Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

Media chose the wrong Penn State story

Post by Brian O'Neill on Nov. 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm with 21 Comments »
November 12, 2011 5:52 pm
Jerry Sandusky arrested in PA/ AP Photo

Several years ago I was sitting quietly in a training class, listening to the instructor discuss the psyche of sex offenders. The lecturer, a psychiatrist at a state penitentiary, led a discussion that became an abhorrent descent into the mind of a pedophile.

At its completion it left me distraught. As contemptible as this topic was, it should have been required instruction for any journalist who took allegations of a serial child rapist and warped it into “Joe Paterno’s Sex Scandal.”

That media frenzy has long-since eclipsed reports of child rape involving Penn State football’s defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. Instead, like a moth to the flame, the media has elevated Paterno’s involvement to preeminence. His lengthy career, his recent firing, and the outcry from an enraged fan base are the flaming results of this media-sponsored bonfire.

Let’s be clear. Paterno is not the issue here. In fact, given the shocking nature of these alleged acts, Paterno’s involvement is largely irrelevant.

Yes, there are indeed allegations of cover-ups. There are claims that many involved, including Paterno, could have done more to bring the matter to light. But blatant testimony currently points to only one individual, a person whose name is mentioned only as afterthought in most of the story coverage.

It is not Joe Paterno. That person is Jerry Sandusky.

The current media blitz is one of the more embarassing examples of journalists skewing the focus of a news story for the purpose of packaging a product. Let’s face it, if Jerry Sandusky were the head coach of a small college football program rather than the assistant to one of the sport’s most legendary figures, then the details may have never risen beyond the level of local news.

Instead, television and print media have chosen to downplay the real story. That one involves allegations that a lesser known figure, Sandusky, used his relatively prominent position to gain the trust of parents and children. In a leadership role, he is then alleged to have abused that trust by raping and violating an unknown number of innocent children.

The real story also involves the courageous disclosures made by the alleged victims and their parents. Forced to rehash what is likely the worst moment of their lives, the victims now are shuffled off backstage as the spotlight centers on the possible transgressions of Paterno, no more than a bit player in this tragedy.

The media’s critics are always quick to point out its faults: self-serving; left-leaning; hype-driven. Splashy and sensational news sells papers, they say. In this case the critics would be right.

The story of a serial rapist prowling the locker rooms of Penn State, and the community of State College, PA, is a story worth telling. It is a reminder that pedophiles can have normal, even respectable faces. It is a reminder that these monsters will often prey on our children from a vantage of trust. And it is a reminder that each of us has a duty to protect the most innocent among us.

Those are the bullet points in the story of Joe Sandusky, alleged child rapist.

If you want to read about Joe Paterno, you should flip to the sports page.

Leave a comment Comments → 21
  1. rivitman says:

    Unfortunately, everyone with knowledge of the incident are guilty of one thing or another, including Paterno.

    The lowest of the low, even among prison inmates, had a blind eye turned toward his crimes. That blind eye is now a black eye. This goes for the assistant coach that reported the initial incident to Paterno.

    Sandusky should never have left that shower room under his own power. And the police should have been called on the spot.

    This is more than a story of awful criminal proportions. It’s about tragic human failure on multiple levels, in the name of sports. It’s not the first time we ignore criminal acts and moral failing in the sports we rabidly consume. Dope, animal cruelty, illegal gambling, spousal abuse, assault, sexual misconduct and even murder have stained and disgraced it all, and fans just look the other way. In the name of the title, the pennant, and selling stuff. We make a bad call when we presume people in the sports industry are smart, or of sound character.
    Overly broad brush? Who cares. The record speaks for itself.

    Sports fandom seems capable of altering our moral compass. Awhile back, I had a co-worker come in wearing a Michael Vick Football shirt. His reasoning was dogs were merely animals so Vick’s crime didn’t count. The student riot at Penn State confirms this sort of rationalization. And nobody, and I mean nobody seems interested in ridding college and professional sports of moral turpitude. Meanwhile Pete Rose will never be in the hall of fame, But O.J. Simpson still is I believe. We went a long way downhill in a few short years.

