How the Media May Have Framed Joe Paterno
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.
Mostly amazingly, the verdict, sentencing and puinshment in this caase have all been handed down before the evidence has even been fully collected. Make no mistake, this has happened directly because of the biased media coverage has forced it to occur.
And while it is possible that they may end up being “right” about their seemingly insatiable desire to destroy Paterno’s reputation, if that indeed turns out to be the case it will be due far more to pure luck than to actual credible journalism.
Here is the story of how the media may have framed Joe Paterno .
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.
The second big mistake Penn State made was related to Paterno’s weekly press conference that Tuesday. At first they announced that it would go on as normal, but naively/stupidly they also put out a press release saying that they would not allow any questions on the Sandusky matter. This was the equivalent of telling a child they can’t have a particular brand of candy; it made the media want to go in that direction exponentially more than they already did.
When hundreds of reporters/jackels showed up salivating for what they surely hoped would be the fresh carcass of a cranky old man being bombarded with questions he wasn’t supposed to answer, Penn State foolishly pulled the plug. To the sharks in the news media this was essentially like pouring blood in the water. It was simultaneously an admission of guilt in their eyes as well as an indication that Paterno was doomed because Penn State was not going to back him. The feeding frenzy began in earnest.
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.
As for Paterno’s firing, ESPN basically campaigned for it continuously over two straight days and at least one member of the Penn State board of trustees admitted that, the body which somehow voted unanimously to unceremoniously terminate the man who put their school on the map, had done so in direct reaction to the intimidating media coverage.
One of the most absurd moments in ESPN’s wall to wall coverage came when former Penn State player Matt Millen cried live on air while implying Paterno had let everyone down. Like something out of the upside-down world of Alice in Wonderland, it was barely ever mentioned, and never put in its proper context, that Millen himself was an active member of the Second Mile board (and not just in a ceremonial capacity). He was never even asked if the Second Mile or perhaps maybe even he himself deserved far more blame than Paterno considering that all of the victims originated there and Sandusky had had far more contact with them than he did with Penn State over the previous twelve years.
Instead, all people saw on TV was a former Paterno player (one who was not at all close to Paterno) crying while being sympathetically consoled by an ESPN anchor. This opened the floodgates and began a momentum which quickly convinced even strong Paterno supporters that they had better jump on the media’s bandwagon or be made to look like they were supporting child molestation.
Even former Penn State quarterback (and ESPN commentator) Todd Blackledge eventually came out for Paterno’s firing and yet somehow ended up prominently speaking on behalf of the 1980’s at Paterno’s memorial service. When I watched Blackledge being interviewed, I had a very strong sense he had essentially been bullied by the coverage of his own network into throwing Paterno under the metaphorical bus. The fact that he would praise him so dramatically just two months later would only augment that feeling.
When Paterno finally released his now infamous statement announcing that he would resign at the end of the season and stating that, “with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more,” the media twisted it into something completely different than it really was.
Here, much like Tiger Woods at the beginning of his scandal, Paterno, used to mostly fawning media coverage, was slow to realize that all the old rules had changed. In the eyes of his former friends in the media he had been instantly transformed from a protected species to one with a large bounty on its head..
Previously, that written statement would have been warmly received as a grand gesture from a great/wise old man who was the first to admit what literally hundreds of people should have been forced to acknowledge: that the signs that Jerry Sandusky was a monster were missed. Now, in this frigidly cold media environment in which Paterno suddenly found himself, the statement instead was viewed as an arrogant, out of touch, admission of actual guilt.
This last point has been repeated, almost as if it were a mantra, by countless people with whom I have spoken about this in the last seven months. I even heard highly respected “journalist” John Feinstein grossly misquote Paterno on a national radio show as having said, “I didn’t do enough.” When I quickly messaged the co-host who is an old colleague of mine to please correct him on air, Feinstein laughably insisted that there is no real difference between the two quotations, even though it is obvious that they have two very dissimilar meanings (incredibly, I asked to go on the show as a guest to explain why Feinstein was wrong, but the co host told me that Feinstein was afraid of the debate and vetoed the idea).
