Slow to React
Back in March, the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, broke the story of the grand jury investigation that triggered the massive Penn State child abuse scandal. But other news outlets were slow to follow. Mon., November 21, 2011
By George Solomon
It's been compared to the priest scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church for the last 25 years. In the world of sports, the child sexual abuse story embroiling Penn State has drawn parallels to the death of superstar basketball player Len Bias, Magic Johnson testing HIV positive and the steroid controversy that engulfed Major League Baseball players.
George Solomon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. He was assistant managing editor for sports at the Washington Post from 1975 to 2003.
On Saturday, November 5, former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested, charged with 40 counts of child sex crimes. The allegations ignited a firestorm of media coverage that has overwhelmed the idyllic Penn State campus, costing university President Graham Spanier and legendary Nittany Lions head football coach Joe Paterno their jobs.
The saturation coverage has included countless news stories, columns, blogs, radio bulletins, commentaries and a television focus so intense that leading the national news became commonplace. Even a brief interview with Sandusky by NBC's Bob Costas seemed Murrow-like in importance, as did a few comments by assistant coach Mike McQueary, who in 2002 allegedly witnessed improper behavior by Sandusky with a young boy in a shower.
But while the story exploded in November, it may well have come to the fore much sooner. On March 31, Sara Ganim of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's Patriot-News reported that Sandusky "is the subject of a grand jury investigation into allegations that he indecently assaulted a teenage boy. According to five people with knowledge of the case, a grand jury meeting in Harrisburg has been hearing testimony for at least 18 months about the allegation, which was made in 2009 by a 15-year-old from Clinton County."
But while Ganim pursued the story relentlessly, hardly anyone else did. That's surprising, given Penn State's hitherto impeccable reputation and lofty position in the college football world and Paterno's stature (46 years on the job, most wins – 409 – of any coach in major college football history), not to mention Sandusky's lengthy tenure on Paterno's staff and his relationship with the children's charity Second Mile.
Ganim, a 24-year-old crime reporter, joined the 71,000-daily-circulation Patriot-News after a stint with Penn State's hometown paper, the Centre Daily Times in State College. The young reporter, who graduated from Penn State in 2008, followed up her March 31 story with an April 12 report noting that the grand jury had heard more testimony and that more subpoenas had been issued in the case.
Penn State is not exactly in the Harrisburg paper's back yard – it's 87 miles away – but the university is a big player throughout Central Pennsylvania. The paper was to take the lead again after Sandusky's arrest, calling for Spanier and Paterno to step down in a powerful front-page, full-page editorial (see Rem Rieder's column on the editorial, Making a Statement).
After Ganim broke the story, Paterno brushed off a question about the matter at a rare news conference after the team's annual spring football game, saying he was only talking about his football team. And that was that.
No other news organizations went aggressively after the story, and few readers reacted to the Patriot-News' coverage.
Ganim knew from the get-go that she had a major story, but she had no notion how widespread its ramifications would be. "I had some idea from the beginning this would be a big deal," she says. But, she adds, "I could never imagine it would play out this way."
The reporter who broke the story has serious Penn State connections, but that didn't get in the way. "I'm a crime reporter. I'm taught to follow the facts," Ganim says, adding, "I loved going to Penn State. I taught a basic journalism course there. My sister goes there. I'm proud to have gone to Penn State. But as a reporter, I compartmentalize."
She notes that "there was not a lot of reaction from other news organizations after the first story." She adds, "Jerry Sandusky was well known, but the story was not what it was to become." Says Patriot-News Sports Editor Paul Vigna, "The story never got any traction. It never got on anyone's radar. No one [nationally] knew."
Jerry Micco, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's assistant managing editor/sports, says his paper didn't do a lot with the initial report. "We saw the AP version of the March 31 Patriot-News story just like every other outlet," he says. "We alerted our reporter in State College, but he essentially got a lot of no comment. So we boiled the AP story down to six inches and led our briefs column. At least officially I felt comfortable with that play because there has to be more to come. I just didn't think, or did many others..how much more."
Terry Taylor, the Associated Press' sports editor, said in an e-mail interview that the wire service picked up the Patriot-News' piece the day it ran and "pursued" the story. But not a great deal of coverage ensued. "The paper was keyed into the local grand jury and at that point we were reporting about a retired [assistant] coach and a teenage boy. We had nothing to connect it to the current Penn State program, nothing to suggest the alleged incidents happened in the football complex. The magnitude of the allegations hadn't begun to unfold," Taylor wrote.
Some say that despite Sandusky's prominence and Penn State's pristine image, it's not necessarily surprising that Ganim's scoop was ignored. "In hindsight, it's easy to say more scrutiny should have been evident," says Malcolm Moran, director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State and a former New York Times sports reporter. "But we didn't know the depth of what was being discussed. No charges had been filed. How do you proceed on this story using basic journalistic standards?"
