BREAKING NEWS: AP, Media Fumble News Story

 

by Walter Brasch

 

On the Sunday before the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney and some of his senior staffers played a flag football game with members of the Press Corps on Delray Beach, Fla.

Ashley Parker of the Associated Press, apparently mistaking fashion reporting for news, reported that Mitt Romney was “wearing black shorts, a black Adidas T-shirt and gray sneakers.” Romney’s team, composed of senior campaign staff whom Parker identified, was “clad in red T-shirts.” She didn’t report what the members of the press wore, their names, or how many were on a team, but did acknowledge she “also played, winning the coin toss for her team, but doing little else by way of yardage accrual.” Yardage accrual? If this was Newswriting 101, and she put that phrase into a news story, there wouldn’t be one college prof anywhere in the country who wouldn’t have red-marked it, and suggested she stop trying to be cute.

Romney was a starter—we don’t know which position he played—made a “brief beach appearance” and left when “the game was in full swing,” possibly not wanting to get too mussed up by having to interact with commoners. There is so much a reporter could have done with Romney’s failure to finish the game, but didn’t. Parker, however, did tell readers breathlessly awaiting the next “factoid” that Ann Romney “made a brief appearance . . . after cheerleading from the sidelines.” She was protected by the Secret Service who served as the offensive line, undeniably allowing her to take enough time to do her nails, brush her hair, put on another coat of makeup for the AP camera, and then throw a touchdown pass to tie the game at 7–7. At 14–14, the game was called because, reported Parker, “Mr. Romney’s aides needed to get to debate prep, and the reporters had stories to file.” Obviously, stories about a beach flag football game on a Sunday afternoon was critical enough breaking news to stop the game and breathlessly inform the nation.


Amidst the sand, Parker reported, “There is a long history of candidates and their staff members occasionally interacting with reporters on a social level.” She referred to a couple events during the 2008 campaign; Sen. Barack Obama played Taboo with reporters; Sen. John McCain hosted a barbeque for the media. Those facts alone should have kept any alert comedy writer, satirist, or political pundit in material for the next four years.

A beach football game between politician and press may seem innocent enough—a couple of hours of fun to break the stress of a long, and usually annoying, political campaign. But there’s far more than flags pulled from shorts.
Reporters who socialize with the power elite—and this happens far more than it doesn’t happen—often fail to do their primary job: challenge authority, as the Founding fathers so eloquently asked. It wasn’t White House reporters who broke the Watergate story that eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon, it was two police reporters at the Washington Post, who took abuse heaped upon them by the White House reporters and hundreds of others, including some of their own newspaper, for going on what was called a vindictive witch hunt.  It was the media who proved they were better stenographers than reporters who dutifully chowed down whatever crumbs they were fed by the Bush–Cheney administration, and seldom questioned why the U.S. was invading Iraq. A few from the major media and many from the alternative press who did question authority were dismissed as mere gadflies. It was the sycophantic press that also didn’t question the destruction of civil liberties by the passage of the PATRIOT Act.
Against policy wonk/environmentalist Al Gore in 2000, Americans said they would rather have a beer with George W. Bush. Many of the press did have beers with candidate Bush, who once invited the media onto his ranch to watch him shoot and then barbeque pigeons for a group barbecue.

Every year in the nation’s capital is a high society event, the “Gridiron dinner.” Everyone—politicians, members of the press, and a horde of actors and singers—dress up in ball gowns and white-tie tuxedos to drink and schmooze. When it isn’t Gridiron Season, there’s all kinds of social events at all kinds of places that reporters just have to attend in order to get their stories, they simplistically justify.

Sports reporters who are too close to the teams or the sports they cover are derisively known as “homers,” not for Homer Simpson, who some of them act like, but because they favor the home team. Entertainment reporters and arts critics feel important because publicists will often go to extraordinary lengths to get them face-time with celebrities. To prove how “independent” they are, some, who have no discernible creative talent, will write snarky columns about celebrities and their works, thinking they are clever rather than the pompous self-aggrandizing jerks they really are. Many in the media—especially those in television and the print reporters who often do TV talk-show commentaries—probably should drop the pretense they’re journalists and just accept the appellations that they are celebrities.