Contrary to media created perception, what Paterno said there was in no way an admission of guilt. Instead, it was exactly the right thing to say at that time, but the media wanted a head on a spike and they needed it fast. Paterno’s was by far the most appealing scalp and nothing short of total decapitation was going to quench their thirst for blood. Penn State, fearing how this bloodlust would play out on national television that Saturday during what would have been Paterno's final home game, simply panicked.
When the media finally got what they wanted (without Joe Paterno, an employee of over sixty years who literally built the school’s library, even getting a formal hearing) the students understandably reacted with their own rage, but one which the media purposely misunderstood in order to fit their own narrative and forward their own agenda.
According ESPN’s live coverage (as well as most of the rest of the print reporting) of the student “riots” which ensued after the announcement of the Paterno firing, the Penn State campus was upset because their precious football team might be harmed and they couldn’t care less about the victims. This analysis was as absurd as it was self serving.
It was very clear that the students were mostly angry over the lack of due process and simple respect shown for a man who was the reason many of them had applied to the school in the first place. It was also obvious that the focus of their outrage was on the news media for their disgraceful coverage of the story and the board of trustees for caving into the media pressure.
This was not just proven by the fact that the most serious act of vandalism was directed at a television news van (something the media bizarrely seemed to think was simply a coincidence). It was also exposed in a classic moment when, as if by accident, ESPN’s entire narrative for the whole episode blew up in their faces on live television.
If there was one clip I wish everyone would have watched that fateful week, it would be this one of a Penn State student being interviewed live on the network which had created most of the uproar, the remnants of which they were now covering. The unidentified student succinctly laid out the entire case in way that was in direct contradiction to the way that ESPN had been reporting it.
When the field reporter sent it back to the studio (where they had been covering the events with all of the fairness and objectivity of the Hatfields reporting on the McCoys) the anchors Steve Levy and Stuart Scott were literally stunned. After pausing as if they had just heard for the first time that there is no Santa Claus, an exasperated Levy was forced to acknowledge that the student was “a relatively well informed fan…ah, I would say. He had some of the facts correct.”
Levy didn’t mention which facts the student didn’t have correct, probably because there weren’t any. His partner, an equally shocked Scott, looking as if he was realizing live on the air that maybe there really was another way to look at this entire story, laughably opined, “It is a very interesting dichotomy…”
It should be noted that the national scolding of the students by the media served to intimidate them (as well as many other Paterno supporters) in a way which made it far easier for future events to unfold without fear of blowback.
After Paterno was fired, the media, having its pound of flesh, decided to quickly move on and some relatively pro-Paterno stories began to sneak out, even on ESPN (I believe because some there, like Tom Rinaldi, were angling themselves for what was thought would be the inevitable Paterno interview). However, the simultaneous revelations that the Syracuse basketball team apparently had a pedophile on its current staff were treated completely differently (even when their head coach Jim Boeheim called the victims money-seeking liars) and further exposed the unfairness of the media’s Penn State/Paterno coverage. I am sure that it is just a coincidence that many of the staff at ESPN just happened to attend Syracuse and that the network had been sitting for many years on an explosive tape from the assistant coach's own wife admitting she knew the allegations were true.
When Paterno died, most of the coverage was rather respectful, while certainly nothing like the celebration of an amazing life it would have been had he passed just two months earlier,
At the memorial service, when Phil Knight finally stood up and said what so many people with the actual facts but without access to broadcast platforms had been silently thinking, the media really had no idea what to do. The last thing they wanted was their initial conviction of Paterno to be exposed as a ratings-driven rush to judgment, but they also have trained themselves to not speak ill of the recently deceased (even actual pedophiles like Michael Jackson). Clearly conflicted, they pretty much decided to ignore Knight’s comments and hope that the evidence would eventually come back in favor of the judgment they had already rendered (they treated similar comments from usual media darling, Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, in much the same way).