  2. McTacoma says:

    You write…”Let’s be clear. Paterno is not the issue here. In fact, given the shocking nature of these alleged acts, Paterno’s involvement is largely irrelevant. Yes, there are indeed allegations of cover-ups. There are claims that many involved, including Paterno, could have done more to bring the matter to light. But blatant testimony currently points to only one individual, a person whose name is mentioned only as afterthought in most of the story coverage.”

    You really need to dig deeper into this story. Jerry Sandusky’s behavior continued for many years and involved many more victims due to a total lack of responsibility on the part of all his enablers at Penn State. If Jerry Sandusky had been a professor in the English Department at Penn State, he would have been exposed at the first inkling of any misbehavior. The fact that multiple people, over many years, participated in an institutional failure to report and stop this predator required both individual and institutional moral failures of epic proportions. The “media” focusing on these individual and moral failures is not “sensationalizing” the story. If anyone presented with the facts that have been reported to date believes that Paterno’s (and others at this institution) involvement is largely irrelevant, they are deluding themselves and missing out on any lessons regarding moral decency and responsibility to be learned going forward.

    I have not noted the “media” mentioning Sandusky only as an afterthought in most of the story coverage. I think most sentient human beings don’t require a lot of “expert analysis” to recognize the utter depravity of this individual. What makes this story even more sad and pathetic is the utter complicity of “educators” in enabling these heinous crimes against children.

  3. Brian O'Neill says:

    Mctacoma- Thanks for your comments. I have read extensively on this story and agree with your analysis to a degree. However, Paterno’s involvement is minor compared to that of other officials, but you wouldn’t know it given the nature of the stories. I am not down-playing their complicity, but rather comparing their minor roles in a crime perpetrated by one heinous monster. As I said, this is not “Joe Paterno’s Sex Scandal.” To frame it thus is to make the underlying crime a sensational jumping off point and nothing more.

  4. Sandusky’s story will be told out in court, so we haven’t heard the last of it. The articles written about the incidents themselves will evolve as more facts are known. I have seen follow up stories in the media with comments from a victim, another from the victim’s family’s point of view. We will see others from other victim’s as they emerge. So I don’t think your criticism that the focus is off Sandusky is valid.

    The stories that the media have covered about Paterno and other staff at Penn State are important for society to know. How can a group of people who are viewed as upstanding and honest and beloved by so many as role models have tolerated this person in their midst knowing that he was a child rapist?

    There have been many incidents over the years about how some people in college sports, especially football have corrupted the university systems because of the wealth they bring into that system. This one happens to be one of the most sickening ever, since it involves corruption of innocent children.

    The stories I have read bring to light this slowly developing story. I first had some sympathy for Paterno, thinking he was not told of the crime itself. However, as we have learned, he had full knowledge of the allegations, showed no concern for the victim, and washed his hands of the whole affair.

    I do not think a “media bonfire” in this case is a bad thing. Like the Catholic priest coverups, the bonfire may bring to light the reasons we allow corruption to fester and bring shame to the institutions we revere.

  5. cclngthr says:

    Sandusky may be the one who molested the boys, but Paterno was informed that Sandusky was molesting children, as well as other people were told. Media reports state that Paterno failed to proper notify the authorities, allowing the abuse to continue.

    Media reports also shed light on who is a mandated reporter. Paterno technically is a mandated reporter even though he was employed by a college. Could he be fired due to his inaction? Of course, and he was justifiably was terminated.

    Just because Paterno was a distinguished football coach, he failed to meet his obligations.

    It seems as football is more important than child welfare here in the USA.