It isn’t just reporters who cover national stories who get too close to their sources. There are now state and metropolitan gridiron dinners. At a local level, Reporters who cover the police and city council are often on a first-name basis with their sources. Even if they honestly believe they are objective, and will knock down lies and deceptions, they often don’t. They believe they need these sources to get more news, and are afraid that if they become too tough, the news, which is fed to them, will somehow dry up. They often accept “background” and “off-the-record” comments, which they never report or attribute, because somehow it makes them feel that they, unlike their readers of a lesser level, are “in the know.” And yet, every reporter will swear upon a stack of style manuals that he or she is objective and independent.

Don’t believe that? Put yourself in the position of being a reporter. You’re sitting at your desk in the bullpen of a newsroom, now decimated by layoffs. In walks a man in a three-piece suit and a woman in fashionably-acceptable skirt, blouse, blazer, and two-inch heels. They have a story to tell. Now, you may think that because they are PR people or middle-management executives for a large corporation, they are suspect to begin with, but they, like you, are college graduates; they are eloquent; they have a news release with the story laid out. Want anything else? They’re more than pleased to get it for you.

Now, the next day, while walking outside your office, a bag lady accosts you. She’s wearing little more than rags. Her hair is unkempt; her breath stinks. It’s doubtful she was ever a sorority president. “You a reporter?” she barks, knowing that if you’re wearing jeans, a nice but not expensive shirt and a tie you probably aren’t a corporate executive or big-shot politician. She wants to tell you a story—something about a corporation that did something very unethical and possibly illegal. You’re running late to your appointment with a physical trainer who has promised to keep you fit and attractive. You just want to get past this obstacle.

Who do you relate to? Those who look, act, and think more like you—or those who you probably wouldn’t have a drink with after work?

Don’t expect the media to stop having social encounters with their sources; it will never happen. But, do expect that maybe some will heed the call of the Founding Fathers and be independent of the sources they are expected to cover.

[Walter Brasch spent more than 40 years as a journalist and university professor, covering everything from local school board meetings to the White House.  He is currently a syndicated columnist and book author. He acknowledges that in his early 20s he was enamored by being at the same parties as the “power elite,” but quickly got over it, and has been fiercely independent from the power-elites, including the power-media, whether at local, state, or national levels. His current book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]

           

 

 

 

BREAKING NEWS: AP, Media Fumble News Story

 

by Walter Brasch

 

On the Sunday before the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney and some of his senior staffers played a flag football game with members of the Press Corps on Delray Beach, Fla.

Ashley Parker of the Associated Press, apparently mistaking fashion reporting for news, reported that Mitt Romney was “wearing black shorts, a black Adidas T-shirt and gray sneakers.” Romney’s team, composed of senior campaign staff whom Parker identified, was “clad in red T-shirts.” She didn’t report what the members of the press wore, their names, or how many were on a team, but did acknowledge she “also played, winning the coin toss for her team, but doing little else by way of yardage accrual.” Yardage accrual? If this was Newswriting 101, and she put that phrase into a news story, there wouldn’t be one college prof anywhere in the country who wouldn’t have red-marked it, and suggested she stop trying to be cute.

Romney was a starter—we don’t know which position he played—made a “brief beach appearance” and left when “the game was in full swing,” possibly not wanting to get too mussed up by having to interact with commoners. There is so much a reporter could have done with Romney’s failure to finish the game, but didn’t. Parker, however, did tell readers breathlessly awaiting the next “factoid” that Ann Romney “made a brief appearance . . . after cheerleading from the sidelines.” She was protected by the Secret Service who served as the offensive line, undeniably allowing her to take enough time to do her nails, brush her hair, put on another coat of makeup for the AP camera, and then throw a touchdown pass to tie the game at 7–7. At 14–14, the game was called because, reported Parker, “Mr. Romney’s aides needed to get to debate prep, and the reporters had stories to file.” Obviously, stories about a beach flag football game on a Sunday afternoon was critical enough breaking news to stop the game and breathlessly inform the nation.


Amidst the sand, Parker reported, “There is a long history of candidates and their staff members occasionally interacting with reporters on a social level.” She referred to a couple events during the 2008 campaign; Sen. Barack Obama played Taboo with reporters; Sen. John McCain hosted a barbeque for the media. Those facts alone should have kept any alert comedy writer, satirist, or political pundit in material for the next four years.