When the Sandusky trial was completed in record time and it was announced that a verdict had been reached, Piers Morgan casually stated on CNN, without a shred of evidence at that time, that “clearly Joe Paterno took part in a cover up here.” What was so infuriating about watching that moment was that it was clear that Morgan had no idea what the actual facts of the case were then, and that absolutely no one even bothered to question him about his potentially slanderous statement.
When Sandusky was acquitted of the very charge which was the source of the vast majority of the media coverage which directly led to Paterno’s firing, you probably had to research that information for yourself. The broadcast outlets either weren’t even aware of this incredible fact, or simply just didn’t care. They had their story and they were going to stick with it no matter what transpired.
In that context, the media’s reaction to the Freeh report becomes far more easily understood and almost humorous. They had already universally decided that there was only one legitimate view of this story.
I myself was continually frustrated that I couldn’t even get straight forward columns questioning this narrative placed at any of the outlets which had routinely run my work. Time and again I either got no explanation for why this was the case or the editors in charge made it clear that their grasp of the facts was so poor that they actually mistakenly thought that I was the one who had no idea what I was talking about (a perfect example of this phenomenon was the fact that there was no actual known victim in the McQueary allegation; most media people I communicated with thought that was just not possible and wrongly presumed I was just mistaken). I have gone against the grain of the conventional media wisdom many times in my career, but I have never experienced a worse example of group think producing virtual censorship than this one.
So when CNN got the leak of just one email prior to the Freeh Report’s official release, the media made it very clear that they were going to accept any crumbs of anti-Paterno evidence with mouths as wide open as their minds were closed. The report (not even the actual email) of only one very vague note from Paterno’s boss Tim Curley mentioning that he had spoken to “Joe” and had decided to change the plan on how to deal with Sandusky, was treated as if it was clear evidence of the coach having taken part in a cover up. Sports Illustrated couldn’t even wait for the actual report to come out and essentially convicted Paterno based on just that remarkably thin evidence.
The media, of course, never even bothered to point out that Curley, after casually mentioning having spoken to Joe, goes on to start each of the next four sentences not with the word “we,” but rather “I.” While this doesn’t prove what influence Paterno did or didn’t have over the discussions, in a remotely fair media environment it should have certainly raised important questions about Paterno’s presumed guilt. Unfortunately, this has still somehow never happened.
So, when the Freeh Report actually did come out, you could almost hear the media preparing their pom-poms and readying their cheers of “See! See! We really did get it right when we rushed to judgment against Paterno because the story was just too good to resist!” (Though, for some reason, no one ever questioned, if the Freeh Report really contained new evidence proving Paterno’s guilt, why was it that the media felt so comfortable “convicting” him before that information was ever known? Wasn’t the media essentially admitting that they didn’t have enough evidence to come to that conclusion before the Freeh Report?)
Whether Freeh understood this or not, his scheduling of the report’s release was certainly consistent with someone who knew he was likely to get a chorus of cheering from the media (which by the way, could have also influenced his conclusions as everyone is more likely to do something they if know is going to get them adulation, especially when their career is on the rocks like Freeh's). The report was released at 9 am on the Thursday of one of the slowest sports weeks of the year and, preposterously, his press conference was just one hour later.
Only in a story like this could a press conference an hour after the release of a detailed report which took at least three hours to properly read be taken remotely seriously. And yet, no one bothered to even point out that the very same media asking the questions of Freeh barely had time to read his remarkably biased conclusions and certainly had no way of examining the actual evidence in the report.
This pathetic reality reared its head with a massive amount of misreporting regarding the report. The most obvious example of this was that several commentators immediately took to ESPN and, based on the report’s highly debatable conclusion that Paterno knew about the 1998 Sandusky investigation, erroneously stated that this meant that Sandusky’s 1999 retirement had to have been related.