  6. jimkingjr says:

    Following the writer’s line of reasoning, there should be no stories regarding bishops or scout organizations failing to report- even covering up- sexual,abuse. It should only be about the priest or scoutmaster who committed the actual abuse. The writer has once again demonstrated he is not qualified to be taking up space in a journalistic venture.

    The bigger picture is that institutions and persons in power help continue the problem, and need to be held to account- even Joe Paterno.

  7. cclngthr says:

    jimkingjr,
    Exactly. Stories such as what O’Neill writes downplay the obligation of mandated reporters, such as O’Neill himself is. O’Neill seems to prefer that sexual abuse only be about the suspect and victim. However, many times, who is obligated to report clear incidences of abuse fails at this task.

    Paterno’s inaction clearly made the abuse continue for years. His power of the football program took a blind eye to the problem of sexual abuse of children who were participating in a program in his football program. He is legally obligated to report such incidences of abuse since he meets the legal definition of a mandated reporter.

    Perhaps O’Neill better look at the problem closer because if he fails to act, and properly investigate such incidences of sexual abuse, he too could lose his ability to be a law enforcement officer and bar him from that position in any form.

  8. McTacoma says:

    Mr. O’Neil, with all due respect, you are downplaying the complicity of multiple people, over many years, participating in individual and institutional failures to report and stop this predator. By characterizing them as playing only “minor roles” in a crime perpetrated by one heinous monster, you are making a gross error in judgment. Pointing out the gross negligence of others in this sordid story does not in any way equate with minimizing the depravity of Sandusk’s acts.

    The horror regarding the lack of response and action to halt this “heinous monster” is most appropriate and should be obvious to all. Therefore, we shouldn’t have to imagine our response to these person’s so-called “minor roles” only as if these were our own children being abused. But if any of our children were one of the many abused by that monster, I can’t believe you would characterize these egregious moral failures to act by so many individuals and the institution of Penn State as minor in nature. Their individual and collective choices were central to allowing the abuse to occur and continue and the lives of children to be destroyed.

  9. Brian O'Neill says:

    Jimkingjr- I welcome your comments, but want to point out one item you seem to have misunderstood. This is an opinion column rather than a news story, and I am a police officer not a jouranlist.

    I do agree, however, that there is a need to investigate the breakdown within Penn State’s system. My disconnection is with the media’s haste to use Joe Paterno’s celebrity in order to create marketable headlines. The crime central to this story was quickly bypassed in favor of selling ad space. Sharing my investigative experience with these reprehensible crimes was a means to bring this to light.

    As a former Catholic altar boy and boy scout I am also well aware of the issues involving the moral failures within those systems. I still feel that the news coverage on those issues could have centered more on the offending priests themselves. In other words, I believe there is a time and place for every fact, but the priority should be reporting on the unspeakable crimes committed against children rather than on selling ad space because a celebrity is on the front page.

  10. cclngthr says:

    Brian O’Neill,
    I don’t think you understand the issues of mandated reporters, and Joe Paterno being one. Stories that involve him shed light on the issues and obligations of mandated reporters, and the process of reporting such acts.

    I don’t think the media used his celebrity status just to sell papers. They explored his status and behavior of his inaction to notify authorities. Sure, he was a celebrity, being a long time coach of a college football program that was successful. However, he acted illegally when he was notified of Sandusky’s acts against children.

    Paterno chose not to ensure law enforcement was notified. He may have told his superiors, but the obligation of a mandated reporter goes further than that. They must notify law enforcement when nothing is done.

    What I see as a result of this is all mandated reporters are scrutinized and stronger regulations placed on them, which may include loss of employment, and licenses. If you fail to make a legal judgement to forward to state prosecutors of accurate allegations, you, sir, could lose your ability to be a police officer. Same thing can happen to me, as a teacher. I could have my state certificate revoked and me losing my position as a teacher.