A beach football game between politician and press may seem innocent enough—a couple of hours of fun to break the stress of a long, and usually annoying, political campaign. But there’s far more than flags pulled from shorts.
Reporters who socialize with the power elite—and this happens far more than it doesn’t happen—often fail to do their primary job: challenge authority, as the Founding fathers so eloquently asked. It wasn’t White House reporters who broke the Watergate story that eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon, it was two police reporters at the Washington Post, who took abuse heaped upon them by the White House reporters and hundreds of others, including some of their own newspaper, for going on what was called a vindictive witch hunt.  It was the media who proved they were better stenographers than reporters who dutifully chowed down whatever crumbs they were fed by the Bush–Cheney administration, and seldom questioned why the U.S. was invading Iraq. A few from the major media and many from the alternative press who did question authority were dismissed as mere gadflies. It was the sycophantic press that also didn’t question the destruction of civil liberties by the passage of the PATRIOT Act.
Against policy wonk/environmentalist Al Gore in 2000, Americans said they would rather have a beer with George W. Bush. Many of the press did have beers with candidate Bush, who once invited the media onto his ranch to watch him shoot and then barbeque pigeons for a group barbecue.

Every year in the nation’s capital is a high society event, the “Gridiron dinner.” Everyone—politicians, members of the press, and a horde of actors and singers—dress up in ball gowns and white-tie tuxedos to drink and schmooze. When it isn’t Gridiron Season, there’s all kinds of social events at all kinds of places that reporters just have to attend in order to get their stories, they simplistically justify.

Sports reporters who are too close to the teams or the sports they cover are derisively known as “homers,” not for Homer Simpson, who some of them act like, but because they favor the home team. Entertainment reporters and arts critics feel important because publicists will often go to extraordinary lengths to get them face-time with celebrities. To prove how “independent” they are, some, who have no discernible creative talent, will write snarky columns about celebrities and their works, thinking they are clever rather than the pompous self-aggrandizing jerks they really are. Many in the media—especially those in television and the print reporters who often do TV talk-show commentaries—probably should drop the pretense they’re journalists and just accept the appellations that they are celebrities.

It isn’t just reporters who cover national stories who get too close to their sources. There are now state and metropolitan gridiron dinners. At a local level, Reporters who cover the police and city council are often on a first-name basis with their sources. Even if they honestly believe they are objective, and will knock down lies and deceptions, they often don’t. They believe they need these sources to get more news, and are afraid that if they become too tough, the news, which is fed to them, will somehow dry up. They often accept “background” and “off-the-record” comments, which they never report or attribute, because somehow it makes them feel that they, unlike their readers of a lesser level, are “in the know.” And yet, every reporter will swear upon a stack of style manuals that he or she is objective and independent.

Don’t believe that? Put yourself in the position of being a reporter. You’re sitting at your desk in the bullpen of a newsroom, now decimated by layoffs. In walks a man in a three-piece suit and a woman in fashionably-acceptable skirt, blouse, blazer, and two-inch heels. They have a story to tell. Now, you may think that because they are PR people or middle-management executives for a large corporation, they are suspect to begin with, but they, like you, are college graduates; they are eloquent; they have a news release with the story laid out. Want anything else? They’re more than pleased to get it for you.

Now, the next day, while walking outside your office, a bag lady accosts you. She’s wearing little more than rags. Her hair is unkempt; her breath stinks. It’s doubtful she was ever a sorority president. “You a reporter?” she barks, knowing that if you’re wearing jeans, a nice but not expensive shirt and a tie you probably aren’t a corporate executive or big-shot politician. She wants to tell you a story—something about a corporation that did something very unethical and possibly illegal. You’re running late to your appointment with a physical trainer who has promised to keep you fit and attractive. You just want to get past this obstacle.

Who do you relate to? Those who look, act, and think more like you—or those who you probably wouldn’t have a drink with after work?

Don’t expect the media to stop having social encounters with their sources; it will never happen. But, do expect that maybe some will heed the call of the Founding Fathers and be independent of the sources they are expected to cover.

[Walter Brasch spent more than 40 years as a journalist and university professor, covering everything from local school board meetings to the White House.  He is currently a syndicated columnist and book author. He acknowledges that in his early 20s he was enamored by being at the same parties as the “power elite,” but quickly got over it, and has been fiercely independent from the power-elites, including the power-media, whether at local, state, or national levels. His current book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]

           

 

 

 

The Sanctimonious Scavengers of the Penn State Scandal

 

by WALTER BRASCH

 

There is nothing the media love more than a good celebrity sex scandal.

Since the story of Scarlett Johansson’s purloined nude pictures had run its course, and the media squeezed every drop of ink it could from the Kim Kardashian/Kris Humphries engagement/wedding/marriage/divorce, they had to find something else to feed the beast with the insatiable appetite.

