LOS ANGELES (TheWrap.com) - When Penn State fired head coach Joe Paterno on Wednesday, it was the culmination of a scandal more than 15 years in the making.
So what took the media so long?
The lapse can’t be attributed merely to star-struck local newspapers or lazy national sportswriters, though that’s part of the equation.
Jerry Sandusky, a long-time assistant to the winningest coach in college football history, allegedly abused at least half a dozen young boys over more than a decade. Penn State administrators knew about it and law enforcement was investigating him.
But a combination of other factors converged to keep the accusations under wraps, including:
- Shrinking news budgets that have undermined investigative journalism.
- A press-wary football program in a remote location.
- Police who reportedly dissuaded victims from talking to journalists.
- A lackluster response by Penn State that some have likened to a cover-up.
- A reticence to brand Sandusky as a pedophile without definitive evidence.
In an op-ed about his paper’s response to the saga on Thursday, David Newhouse, the editor of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, which broke the story back in March, wrote:
“The national media ignored it. Locally, we mainly received anger from some readers.”
Even now, the outrage resonating across Happy Valley is as much about why Paterno cannot finish out the season as the alleged abuse itself.
The shock of Paterno’s firing erupted in a student insurrection Wednesday night that grabbed the country’s attention and left many wondering how the sad state of affairs had devolved into chaos.
As was true on a much larger scale with the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, this case demonstrates the difficulty accusing a venerated institution of despicable actions.
For central Pennsylvania, Paterno and his Nittany Lions are divine in their own right.
This is what one reader wrote in response to the Patriot-News’ coverage of the story: “Shame on those who have tried to defile the legacy that Jerry Sandusky has worked so hard to build.”
Newhouse justified his paper’s decision to aggressively pursue the Sandusky allegations before most major news outlets had even arrived on the scene. At the same time, he offered a tortured explanation as to why reporters were not able to break the story earlier.
Although there is no concrete evidence that beat reporters knew of Sandusky’s allegedly illicit relationship with young boys, which may date back to the mid-‘90s, reporters and analysts indicate that the explosive nature of the crimes would have made any newspaper or broadcaster gun-shy.
“You can have you requisite two or three sources and the story may be solid, but that won’t hold up in a libel suit,” said Bill Nemitz, a former sports editor and now columnist who covered sexual abuse scandals at the Portland Press Herald in Maine told TheWrap.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable printing until there is a release of public documents which carry with them certain protections.”
However, there were warning signs left uninvestigated, and even when the Patriot-News broke the story of the allegations in March, no national media coverage arrived until this past Friday when indictments were handed down.
Perhaps one reason is that when the Patriot-News did break the story, it was a crime reporter, Sara Gamin, not a sports reporter.
“If anything, it might be that people who cover sports don’t understand what a big deal a grand jury is,” said Kelly McBride, Senior Faculty for Ethics, Reporting and Writing at the Poynter Institute and the Ombudsman for ESPN told TheWrap. “In sports, it’s about the game and who is winning and who is losing.”
While that may seem like an attack on the profession of sports journalism, McBride doesn’t intend it that way.
“I think this happens a lot when you’re on a beat in general. When something a little unfamiliar comes along, you don’t necessarily recognize how big it is,” McBride added, referencing political scandals broken by other reporters.
For example, it was a pair of enterprising metro reporters that broke open the Watergate scandal -- not a White House reporter.
The big sports scandals in recent years, in particular the Barry Bonds-steroids case, were broken by seasoned investigative journalists. Sadly, those professionals are an endangered in 2011.
“In this economic environment that we’re in, more and more places are cutting their investigative departments, particularly in sports, and that creates a huge void when something of this magnitude comes up,” Malcolm Moran, a former sports reporter for the New York Times and the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism at Penn State, told TheWrap.
Logically, those papers with greater resources such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Review-Tribune would have been the first on the scene.
“I don’t know why they weren’t there except maybe in the age of cutbacks they don’t cover Penn State the way they used to,” McBride said.
“I bet if you asked every one of them, ‘What was your peak staffing level and what is it now?’ They would tell you a number close to half what it used to be.”
John Quinn, sports editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, agreed that budget cuts were likely the biggest factor.
“10 years ago, 20 years ago, a place like the Philadelphia Inquirer would have had the resources,” he said. Now? It has one or two reporters in Harrisburg covering news from across Pennsylvania -- and that is the state capital.
That left the Patriot-News, a mid-sized paper with strong coverage of Penn State. Situated closer to the remote campus than any of the slightly larger papers, it has a group of reporters audacious enough to work around the obfuscating Penn State media team.
“Penn State has traditionally been a very difficult institution for the media to deal with,” said Michael Weinreb, now a staff writer for ESPN’s Grantland and a Penn State alum who worked for the school’s independent daily newspaper. “I think we’ve always gotten that sense that Penn State is a pretty closed shop.”
Quinn echoed that sentiment, indicating it has gotten worse of late.
“The past 5, 10 years there has been this veil of secrecy at the school that goes beyond even hiding or dealing with major stories like this,” Quinn said. “They don’t give access to practice.”
Not only did Penn State try to suppress the story, but according to Newhouse, police discouraged potential victims from involving the media.
As far back as 1998, Newhouse claims state police told the mother of one of Sandusky’s apparent victims not to discuss the case with journalists.
All of these factors explain why, despite an uncertain number of victims, despite an attorney general investigation that began two years ago, despite numerous articles this year from the Patriot-News, the story did not break until November 4 of this year.
When things finally did crack open, however, the media frenzy and the onslaught of new and ever more sordid details could not be contained. In a matter of five days an inviolable coach and a sacrosanct football program have had their reputations atomized.
“What surprised me is just that there wasn’t a bigger national story earlier,” McBride said. “As I look at it, I still don’t know exactly why that was.”
Or as Weinreb said: “Yeah -- that’s a good question.”