear: Penn State is preventing Joe Paterno from speaking, he has something to hide, and it is extremely likely he is going to get fired very soon.

Like much of what transpired in this Passion Play, the reality of what really happened was not close to the story the media chose to portray.

First, Paterno was prepared to read an extensive and powerful statement about the Sandusky issue before his press conference and was indeed willing to answer some questions on the matter. Interestingly, the notion that he would not likely answer many questions came from the knowledge that he had done nothing wrong and therefore did not believe the story to be directly related to him. This would not be the only time in this story where innocent people were presumed by the media to be guilty because they did things based on the concept that they were blameless (in other words, wouldn’t only a totally innocent or completely delusional person think that they wouldn’t have to answer more than a couple of questions about this subject if they were in Paterno’s shoes?).

Secondly, Penn State itself did not cancel the press conference. It was widely, and understandably, misreported that “Penn State” or “Graham Spanier” had cancelled the press conference. This was not accurate.

Spanier told me, and it has been reported in the New York Times, that the then-university president had nothing to do with the decision to scrub the Paterno presser and, in fact, he opposed the decision. However, at that moment, a bit of a “coup d’etat” was occurring within the Board of Trustees. Vice Chairman John Surma (then the CEO of U.S. Steel) had essentially pushed aside Chairman Steve Garban after Garban had strongly approved of Spanier’s initial public support of Curley and Schultz. Spanier told me that Surma informed him that Paterno’s press conference was to be cancelled.

These facts were critically important for several reasons which were not apparent at the time.

First, cancelling the press conference was not an indication that Penn State was throwing Paterno under the bus or acknowledging guilt on his part. It was the decision of, essentially, one man.

That one man, John Surma, had been annually inquiring to Spanier as to when he was finally going to get rid of Paterno. Spanier told me that, just after the press conference was cancelled, Surma came to him and asked him, one final time, of what he thought of firing Paterno. Spanier asked him, “Why would we do that?” This question was essentially his last significant act as the president of the university.

Interestingly, Spanier was unaware at the time that Surma’s brother, Vic, had made some extremely derogatory comments about Paterno a few years earlier in a chain email among football lettermen and in an interview with Sara Ganim in 2011 (after publicly strongly praising Paterno in 2002). Vic Surma’s son had played football very briefly at Penn State and it was obvious that Surma blamed Paterno for both that bad experience as well as the many life troubles his son encountered after leaving the team. When I told Spanier about all of this, it was as if a puzzle which had perplexed him was now suddenly solvable. He responded that it now it made sense why John Surma had kept coming to him to try and get Paterno fired.

But, since none of this was known at the time, the media decided to use the press conference cancelation to create their own destructive narrative. I believe it was the moment when this story officially left the gravitation pull of the rational earth, never to return to that orbit again.

There were many reasons why this was such an incredibly pivotal development (to be clear, I am not Monday-morning quarterbacking here as I was one of many who knew and publicly predicted immediately that Paterno would be unjustly fired). Not only was Paterno not allowed to defend himself, but it was widely perceived that he was made to look guilty by the very school he had almost literally put on the map.

I strongly believe that this decision forever radically altered the burden of proof in this case from the media being forced to show Paterno was “guilty” to Paterno and his supporters being required to somehow prove his innocence. I even believe that this critical alteration in the burden of proof was what later allowed Louis Freeh to make his wild accusations without fear of repercussion.

This dramatic shift was actually far more debilitating than normal because of the unique nature of the case itself. So much of the interpretation of events here is dictated by what you assume the narrative here is from the start. In other words, if you think that Paterno/Penn State are “guilty,” then all of a sudden you see things such as Sandusky’s retirement and the Virginia job situation through a completely different prism than if you are presuming innocence. With so many of the events here shaded by the gray tinge of one’s own perceptions and the presumptions of 20/20 hindsight (partly because of Sandusky’s mastery of the concept of plausible deniability), this remarkable revision of the threshold of “guilt” was simply perpetually devastating to the chances of Paterno and Penn State getting even a basic level of due process.

