Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Philadelphia Magazine shamelessly butchers Joe Paterno

The national media hyper-reactivity onslaught from the Sandusky scandal has subsided, and we've moved into a new phase of coverage - though, sadly, it still has some shameful "journalism" 

You're a journalist. You're working on a big story about a Big Story, a feature piece that you have lots of time - weeks, months - to source and research.

You approach it from a certain perspective, with premises to prove, theories to support, ideas to direct and notions to develop.

Or perhaps disprove, and unsupport, and re-direct, and re-develop. The story - and your path to a finished, cohesive product - doesn't always take you where you expect to go.

In fact it commonly leads in some unexpected directions, because of unexpected information.

So while you start from somewhere with a "story idea" - newspaper and magazine writers/editors brainstorm story ideas all the time - your only real direction is toward the truth and the actual story: where the information leads, where the facts take you.

Unless of course you are Philadelphia Magazine and writer Robert Huber, and you're writing a feature about Joe Paterno and the Sandusky scandal.

Then, you take vague, second-hand quotes from unnamed sources, which are uncorroborated, unsubstantiated and unsupported by evidence or reason, and you:
  1. Use them to reaching a damning conclusion about Paterno (of course!)
  2. Use them to write bogus and inflammatory headlines (we need to lure readers!), and
  3. Have another PhillyMag writer promote the story by using your faulty information on their blog post, with another sham headline (why stop the charade now!)
Sheesh. Here we go again. Philadelphia Magazine barters its reputation for readership and its integrity for attention. Like so many others have since November, PhillyMag mooches off Joe Paterno's name, then butchers that name into smithereens.

The main piece, by Huber, is titled "The Sins of Penn State: The Untold Story of Joe Paterno's Fall.'' 

Now, there is almost nothing previously "untold" in Huber's long and well written if misguided and unethical story. That's a fact. Almost all of the anecdotes and information are well-known to PSU football followers. So the headline is pretty much a lie.

The only "new" information is the two pieces of faulty "information."

The first allegedly involves former PSU AD Tim Curley. Huber writes that back when Sandusky resigned/retired from Penn State in 1999, a friend of Curley's, like many, was surprised Sandusky stepped down. The unnamed friend supposedly asked Curley about it, and Curley allegedly said, "It's for a very good reason.''

Curley allegedly telling someone that Sandusky had a very good reason for retiring, to Huber, is damning information. To Huber, Curley actually meant that Sandusky called it quits because Penn State/Paterno forced him out, because Penn State/Paterno knew he was a child sex abuser and as such wanted him no longer working there. 

Curley, of course, in reality, could have meant just about anything by such a generic, ambiguous comment. There were at least a thousand "very good reasons" why Sandusky might have retired. Health issues, family issues, burnout, tired of playing second fiddle to JoePa, a desire to do other things - he had long been extremely involved with The Second Mile charity he founded.

Or perhaps upon having just been told by Paterno that he would never be the PSU head coach (which was not publicly known at the time), Sandusky felt underappreciated, and/or disrespected, and/or under-motivated, and decided to move on something else (that something else, apparently and tragically, being molesting children full-time).

All of those are "very good reasons."

But to Huber, this isolated, generic, second-hand comment allegedly made by Curley is evidence that Paterno knew of Sandusky's sickening behavior back in 1998-99.  

Hmmm. If you read Curley's alleged quote again, put some serious inflection on the very good part of it, then add a knowing wink and an obscene gesture or two, and then ignore some important and obvious facts, then, well, maybe Huber's onto something.

Back in the real world, the only reasonable response is what? If that all were true, if Curley was implying that PSU forced Sandusky's resignation to cut ties with a child sex abuser, then how the heck does it explain Penn State giving Sandusky emeritus status upon his retirement? The guy had an office and was free to do virtually whatever he wanted on campus in the years after he resigned. Does that sound like a school purposely distancing itself from a sicko? Does that sound like a head coach (Paterno) jettisoning a deranged assistant coach away from the program?

Now, is it possible, is it conceivable, that's why Sandusky stepped down, because PSU shoved him out the door in the wake of the 1998 investigation? Yes, it is. But to imply that Curley's alleged comment was a thinly veiled reference to Sandusky's alleged sexual abuse and that Paterno knew all about it - without any sort of corroboration or substantiation - is irresponsible. 

Huber's next extrapolation of the facts is even worse. Try to follow this: Another unnamed second-hand quote, from a source who wouldn't even say exactly who he was quoting (though Huber says the second-hand quote is from a member of the Paterno family), quoted the person they wouldn't name (allegedly a Paterno) in a way that, again, seems fairly ambiguous.

Yet Huber printed this sketchy information and presented it as powerfully meaningful. Here's the excerpt from Huber's story:

"Moreover, someone who knows the Paternos well told me - reluctantly - that a person whose last name begins with P-A-T (a Paterno, obviously, though not Joe) told him at least four years ago that 'Jerry Sandusky didn't get along well with little boys.'"