Something else was Penn State. Neatly packaged for the media was the trifecta of what passes as journalism—sex, scandal, and celebrity. And so the media circus rolled into State College, salivating at their good fortune.

The “sex” part of the story was that Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator of the Nittany Lions, was accused of 21 felony counts of sexual abuse of boys. A 23-page Grand Jury report, released Nov. 4 following a drawn-out three-year investigation, detailed some of the specifics. However, this story, no matter what the media say it is, is not about sex. It is about child molestation, child abuse, and endangering the welfare of a child. Big difference.

The “scandal” is that it appeared that high-ranking Penn State officials, although they restricted Sandusky’s access to campus, didn’t contact police or child protection services, possibly believing they were protecting the university’s image.

The “celebrity” part is Joe Paterno, who listened to a graduate assistant who says he saw an act of sodomy by Sandusky, and then, disgusted by what Sandusky may have done, reported it the athletics director and senior vice-president for administration. Paterno met his legal responsibility, and isn’t under any criminal investigation. Questions to Paterno in court would probably result in the defense objecting to hearsay testimony since Paterno never witnessed the act.  

Almost every Pennsylvania TV station and dozens of networks sent camera crews into State College. As the number of TV crews increased, the quality of reporting sank, as almost every on-air reporter seemed to feel a need to ask even dumber questions and make dumber statements than every other reporter. These are the TV stations that send camera crews to out-of-town football games, Spring training in Florida, and bowl games, yet have downsized their news staff, plead economic poverty, and failed to adequately cover critical news stories. In Pennsylvania, it has meant little original reporting about conflict-of-interest and ethics scandals in the state legislature. Sports, apparently, is “sexy”; the public’s money and legislature integrity aren’t.

These are the same members of the media who for many of Paterno’s 46 years as head coach had filed stories that he should step down after any two losses in a row, or during a losing season, or even a season that didn’t have enough wins. The media had also layered comments that Paterno was everything but senile, that he was too old to be coaching. But, Paterno, known in the media as “JoePa,” kept winning, and kept demanding academic and athletic excellence in addition to moral integrity from his players. The university’s library, not any of its athletic buildings, is named for him. America’s best-known coach was building not a place for future NFL stars, but a place where college students could supplement their education to become productive members of society. His graduation rate is among the highest in Division I athletics.

However, based upon the amount of newsprint and air time given to this story, you would swear that Paterno was guilty, arrested, and probably already convicted. The media almost forgot about Sandusky as they began piling on to Paterno. Six column headlines and five minute network stories dominated the news agenda. Like sharks, they smelled blood and circled their prey, a towering figure about to be toppled. With little evidence, these sanctimonious scavengers called for one of the most ethical and inspirational coaches and professors to resign, claiming he didn’t do enough, that he should have personally called the police rather than follow established protocol.

.Many of the media horde, who had never written any story about Penn State’s excellent academic and research programs, soon began pumping out ludicrous statements that Penn State’s reputation would be tarnished for years. Despite their self-righteous denials, the screeching of “Joe Must Go” in one-inch bold black headlines undoubtedly influenced the university’s board of trustees, which was constantly proving that incompetence isn’t just a media trait. Their attitude seemed to be not whether what Paterno did was a terminable offense, but that to terminate him would somehow save the university’s tarnished reputation—and maybe preserve the value of their own luxury seats at Beaver Stadium.

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, three days before the Penn State/Nebraska game, which was to be the last home game of the season, the Trustees, with a push from Gov. Tom Corbett, fired Paterno, thus justifying all the ink and air time spent by the media that seemed distracted from the real story—Sandusky, not Paterno, was arrested.

That night, thousands of students staged a demonstration of support for Paterno. The media called it a riot and almost universally condemned the students for exercising a First Amendment right of peaceful assembly and freedom of speech. What little damage done—the highest estimate was about $20,000—was by a relatively small number of participants.

On game day, the media camped in front of Paterno’s house. ESPN coverage of the game, which drew about twice as many viewers as expected, was constantly punctuated by the “scandal,” and what Paterno did and didn’t do. Tragedy had suddenly become a sport.

Contributing to the media’s shameful performance were mountains of crocodile tears, dripping with moral indignation. Had the media spent even a tenth of the time before the Penn State scandal to publish and air stories about child welfare problems, and what could be done to protect the most vulnerable of society, their myriad comments would have been credible.