At this point, Paterno was essentially dead in the water. Almost as bad as looking “guilty,” he was now appearing to be extremely old, feckless and weak. There is no doubt that this was the exact result Surma had in mind when he forced the cancellation of the press conference. Not coincidentally, almost immediately after that decision a “source” “inside” the Board of Trustees told the New York Times that support for Paterno was “eroding.”

That Saturday was Penn State’s last home game of the season (one which still had a very good chance of resulting in a Big Ten title) and it was expected to be a celebration of Paterno having just become the winningest coach in the history of major college football. But here, like would be so often the case in this saga, Paterno’s positive attributes would actually work against his cause (In other words, if he had been a non-famous head coach at say Iowa State, there just wouldn’t have been the public interest to maintain media momentum for the story).

You see, now the media saw both blood in the water and a clear timeline/endgame for the saga. One of the many factors which dictate how the modern news media handle particular stories is the question of how it is all likely to play out. For instance, is there a likely specific end point or climax (this is why they love trials and big city car chases), or will it go on too long for the audience to stick around? After the cancellation of the press conference, the Paterno story was now perfectly suited for what the media wanted: the likely fall of a legend in a very tight timeframe.

What was particularly frustrating to me watching all of this unfold in Southern California (with no connection to Penn State and only a normal level of admiration for Paterno who I thought should have retired years ago), was the fact that it was clear that there was still a way for Paterno to potentially get himself out of this situation. But it became obvious very quickly that those around him were not up to the task of salvaging some sort of victory from the jaws of seemingly certain defeat.

Counter intuitively, the cancelation of the press conference actually provided an opportunity for Paterno to change the narrative in his favor. Instead of being forced to endure having hundreds of rabid press people yelling “gotcha” questions at an old man with horrible hearing, he now had the perfect excuse to dodge that mess and set up a far better response on his own terms.

He could have easily invited ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi, who was clearly angling, on and off the air, for the interview (he had enthusiastically served a similar duty when Tiger Woods finally decided to speak after his “car accident”), into the Paterno living room for a softball one-on-one conversation which surely would have gone well enough to at least buy some valuable time. Unfortunately, this rather obvious counter strategy was never enacted.

Though I have no inside information on how and why the decision was made not to go in this direction, it is certainly possible to come up with some rational explanations.

The first is that Scott Paterno (who, along with Penn State brand manager Guido D’Elia was running the initial PR “response” that fateful week), as is cited in Joe Posnanski’s book Paterno, was primarily concerned with the thought that his father was going to be fired over the grand jury presentment. Therefore, he didn’t want to do anything which could be considered “insubordination” and provoke a firing for “cause,” which could theoretically cost his “client” (as Scott, again, still refers to his father) a lot of money.

In my view, this position was evidence of extremely limited thinking. For one thing, if Scott thought (correctly) that his “client” was going to get fired anyway, I fail to understand the risk in speaking out without permission from Penn State. At that point you really have nothing to lose and there was absolutely no chance that a firing “for cause” because Joe Paterno spoke publicly to defend himself against charges of being a “pedophile protector” would have ever stood up in either a court of law or of public opinion. Unfortunately, knowing a decent amount about how Scott’s mind tends to work, I don’t think he was able to see that reality, especially in the midst of a massive firestorm.

Of course, since Scott prepped his “client” for, and personally attended, each of his testimonies about the case, and according to Posnanski knew instantly after having read the grand jury presentment that this could easily be the end of Joe’s career, you also have to question why Scott didn’t seem to have any sort of game plan in place well before Sandusky’s indictment. Especially after Joe’s final police interview (the transcript of which I revealed here for the first time) it had to be obvious that they had a potentially very serious PR problem on the horizon.

However, while I do blame Scott for this peculiar lack of preparation (I am convinced that the reason he praises Posnanski at every possible chance, even though the author cowardly threw Scott’s “client” under the bus when his book came out in order to placate the media and protect his career, is that the book makes it seem as if Scott was the person closest to Joe who was sounding the alarm bells), I can also see where Joe Paterno himself would have been a big problem here.