But beginning on Saturday, November 5, the day Sandusky was arrested, a torrent of news began flowing from the suddenly Not So Happy Valley. Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz were charged with perjury and failure to report a crime; they temporarily stepped down. The 84-year-old Paterno and university President Spanier were sacked by the Penn State Board of Trustees the following Wednesday night, prompting rioting by Penn State students. More alleged victims of child sexual abuse by Sandusky emerged.
All at once, Sara Ganim and the Patriot-News had plenty of company on the story.
News organizations throughout Pennsylvania marshaled their staffs, as did a number of major newspapers, Web sites, ESPN, CNN and the broadcast networks.
John Quinn, the Philadelphia Inquirer's sports editor, said in an e-mail interview, "We mobilized the staff on Saturday, the morning after the indictments came down. From that point, we blanketed the campus with sports and news people. In addition, we had a Penn State student as an intern, Jake Kaplan, who was already on the ground running, writing blog posts, stories and doing videos. We were up to or ahead of the curve. We did not break any stories, but we supplied a captivated audience with commentary, analysis, perspective and up-to-the minute coverage."
Quinn adds that in addition to Kaplan, the newspaper has deployed six reporters to the story, including three from the news side.
Micco says he regrets that the Post-Gazette didn't do more as soon as the indictments were issued. "We scrambled as best we could," he says. "But as I read the grand jury report Saturday morning, I was almost physically sick. The alleged horrors done to those children, and an apparent whitewash by a university that I always thought was one of the best in the nation in every way, made me want to throw up.
"I think anyone who read that report knew it was time to get to work."
Micco says when the grand jury report came out, the Patriot-News was "miles ahead." But two days later, he adds, the Post-Gazette was publishing "five to seven pieces" a day. "This will be a story for months and years to come," Micco says.
Monte Lorell, managing editor for sports at USA Today, says the initial reporting on Sandusky last spring "didn't get a lot of play," but when the former coach was arrested, "all hell broke loose." He says two sports reporters and a stringer, plus news section staffers as well as columnists, were dispatched to the story, working in three-day shifts. In addition, Lorell says the newspaper's religion reporter was assigned to contrast the issues at Penn State with the scandal affecting the Catholic Church.
The New York Times also blanketed the campus, publishing a number of excellent front-page stories, an insightful column on Paterno by George Vecsey and some news breaks of its own, including some by Mark Viera, a recent Penn State graduate who obviously knows the terrain. Reporter Barry Bearak's piece on Sandusky's roots in Washington, Pennsylvania, was a smart one, appearing as it did on the day Viera and Pete Thamel reported that last summer Paterno transferred his home, just off campus and valued at $594,484.40, to his wife for $1.
Even Deadspin, a sports Web site well known for its snark, was reasonable in its coverage. Yahoo! showcased five columns by Penn State alums on the controversy.
Two prominent news organizations received tough criticism from their ombudsmen over the way they covered the saga.
Jason Fry and Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, who serve as ombudsmen for ESPN, said the sports network was too slowoff the mark in the days after the story exploded.
"With the biggest staff of sports journalists in the world, ESPN should have been leading the charge to ask tough questions and shed light on this scandal," they wrote. "Instead, it was the tiny Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. out in front of the journalism pack. Their reporters managed to track down two mothers of boys Sandusky allegedly abused. And the paper had the leadership to write a front-page editorial calling for Penn State trustees to clean house.
"Meanwhile, the tone of the early ESPN coverage was spotty – sometimes getting it right, but more often seeming inappropriate. It wasn't until mid-afternoon Tuesday that ESPN finally seemed consistently to ask the right questions and find the appropriate moral outrage. That's 72 hours after the story first broke."
They quoted Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news, as defending the network's coverage. Doria, they said, told them that "from the outset managers were sensitive to the victims in the story."
Washington Post Ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton criticized the newspaper for running a column by Mike Wise on Sandusky's indictment across the top of the sports front instead of a straight news story. Pexton also examined a week of coverage and unfavorably compared his paper's performance (seven columns and five news stories, two of them wire accounts) to the Times' 15 news stories and three columns. The Post did not have a reporter in State College the second week after the indictment.
"I know that Pennsylvania is outside The Post's coverage area and that resources are limited, but I think this scandal was big enough, and close enough, to merit a larger commitment of time and reporters," Pexton wrote.
Matthew Vita, the Post's sports editor, defends the paper's performance. "We felt we had a good mix of reporters' stories and columns all week," he says. "Our columnists are the backbone of the section, and we had reporters in State College from Tuesday on. I thought we had an appropriate mix of coverage."
Even though I prefer to give the reader the news first, columns later, I can't be too tough on the man who sits in the chair I occupied for 28 years. Not when yours truly, in the heat of battle, once decided to play the initial news of the 1994 murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson – the kickoff of what was to become the O.J. Simpson extravaganza – on the second sports page, leading a roundup.