In contrast to the masses, several reporters did credible reporting, including the hometown Centre Daily Times. But the best reporting might be that of Sara Ganim, who had begun her investigation first at the Centre Daily Times before moving to the Harrisburg Patriot-News. Three years after graduating from Penn State, she broke the story in March that the Grand Jury was investigating Sandusky and others. Her story at the time didn’t get much traction. But, for several months she meticulously gathered facts and wrote news, not opinion and speculation, which dominated the work of many of her colleagues, many of whom showed they were incapable of even reaching the journalistic standards of reporting at the National Enquirer.

Perhaps Joe Paterno should have done more; perhaps he should have called the police or at least followed-up with his earlier concern. But, we don’t know yet the facts.

One concern remains. Today, these Monday Morning Quarterbacks of the media and a pack of largely anonymous self-righteous fans all say that unlike Paterno they would have done “the right thing.” How many, if faced by the same set of circumstances, would have done “the right thing” a month ago?

 [Dr. Brasch had begun his journalism career as a sports writer and sports editor before moving into public affairs/investigative journalism. He is an award-winning syndicated columnist and retired journalism professor. His latest of 17 books is Before the First Snow, a story of the counter-culture.]

 

 

The Sanctimonious Scavengers of the Penn State Scandal

 

by WALTER BRASCH

 

There is nothing the media love more than a good celebrity sex scandal.

Since the story of Scarlett Johansson’s purloined nude pictures had run its course, and the media squeezed every drop of ink it could from the Kim Kardashian/Kris Humphries engagement/wedding/marriage/divorce, they had to find something else to feed the beast with the insatiable appetite.

Something else was Penn State. Neatly packaged for the media was the trifecta of what passes as journalism—sex, scandal, and celebrity. And so the media circus rolled into State College, salivating at their good fortune.

The “sex” part of the story was that Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator of the Nittany Lions, was accused of 21 felony counts of sexual abuse of boys. A 23-page Grand Jury report, released Nov. 4 following a drawn-out three-year investigation, detailed some of the specifics. However, this story, no matter what the media say it is, is not about sex. It is about child molestation, child abuse, and endangering the welfare of a child. Big difference.

The “scandal” is that it appeared that high-ranking Penn State officials, although they restricted Sandusky’s access to campus, didn’t contact police or child protection services, possibly believing they were protecting the university’s image.

The “celebrity” part is Joe Paterno, who listened to a graduate assistant who says he saw an act of sodomy by Sandusky, and then, disgusted by what Sandusky may have done, reported it the athletics director and senior vice-president for administration. Paterno met his legal responsibility, and isn’t under any criminal investigation. Questions to Paterno in court would probably result in the defense objecting to hearsay testimony since Paterno never witnessed the act.  

Almost every Pennsylvania TV station and dozens of networks sent camera crews into State College. As the number of TV crews increased, the quality of reporting sank, as almost every on-air reporter seemed to feel a need to ask even dumber questions and make dumber statements than every other reporter. These are the TV stations that send camera crews to out-of-town football games, Spring training in Florida, and bowl games, yet have downsized their news staff, plead economic poverty, and failed to adequately cover critical news stories. In Pennsylvania, it has meant little original reporting about conflict-of-interest and ethics scandals in the state legislature. Sports, apparently, is “sexy”; the public’s money and legislature integrity aren’t.

These are the same members of the media who for many of Paterno’s 46 years as head coach had filed stories that he should step down after any two losses in a row, or during a losing season, or even a season that didn’t have enough wins. The media had also layered comments that Paterno was everything but senile, that he was too old to be coaching. But, Paterno, known in the media as “JoePa,” kept winning, and kept demanding academic and athletic excellence in addition to moral integrity from his players. The university’s library, not any of its athletic buildings, is named for him. America’s best-known coach was building not a place for future NFL stars, but a place where college students could supplement their education to become productive members of society. His graduation rate is among the highest in Division I athletics.

However, based upon the amount of newsprint and air time given to this story, you would swear that Paterno was guilty, arrested, and probably already convicted. The media almost forgot about Sandusky as they began piling on to Paterno. Six column headlines and five minute network stories dominated the news agenda. Like sharks, they smelled blood and circled their prey, a towering figure about to be toppled. With little evidence, these sanctimonious scavengers called for one of the most ethical and inspirational coaches and professors to resign, claiming he didn’t do enough, that he should have personally called the police rather than follow established protocol.