Let's just say it's true: A Paterno family member told someone four years ago (2008) that "Sandusky didn't get along well with little boys." First of all, that could mean anything. It has no context. Second, by 2008 Sandusky was drawing attention for his bizarre behavior at nearby Central Mountain High, attention that eventually would lead to the accusation that would set off the chain of events leading to the grand jury investigation and the world collapsing in November, 2011.

But Huber's implication is that Joe Paterno must have told his family that Sandusky sexually abused children. Again, is it possible JoePa did that? Yes. But in Huber's story is it coming from anything resembling a direct, reliable source? No. Does Huber corroborate it with anything? No. 

It's like sorority gossip, except less substantiated.

Huber then follows that up by exaggerating his own information“But it sounds like some of the Paternos may have had a pretty good idea of Sandusky’s behavior,” he then writes.

Paternos. Plural. Huber had just said that he was indirectly quoting one Paterno (if that - we're not even sure it is a Paterno). Then he writes "some of the Paternos may have had a pretty good idea ..." using the plural to imply it was widespread Paterno family common knowledge.

That's a crime against journalism. He inflated the information. It sounds small and petty - one Paterno, multiple Paternos, what's the difference? The difference is honesty. It's an indicator that Huber is playing loose with the facts in support and promotion of his Paterno-is-to-blame premise. Just like so many others the past few months

Huber's ethical issues surfaced almost immediately. In the anecdotal beginning to the story, he talks about dropping in to see the Paternos at their home, unannounced, in early January. Sue Paterno answered the door, and Huber said he told her this:

"'I'm an old Penn Stater - I went to school here back in the '70s, and lived around State College for a decade. ... I wonder if I can have a conversation with Joe.'

"These things are true, though of course I will have to tell her I'm a reporter - but not yet.''

Not yet? Why not yet? It's inexplicable, and despicable. He wasn't an undercover reporter. He was overtly trying to groom her into thinking he was a supporter. He was trying a bait-and-switch.

Which is bad enough for a journalist ordinarily - imagine how you would feel being hoodwinked like that? But considering the unique circumstances - Paterno dying of cancer, buried in scandal - it is a disgrace.

Juxtapose this with the class and grace of Sue Paterno. Who in the history of the world has ever been so polite and open at a time of such great crises? No one. She answers the door at her home for strangers while the media is destroying her husband's legacy and her husband is ravaged with cancer. Incredible.

Did Huber want his grand interview with an injured, wheelchair-bound, chemo-ridden, dying-of-cancer Joe Paterno to begin under false pretenses? "Hey Joe, I'm an alum, I wanted to say hello and see how things are going and ... by the way, did you ever tell your family Jerry Sandusky didn't get along well with little boys?"

Anyway, Sue politely turned him away, told him to call the next day, when he did call she asked if he was a reporter, he said yes and she said Joe isn't taking to the media just yet. (Soon thereafter Paterno did speak with Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post.)

So, after three months of reporting, that's the best Huber could do in his effort to unearth up some legitimate evidence against Paterno re: the Sandusky scandal. Well, then, JoePa's looking better than ever. Huber came up with nothing counter to anything JoePa has said - about having no knowledge of the 1998 investigation into Sandusky, and about what he did when approached by Mike McQueary in 2002. 

Did JoePa do enough to look into and follow-up on what he was told by McQueary about Sandusky? Clearly, no. He and many others, to varying degrees, failed. Was he completely honest about it all with the grand jury and in his public comments? Apparently, yes - there's no evidence to the contrary.

Huber has other highly questionable reporting issues, such as his use of Matt Paknis, a PSU grad assistant for a brief time in the mid-late1980s, as a credible source. Immediately after the scandal broke in November, Paknis levied accusations about Paterno from "inside the bubble," so to speak. However, much of what Paknis said is easily discredited and he has not been supported.

For example, Paknis has said that Paterno, in the mid-late 1980s, said Penn State was not ready for a black quarterback. However, 17 years earlier, under Paterno, PSU had a starting black quarterback for more than half a season (Mike Cooper, who started ahead of future NFL players Bob Parsons and John Hufnagel), and in the years shortly after Paknis' claim the Lions would have many more (Wally Richardson, Rashard Casey, etc.). Yet Huber still sought and quoted Paknis as a credible source.

Also, Huber ignores PSU VP Gary Schultz. He writes at length about former PSU president Graham Spanier, Curley and of course Paterno. He makes them the sort-of Three Musketeers of this entire tragedy, with one particular musketeer - Paterno - being the one to shoulder the bulk of the blame, because he was Joe Paterno. (Curley is dismissed by Huber as little more than Paterno's puppy dog, and Spanier is portrayed as having been worn out by Paterno's stubbornness and staying power.)

But what about Schultz? Not only is Schultz, along with Curley, also charged with perjury by the state of Pennsylvania, but Schultz is the only person known to have had knowledge of both the 1998 DA investigation into Sandusky, and the 2002 accusation against Sandusky by McQueary. And Huber ignores him? Absurd.