The amazing thing about this was that Freeh’s report specifically exonerates Paterno on that very issue and these people (including former Paterno “friend” Brent Musberger and ESPN’s beat reporter Jeremy Schaap) not only got it dead wrong, but they also unwittingly revealed that they hadn’t even bothered to read the report.
There was also no coverage of a major mistake Freeh made during his press conference (no, not calling the key witness “McQuade”) when he appeared to claim that his team had spoken to the two janitors who allegedly witnessed Sandusky molesting a boy in the Penn State locker room in 2000. Freeh seemed completely oblivious to the fact that the only witness to that episode has dementia and can’t speak to anyone. His team only spoke to someone to whom the original witness told his story (and, for the record, there is no known victim for that allegation either). Incredibly, I contacted the reporter who asked Freeh the question that got this response and it appears he had no idea Freeh had made a glaring error.
But the most significant problem with the media coverage of the report was that, partially because of the haste to get to the bottom line in a “breaking” news story (TV has no patience any more for actual facts), most of what got discussed were the report’s “conclusions,” and not the nature of the real evidence on which they were based.
There was next to zero analysis of how it is that a man’s entire life and reputation can be destroyed by three extremely vague emails written by someone else (with whom Freeh never spoke who has never been asked publicly about them) over a decade ago. Quite literally, if Tim Curley was simply “name dropping” Paterno in an effort to bolster his position in the two most critical of those emails (a very plausible but seemingly impossible theory to prove), or, if in the second critial 1998 email he meant "coach" to mean Sandusky, then the entire case against Paterno is dramatically different and, frankly, almost non existent. And yet in the mind of the media, and therefore the public, the evidence is perceived as both overwhelming and rock solid.
What makes this particularly galling is that it is never even mentioned that the very same Curley whose emails are now said to “prove’ that Paterno took part in a “cover up” and “protected” Sandusky, is also the guy who, when Paterno died, released a glowing written statement praising the coach’s “honor and integrity.”
Why has there not been even a perfunctory effort on the part of the media to understand how that public pronouncement makes any sense at all under their own current narrative? In the media’s view, Paterno must have forced Curley into a cover up and caused him to be charged with serious crimes. Why in the world would he praise Paterno’s “honor and integrity,” especially when it could take away the legal defense of “Joe made me do it”?
These are questions that the media is simply just not interested in even asking because they might not like the answer they get (that, and most of them don’t even realize that Curley did this, or aren’t inquisitive enough to connect the dots). Instead, their narrative has now quickly turned to whether or not Paterno’s statue should stay in place or whether Penn State football should somehow get the death penalty.
So now that the media thinks they have all the answers they want (and too much of the public, and even Penn State supporters, have bought it hook, line and sinker), the need for further information is now over. There is no need to wait for the Curley trial when we might actually learn whether the “leads” that Freeh found are actually real evidence. instead they campaign for, and get, the statue to be taken down and the NCAA to levy sanctions which would even make sense if the facts were not in question (how the heck do wins get taken away from 1998 when Penn State isn't even accused of doing anything wrong until 2001?).
Most maddeningly, the media is now openly mocking the Paterno family for continuing to speak out and for their plan to come up with their own version of the Freeh Report.
So, let me get this straight. The media rushes to judgment against Paterno, the family says they just want the truth to come out, the media finally gets some vague evidence which can be interpreted as backing up their original view, and now that the case is closed and the sentence has been carried out, because they have already gotten the answer they want, they decide it is wrong to ask any further questions? Really? Why does this feel like something out of a fascist country?
The bottom line here is that we simply don’t know exactly for sure what Joe Paterno knew and how his actions regarding Sandusky should finally be evaluated. Unfortunately, barring Tim Curley coming forward with the whole truth, there seems to be a good chance that we will never know all the answers on that issue. What we do know for sure is that the media’s coverage of Joe Paterno has been a disgrace which has further proven that real journalism in this country is dead. Whether the media ends up having guessed right here is irrelevant to that sad and obvious conclusion.