It is obvious that Joe, probably because he was so certain he had done nothing wrong, had no idea just how serious the situation he was in really was. Paterno was notoriously stubborn and reportedly Scott couldn’t even get him to read the grand jury presentment. I would also not be at all surprised that, especially since the team was doing so well and he already knew (though it had not been publicly reported) that he was going to retire at the end of the season, that he greatly miscalculated his standing with the school’s Board of Trustees and exactly what he had to lose.

I came to get a small taste of how difficult Joe Paterno must have been to deal with under these extreme conditions when, a year later, I was trying to advise the football coach at Steubenville High School (about whom I had written a book almost twenty years earlier) who was embroiled in a remarkably similar media maelstrom in Ohio. That coach, much like Paterno, was a highly successful, very confident, Italian Catholic, new media dinosaur, who was also exceedingly set in his ways and had known his board members most of their lives. Getting him to act on anything (or even to read a critical New York Times article about the case) was like trying to turnaround an aircraft carrier in choppy seas. After that experience, I even shared with Scott that I had a new appreciation for how difficult that it must have been for him to deal with their situation (whatever connection sharing that experience may have created between us was unfortunately very short-lived).

However, while such circumstances may partially explain why the enticing option of doing their own interview when the press conference was cancelled wasn’t taken advantage of, it does not mitigate the disastrous nature of what did happen instead. While most of my criticism for how Scott Paterno handled this situation is based only on informed speculation and logical attempts to piece uncertain data points together, there was at least one circumstance during the firestorm where there is just no ambiguity.

The afternoon after the press conference was canceled, Joe and Scott tried to make their way from the porch of the humble Paterno home (located just a short walk from the stadium and not far from the public gym where Jerry Sandusky was simultaneously working out, totally unencumbered by news media) to the car which would take the coach to practice that day. Joe stopped very briefly to tell the swarm of media jackals that he would like to answer their questions but that he couldn’t at that time (if Scott Paterno felt like he was allowed to say even that, why Joe couldn’t have just said something along the lines of “you guys are getting this all wrong, please wait for the facts to come out before you start rushing to conclusions,” is another mystery to me). After Joe finally managed to break through the hoard and get into the car which then drove away, the media scrum then naturally enveloped Scott.

At this point Scott had two viable options. One, he could simply say he can’t speak for Joe and walk back into the house. Two, more preferably, he could tell the reporters gathered there that Joe did nothing wrong and that they were all going to look stupid when the truth comes out. Instead, Scott, inexplicably, started babbling about how no one has said Joe is not the coach of Penn State and that to his knowledge Joe being fired hadn’t even been discussed.

Even worse than the feeble and self-incriminating message that sent, Scott tried unsuccessfully to end his “press conference” at least four times. On each occasion he would start waddling towards the front door, stop and try to restate the same convoluted point over again, only to fail and then restart the process. The whole thing could not have been a bigger disaster. Instead of fighting back and giving their many supporters something to hang onto (and their enemies something to fear), thanks to this episode the Paternos looked weak, disorganized, unprepared, doomed, and even a little bit guilty.

Somewhat in Scott’s defense, I do think that part of what was happening here was that the Paternos, almost like animals who had lived in the comfort of a first-class zoo all of their lives and were now suddenly alone in the wild for the first time, were understandably slow to realize just how completely their previously mostly peaceful world had been devastated overnight (which is, again, similar to what happened to the relationship between Tiger Woods and the media after his “accident”).

Meanwhile, the media pressure cooker was now on full power. The cancelation of the press conference not only made the story constant breaking news on ESPN and a top item on other major outlets, it opened the floodgates of speculation regarding Paterno’s “guilt.” Because Penn State had seemingly backed away from Paterno, every media person who was willing to pounce on this highly appetizing injured prey now had nothing to fear, safe in the knowledge that they possessed all the “protection” they needed from being accused of jumping the gun.

This all important “backside protection” (the media, being full of cowards who care mostly about keeping their cushy jobs, never will do anything which knowingly places themselves at any individual risk) was also being enthusiastically provided by people perceived as “Penn Staters” who are in the media. After all, in this situation, just as in politics, if people on “your team” say that you are wrong, then you are definitely in trouble.