Like an infectious disease, Huber's story inspired more unethical work by Philadelphia Magazine. Another PhillyMag.com writer, Tom McGrath, wrote a blogpost touting Huber's story titled:

"Did Joe Paterno Know More About Jerry Sandusky Than He Let On?"

A Philly Mag story explores chilling new details about what happened in Happy Valley.

The subheadline about "chilling new details" is, clearly, a shameless lie. There is nothing chilling about the post, unless you read it in unusually cold temperatures.

The Philadelphia Magazine editors who wrote the headlines should be suspended.

Basically, McGrath's post was merely promoting a colleague's story, a story that was leeching off of Paterno's name. This is unseemly stuff.

Sadly, however, we have yet to mention Huber's worst crime against Paterno, the worst imaginable.

The entire premise of Huber's story is an attempt to assert that Penn State football, as the entity developed, controlled and dominated by Paterno - a Paterno who Huber paints a very unflattering portrait of (through use of selected information) over the last 30 years of his life -  helped spawn and foster a culture that allowed Jerry Sandusky to become a child abuser and perform his alleged evil deeds with impunity.

Huber works backward from the premise that Paterno, and the Penn State football culture he created, is the root cause of Sandusky, that it enabled and sheltered Sandusky, directly or indirectly. Then, despite not proving that at all, reaches that conclusion:

"JoePa got so big that when evil lurked, hiding in plain sight, no one saw it."

This is so wrong in so many ways that refuting it thoroughly is another task for another day. (Huber got half the final 2/3rds of the sentence right, the beginning completely wrong. It should say, "Sandusky had groomed the community to such an extent, through his tens of thousands of hours of high-profile volunteer work with boys at The Second Mile, that when evil lurked, hiding in plain sight, no one saw it."

But the fact that Sandusky happened at Penn State (and in the surrounding communities) does not mean it happened because of Penn State or because of anything unique to Penn State or Joe Paterno's football program. Sandusky could have been happened at any similar school and football program - Ohio State, Washington, Texas Tech, Georgia, wherever ...

Sandusky and his scandal is the fault of two things:

  1. Sandusky's perverse sickness and evasiveness
  2. The individuals who, when they had the chance to do something about it, chose to do nothing (which is most people) or did not do as much as they could have (such as McQueary and Paterno, the only people know to have tried to do anything). Sick people like Sandusky can crop up anywhere, and individuals who somehow let them get away with it are everywhere, too.

We should do everything possible to raise awareness, empower and inspire those who can stop abuse. Anyone who has read up on these things surely has noticed that the world is littered with a lot more people who have done nothing, or haven't done enough, when made aware of abuse than those who have.

Why do child sex abusers, considered the most abhorrent of criminals by almost all, so often get away with it for so long? It is one of the great big questions to emerge from this scandal. Can anyone name a person who stepped forward and did what it took to stop an abuser, other than a victim of the abuser? Tragically and mysteriously, it just doesn't happen much at all.

So Sandusky is no more the fault of Penn State football as an entity than Bernie Fine is the fault of Syracuse basketball, or Bob Hewitt is the fault of the South African tennis, or Graham James is the fault of Canadian junior hockey.

If James had gone into, say, soccer, instead of hockey, he would have abused teenaged male soccer players instead. If Hewitt had played golf instead of tennis, he would have abused pre-teen female golfers.

Simple as that. For how long is the only variable. If Fine coached at UConn, then that's where he would have molested ball boys.

The mass media has its own inviolable narrative timeline for tragedies like Sandusky, its own grand story arc it must follow, facts and truths be damned, until they fit into the timeline.

And we are still mired in the JoePa-Must-Burn section of the timeline with regard to the Sandusky scandal. The general public isn't ready to truly reevaluate it, and the mass media definitely isn't either. Maybe when Sandusky's trial passes, or when the PSU investigation is complete, that might change. We'll see.

Regardless, there's always this: May victims everywhere of such heinous crimes find peace, and may justice find the perpetrators.

1 comment:

  1. In Mr. Ziegler's YouTube video, he includes both Mr. Franco Harris and Jerry Sandusky's attorney as part of their effort to "defend" Joe Paterno and his actions. Mr. Harris appears in this same video with Joe Amendola, the attorney of convicted child abuser and former PSU football coach Jerry Sandusky. Not only hasn't one Pittsburgh media individual asked Mr. Harris about this, the Post-Gazette reporter apparently sat there and watched it at this meeting and did not report it. Jerry Sandusky's attorney, Joe Amendola is part of this campaign to "defend" Mr. Paterno and his actions.

    Let's remember some of the comments that we have heard from Mr. Joe Amendola. This same source in "The Framing of Joe Paterno" YouTube video was also the one in Bellefonte court claiming how the abused children were lying about Mr. Sandusky, how they were in this for "financial interest," and how showering naked with young boys was part of Mr. Sandusky's "culture." This is the SAME Joe Amendola, whose defense team claimed that Mr. Sandusky wasn't sexually abusing young boys in the Penn State football showers, but was only teaching them "how to put soap on their body."