  11. Brian O'Neill says:

    cclngthr- Thanks for your comment. Actually, I am well aware of the concept of mandated reporting as it pertains to many career fields. As a law enforcement officer any non-action taken by a mandated reporter, such as someone in the medical profession, can become an issue for police. As I have stated in my column (and here in the comments section), my issue is not with the seemingly valid concerns dealing with several school officials, including Paterno. Instead, it is regarding the speed at which the story morphed from a horrible sex crime into “Joe Paterno’s sex scandal.” This was a self-serving effort by the media.

  12. cclngthr says:

    However, Brian O’Neill, the main issue with Joe Paterno is his inaction to the sex scandal and multiple stories which involve disagreements of his demise of his employment due to his inaction. Rioting students in support of him sends a troubling message to the victims – which tell victims that sex with children is normal and should happen.

    There have been multiple reports around the country regarding inaction by authorities who are responsible for reporting acts to the police over the past several years.

    One of these past cases is the Jennifer Rice case. Bethel School District failed to notify OSPI about her behavior and also Pierce County Sheriff’s office. If they did, she would not have been hired by Tacoma School District.

    Paterno was a willing participant in the affair due to his inaction. He also is likely to be a participant in multiple lawsuits that are in the works by the victims families.

  13. Chippert says:

    Brian,
    While the crime itself is reprehensible and must be punished to the full extent of the law (and many of us think this extent is way below what should happen), the bigger story in this is indeed the cover-up. Our society needs to stop turning a blink eye to this crime and thereby enabling these criminals to continue victimizing these young people, often for years. So many times it is ignored, whether through fear, through a family connection, because of money (as in this case – the fact exposed would have hurt a lucrative football program) or religion. The public needs to feel as great, if not greater, outrage over these enablers as they do the perpetrator. Only then are we as a society going to readily report and stop this crime from happening again and again.

  14. PumainTacoma says:

    The title reads: “Media Chose the Wrong Penn State Story”

    Maybe our local media doesn’t like shining a light on those who have knowledge of a crime and do not report it. But the national media got it right. EVERYONE WHO HAD KNOWLEDGE OF A CRIME should report it! Need I remind us of our history and our media’s “softening” of the perverts in this town some with leadership positions? Chief Brame, TPD Giles, Sheriff French, teachers who rape students, judges, politicians.

  15. S_Emerson says:

    Brian –

    With so much of your recent focus being on the Occupy movement, I was expecting this piece to be about the Penn State rioting in response to Paterno’s departure. If news has reported correctly, not a single rioter was arrested. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the difference in law enforcement’s action against these rioters and their actions against peaceful Occupy participants across our county, including Oakland, whose chief legal advisor just resigned (http://www.mercurynews.com/occupy-oakland/ci_19333819).

    Thanks.

    Stacy Emerson

  16. I’m OK with this being the Joe Paterno scandal. Joe was the supreme ruler of that university. When the dust settles we’ll probably find out why McQueary didn’t say something for 24 hours and it’ll have something to do with Joe. Why the “hardened” Korean War vet janitor didn’t say something? Joe again.

    This is institutionalized child rape and Joe was that institution. Not the face of it, he was it. This may have gone on for 20 years and the entire “boys club” knew about it. I don’t know if Joe believes in God but some day he’ll get to meet Him and I hope for his sake he’s ready for it.

    That whole program needs to be flushed and the NCAA will probably do it. They are already removing Joe Paterno’s name from the Big Ten Conference championship trophy.

  17. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/colleges/joe-paterno-isnt-a-victim-in-the-penn-state-scandal-sadly-he-is-part-of-it/2011/11/13/gIQAbjOwIN_story.html

    “Joe Paterno is neither a victim nor a scapegoat — as some have suggested — in any of this. He was, and is, very much a part of it. Everyone knows the names and roles of the other major players in a tragedy that has been unfolding at least since 1998, in all likelihood since well before that.

    Because Paterno was such an iconic figure, there will always be those who see him as some kind of victim in all this.”