The first two figures who seemed more than happy to fill this role were Matt Millen of ESPN and Cory Giger a local writer whose talk show airs on ESPN radio in State College (though an “honorable mention” here must go to then unknown ESPN writer and Penn State graduate Michael Weinreb who almost literally personified the concept of self flagellation in a column which bought him lots of face time on TV before most of the facts of the case were even known).

Millen, who once played prominently at Penn State but who was now better known as the disgraced former general manager of the Detroit Lions, made “news” on that Tuesday by suddenly breaking down in tears when discussing what Mike McQueary had allegedly seen. Millen, seemingly more than willing to give his new employers exactly what they wanted, dramatically sobbed, “It’s pretty disturbing” while his head hung down in shame.

This clip was used as one of those “moments” to which television gravitates so that it can pretend to capture the essence of what is really going on in a seemingly complex story. Most people can’t really grasp all the details of something as incredibly intricate as the Sandusky scandal, but they can easily understand the implications of a former Penn State player and a grown man, seemingly crying, on live television.

The Millen clip was played over and over, not just on ESPN but on numerous other platforms, including all over the Internet. However, three important items were universally absent from the analysis of Millen’s compelling breakdown.

First, Millen was admittedly no fan of Paterno and they did not get along very well when he played at Penn State. Secondly, despite their personal differences, Millen had said in that same ESPN interview, just seconds before weeping, that he did not think it was likely that Paterno was really told a boy had been raped and then did nothing about it. Thirdly, even ESPN barely mentioned that Millen was a current board member of the Second Mile charity, meaning that, technically, he had at least as much of a connection to Sandusky as Paterno did over the previous several years. As would happen so often in this story, important logical/factual points were completely washed away amidst the tidal wave of emotions which it understandably unleashed.

As for Giger, he was a completely unknown small-market local radio host and newspaper columnist to whom ESPN went for the “home cooked” reaction to the story. National outlets often do this under the sometimes overrated presumption that media people who are closer to the story might actually know something that others do not.

Giger used his 15 seconds of fame to go after Penn State and Joe Paterno as hard as anyone possibly could have given the known “facts” at the time. Much like with Millen, Giger’s condemnations were seen through assumption that if even “homers” like him were convinced something horrendous had happened here, that obviously something was very, very, wrong.

However, similar to the situation with Millen, there were significant mitigating factors about Giger’s perspective of which the public was unaware.

First, in the modern age, local media personalities now have a perverse set of incentives when it comes to scandals hitting their small towns. While the perception may be that they would naturally take the “homer” approach and defend those under attack, the real motivation is often to take the reverse outlook.

Put yourself in Giger’s shoes. From a professional perspective did he want this Sandusky scandal to be seen as a minor crime story involving a former assistant coach which had nothing directly to do with Penn State football (in which case it goes away quickly and, with it, so do his opportunities for national exposure and advancement within the ESPN structure), or would his life and career be seemingly better if it exploded into the biggest scandal in the history of college football?

The latter scenario provided numerous opportunities to appear on the national network of one of his ultimate employers (ESPN, which had already made it quite clear which direction they preferred the wind to blow in this case) and massive amounts of content for years to come. This may seem like a rather advanced and cynical calculus for people to be basing their instant opinions on, but I have seen this exact same phenomenon happen in many other situations (such as, for instance, the Steubenville rape case). I will be the first to admit that even I may have been subconsciously influenced by such factors in my own career (my public reaction to Sarah Palin’s resignation as governor of Alaska was undoubtedly subconsciously manipulated by the fact that it would be good for the movie I did about her if she remained politically viable).

With regard to Giger specifically, hardly ever mentioned was the astonishing fact that he had co-written a “book” about Paterno just a year earlier called They Know Joe, which was literally a collection of ‘love stories” written by famous people (including a former U.S. president and several prominent ESPN commentators) about how awesome Joe Paterno is.