.Many of the media horde, who had never written any story about Penn State’s excellent academic and research programs, soon began pumping out ludicrous statements that Penn State’s reputation would be tarnished for years. Despite their self-righteous denials, the screeching of “Joe Must Go” in one-inch bold black headlines undoubtedly influenced the university’s board of trustees, which was constantly proving that incompetence isn’t just a media trait. Their attitude seemed to be not whether what Paterno did was a terminable offense, but that to terminate him would somehow save the university’s tarnished reputation—and maybe preserve the value of their own luxury seats at Beaver Stadium.

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, three days before the Penn State/Nebraska game, which was to be the last home game of the season, the Trustees, with a push from Gov. Tom Corbett, fired Paterno, thus justifying all the ink and air time spent by the media that seemed distracted from the real story—Sandusky, not Paterno, was arrested.

That night, thousands of students staged a demonstration of support for Paterno. The media called it a riot and almost universally condemned the students for exercising a First Amendment right of peaceful assembly and freedom of speech. What little damage done—the highest estimate was about $20,000—was by a relatively small number of participants.

On game day, the media camped in front of Paterno’s house. ESPN coverage of the game, which drew about twice as many viewers as expected, was constantly punctuated by the “scandal,” and what Paterno did and didn’t do. Tragedy had suddenly become a sport.

Contributing to the media’s shameful performance were mountains of crocodile tears, dripping with moral indignation. Had the media spent even a tenth of the time before the Penn State scandal to publish and air stories about child welfare problems, and what could be done to protect the most vulnerable of society, their myriad comments would have been credible.

In contrast to the masses, several reporters did credible reporting, including the hometown Centre Daily Times. But the best reporting might be that of Sara Ganim, who had begun her investigation first at the Centre Daily Times before moving to the Harrisburg Patriot-News. Three years after graduating from Penn State, she broke the story in March that the Grand Jury was investigating Sandusky and others. Her story at the time didn’t get much traction. But, for several months she meticulously gathered facts and wrote news, not opinion and speculation, which dominated the work of many of her colleagues, many of whom showed they were incapable of even reaching the journalistic standards of reporting at the National Enquirer.

Perhaps Joe Paterno should have done more; perhaps he should have called the police or at least followed-up with his earlier concern. But, we don’t know yet the facts.

One concern remains. Today, these Monday Morning Quarterbacks of the media and a pack of largely anonymous self-righteous fans all say that unlike Paterno they would have done “the right thing.” How many, if faced by the same set of circumstances, would have done “the right thing” a month ago?

 [Dr. Brasch had begun his journalism career as a sports writer and sports editor before moving into public affairs/investigative journalism. He is an award-winning syndicated columnist and retired journalism professor. His latest of 17 books is Before the First Snow, a story of the counter-culture.]

 

 

The Sanctimonious Scavengers of the Penn State Scandal

 

by WALTER BRASCH

 

There is nothing the media love more than a good celebrity sex scandal.

Since the story of Scarlett Johansson’s purloined nude pictures had run its course, and the media squeezed every drop of ink it could from the Kim Kardashian/Kris Humphries engagement/wedding/marriage/divorce, they had to find something else to feed the beast with the insatiable appetite.

Something else was Penn State. Neatly packaged for the media was the trifecta of what passes as journalism—sex, scandal, and celebrity. And so the media circus rolled into State College, salivating at their good fortune.

The “sex” part of the story was that Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator of the Nittany Lions, was accused of 21 felony counts of sexual abuse of boys. A 23-page Grand Jury report, released Nov. 4 following a drawn-out three-year investigation, detailed some of the specifics. However, this story, no matter what the media say it is, is not about sex. It is about child molestation, child abuse, and endangering the welfare of a child. Big difference.

The “scandal” is that it appeared that high-ranking Penn State officials, although they restricted Sandusky’s access to campus, didn’t contact police or child protection services, possibly believing they were protecting the university’s image.

The “celebrity” part is Joe Paterno, who listened to a graduate assistant who says he saw an act of sodomy by Sandusky, and then, disgusted by what Sandusky may have done, reported it the athletics director and senior vice-president for administration. Paterno met his legal responsibility, and isn’t under any criminal investigation. Questions to Paterno in court would probably result in the defense objecting to hearsay testimony since Paterno never witnessed the act.  