  18. Brian O'Neill says:

    Let me be frank- any official coverup of alleged sex crimes in the Penn State is worth investigating and prosecuting to the full extent of the law. Nowhere have I suggested otherwise. Please reread my column and comments if you have further questions on my point of view.

    In regards to the Penn State riots, I’ll have to defer.

    A crime, such as allegations of child rape, have a small number of involved individuals, a small crime scene and a finite scope. A demonstration or riot (depending upon the situation and your definition) involve hundreds or even thousands of people, a large area and little means to truly capture the chronology of “Who did what, when and how.” In that light it would be very difficult to suggest why one demonstration ends with “Kumbaya” and one finishes with molotov cocktails, injuries and arrests.

    For the most part, civil disturbance tactics are common to most law enforcement agencies. The police leaders on scene and the individual protesters’ methods are definitely variables, however. In the end it is a human issue with an infinite number of possibilities that could lead such a large gathering down any number of paths. That’s my lengthy way of saying that I really don’t have an answer for you.

  19. Earth_watch says:

    Hi, Brian. The media probably didn’t focus on deep analysis of the child molester because everyone is likely in agreement of how heinous that is (it goes without saying), and the victims and their families hopefully weren’t pushed into the spot out of respect since adding a media spotlight can be quite violating. No one doubts that both of those issues will get plenty of attention (as they are slowly starting to now) over time.

    However, a person who observes/is aware of but then steps aside and allow a crime to continue does not play a “minor” role, as you stated.

    The reason people were so outraged over Joe’s involvement is that he, of all people in this story, had been revered as a local hero for years. The man had been nominated for a presidential medal, for Pete’s sake! So, the idea that he had actually been complacent (and thus enabled/assisted) in such a horrific situation was shocking and possibly incomprehensible to his fans. It’s human nature to first be in denial than to let the awful truth sink in that everything you upheld about a person could be so stained. To then believe it, would make you admit that everything you thought about that person for years was a lie… that’s a huge betrayal to accept from someone you had so glorified.

    So, I agree that it was strange for many of us to watch how Joe’s fans reacted… which is the same way many of your readers felt toward you when your reaction to the Zina Linnik case seemed mostly to excuse away Ramsdell’s lying. Someone in the public eye (like a state college football coach, or a paid public servant like a Police Chief) who accepts the trust of people cannot then expect to make such a huge mistake with no consequences. Just as Joe’s cover-up has tainted his entire career, Ramsdell’s choosing to lie to the public can never be repaired.

    That’s why your support of Don seemed just as distasteful to us, as your disdain for the media and Joe’s fans seemed to you.

  20. Brian O'Neill says:

    Earthwatch- I believe you are misrepresenting your comparisons. Joe Paterno allegedly covered up facts regarding a serious crime, and it could be argued that this failure led to further victimization. On the other hand, Chief Ramsdell chose not to share information with the media that he was not required to share. Aside from the chief’s loss of credibility due to the heavy-duty criticism, there were no negative repurcussions to the public from his decision.

    The one valid point of comparison is that, in both cases, public figures let the public down. Further comparing Ramsdell’s actions to Paterno’s would be extremely unfair.

  21. Earth_watch says:

    Hi Brian… I’m not sure how you can say Ramsdell “let the public down” while also saying there was “no negative repurcussions to the public” (correct spelling: “repercussions”) when in reality public trust of TPD of has plunged and that single incident has even put TPD’s future court testimony in jeopardy…

    … so, your response actually proves my previous point.

    In your eyes, Ramsdell “chose not to share information with the media” but in the public’s eyes he deliberately lied to city officials and the public. Look, I understand that you’re a fan of Ramsdell, maybe even a personal friend, so you’re seeing him in a very different light than the rest of us observing from the public seating. Just as Coach Paterno may have had years and years of fine, honorable work, one terrible mistake overwrites it no matter how in denial his fans may be about it at the moment…

    .. which was my point.

    .

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