Everyone is certainly entitled to change their minds especially when they get dramatic new information such as that allegedly contained in the grand jury presentment. But to my knowledge, no one on a national stage ever pointed out, or even asked Giger about, his remarkable turn against Paterno. I would have like to have asked him about all of this, but via email he refused to even have a telephone conversation with me.

Personally, as I was watching all of this unfold, the only ESPN personality I was focused on was Todd Blackledge, who had quarterbacked Penn State to their first national championship in 1982. As far as I was concerned, he was to Paterno what Barry Goldwater was to Richard Nixon during Watergate. If Paterno lost Blackledge, it was over for sure.

I really liked and respected Blackledge as a commentator (which is extremely rare for me) and knew him to be a smart guy. He was interviewed on-air by his employer ESPN several times during that first week of the story and it was obvious to me that he was an extremely conflicted man. It was almost painful to watch him go back and forth on what he thought had really occurred and what he felt should happen to his former coach and mentor. While he never fully drove the dagger into Paterno’s back that week (or when the Freeh Report came out), his obvious lack of vociferous support was not helpful at all to the Paterno cause because it was presumed that he would be a strong supporter. He was probably the one Penn Stater in the media who had the power to make a difference that week and he chose not to use it (though he did speak at Paterno’s memorial service two months later). Todd is a very measured and thoughtful guy and, unlike most in the media, he wanted to make sure he knew what he was talking about before he went out on any limb. Unfortunately, it would hardly be the only time in this saga when having good people actually waiting to get all the facts before firing back in any significant way proved to be a detriment in fighting this battle.

Much later I would have rather extensive contact with Blackledge, both on the phone and in person. I found him to be exactly as I had expected and was very impressed by him in almost every way. He told me that my documentary on this subject had helped his evolution of thought on this subject and convinced him that Paterno had gotten a raw deal (when he texted me, "I thought it was outstanding and I definitely want to be a part in fighting this incredible injustice" I considered it to be the highlight of the entire movie project for me personally). 

He also said that he was so frustrated with ESPN’s coverage of the entire affair that he had strongly considered resigning his job. I told him then that he was smart to have not done so because his transformation could have so much more power if it came while he was still on the inside of the “evil empire” (of course, if you keep your powder dry but never actually use it, that also isn’t much good for the effort).

Todd eventually signed on to philosophically support the Paterno lawsuit against the NCAA, which I am sure was an act which took at least some level of courage because of his employment with ESPN. He certainly deserves credit for doing far more than many others in similar positions have done for this cause. However, it seems to me that Blackledge, like many others in this story with influence, is only willing to go so far here and is unlikely to do anything which puts himself individually at any real risk (which is what you need if you are going to pull off a miracle like reversing this false narrative). I personally find this apparent reality to be extremely depressing and perhaps the ultimate proof of just how deep and intimidating the media’s industry-wide position on this story really is. (Todd did make it clear in a phone interview he did with me recently that ESPN itself has never overtly told him not to express an opinion on this matter.Though I would love to see what would happen if Todd ever somehow decided to express a strong opinion on this matter, perhaps if they ever ran a graphic of the list of all-time winningest coaches during one of his game broadcasts).

If even Todd Blackledge, an intelligent, religious, principled guy, who knows that an injustice was done here and who has the power to make a real difference in correcting it, is unwilling to make any substantial sacrifice for this cause, who (other than Franco Harris) possibly will? In a nutshell, the Todd Blackledge story is emblematic of why it will be so incredibly difficult, if not totally impossible, for the narrative of this story to ever be significantly changed. For, in the reverse of the Goldwater/Nixon analogy, if you can’t get Todd Blackledge to take a real risk and strongly publicly support Joe Paterno, who can you get? (I wish to acknowledge that due to my respect for him I am holding Todd to a higher standard here and that therefore it may seem to some as if I am being too tough on him. However, I am simply being honest and, despite how much I like him, not allowing that reality to cloud my ability to call it as I see it. I honestly and sincerely hope that Todd will eventually prove me wrong about this.)

CHAPTER FIVE: THE FIRING