Almost every Pennsylvania TV station and dozens of networks sent camera crews into State College. As the number of TV crews increased, the quality of reporting sank, as almost every on-air reporter seemed to feel a need to ask even dumber questions and make dumber statements than every other reporter. These are the TV stations that send camera crews to out-of-town football games, Spring training in Florida, and bowl games, yet have downsized their news staff, plead economic poverty, and failed to adequately cover critical news stories. In Pennsylvania, it has meant little original reporting about conflict-of-interest and ethics scandals in the state legislature. Sports, apparently, is “sexy”; the public’s money and legislature integrity aren’t.

These are the same members of the media who for many of Paterno’s 46 years as head coach had filed stories that he should step down after any two losses in a row, or during a losing season, or even a season that didn’t have enough wins. The media had also layered comments that Paterno was everything but senile, that he was too old to be coaching. But, Paterno, known in the media as “JoePa,” kept winning, and kept demanding academic and athletic excellence in addition to moral integrity from his players. The university’s library, not any of its athletic buildings, is named for him. America’s best-known coach was building not a place for future NFL stars, but a place where college students could supplement their education to become productive members of society. His graduation rate is among the highest in Division I athletics.

However, based upon the amount of newsprint and air time given to this story, you would swear that Paterno was guilty, arrested, and probably already convicted. The media almost forgot about Sandusky as they began piling on to Paterno. Six column headlines and five minute network stories dominated the news agenda. Like sharks, they smelled blood and circled their prey, a towering figure about to be toppled. With little evidence, these sanctimonious scavengers called for one of the most ethical and inspirational coaches and professors to resign, claiming he didn’t do enough, that he should have personally called the police rather than follow established protocol.

.Many of the media horde, who had never written any story about Penn State’s excellent academic and research programs, soon began pumping out ludicrous statements that Penn State’s reputation would be tarnished for years. Despite their self-righteous denials, the screeching of “Joe Must Go” in one-inch bold black headlines undoubtedly influenced the university’s board of trustees, which was constantly proving that incompetence isn’t just a media trait. Their attitude seemed to be not whether what Paterno did was a terminable offense, but that to terminate him would somehow save the university’s tarnished reputation—and maybe preserve the value of their own luxury seats at Beaver Stadium.

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, three days before the Penn State/Nebraska game, which was to be the last home game of the season, the Trustees, with a push from Gov. Tom Corbett, fired Paterno, thus justifying all the ink and air time spent by the media that seemed distracted from the real story—Sandusky, not Paterno, was arrested.

That night, thousands of students staged a demonstration of support for Paterno. The media called it a riot and almost universally condemned the students for exercising a First Amendment right of peaceful assembly and freedom of speech. What little damage done—the highest estimate was about $20,000—was by a relatively small number of participants.

On game day, the media camped in front of Paterno’s house. ESPN coverage of the game, which drew about twice as many viewers as expected, was constantly punctuated by the “scandal,” and what Paterno did and didn’t do. Tragedy had suddenly become a sport.

Contributing to the media’s shameful performance were mountains of crocodile tears, dripping with moral indignation. Had the media spent even a tenth of the time before the Penn State scandal to publish and air stories about child welfare problems, and what could be done to protect the most vulnerable of society, their myriad comments would have been credible.

In contrast to the masses, several reporters did credible reporting, including the hometown Centre Daily Times. But the best reporting might be that of Sara Ganim, who had begun her investigation first at the Centre Daily Times before moving to the Harrisburg Patriot-News. Three years after graduating from Penn State, she broke the story in March that the Grand Jury was investigating Sandusky and others. Her story at the time didn’t get much traction. But, for several months she meticulously gathered facts and wrote news, not opinion and speculation, which dominated the work of many of her colleagues, many of whom showed they were incapable of even reaching the journalistic standards of reporting at the National Enquirer.

Perhaps Joe Paterno should have done more; perhaps he should have called the police or at least followed-up with his earlier concern. But, we don’t know yet the facts.

One concern remains. Today, these Monday Morning Quarterbacks of the media and a pack of largely anonymous self-righteous fans all say that unlike Paterno they would have done “the right thing.” How many, if faced by the same set of circumstances, would have done “the right thing” a month ago?

 [Dr. Brasch had begun his journalism career as a sports writer and sports editor before moving into public affairs/investigative journalism. He is an award-winning syndicated columnist and retired journalism professor. His latest of 17 books is Before the First Snow, a story of the counter-culture.]

 

 

Diaries

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