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Pundit Roundup and Penn State

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Sometimes, words simply feel inadequate.  For me, this is one of those times.  

Trying to set the stage for an extended analysis of the media's initial coverage of the Penn State tragedy feels like an exercise in futility.  I know what allegedly happened.  You know what allegedly happened.  And simply knowing about these allegations casts a gigantic pall over everything associated with this entire issue. 

Nevertheless, after the jump, and with a heavy heart, Pundit Roundup covers the coverage of this tragedy.   

This entire week, I've been thinking about the Penn State tragedy.  So have a lot of other people.  It's clearly the biggest story of the season, and, after the events of Wednesday night and the updates on Thursday afternoon, it's only going to keep getting bigger.  For all practical purposes, the media is just getting warmed up.  Countless rallies, protests, and press conferences have yet to be attended.   Several leaders have yet to be fired.  And, of course, a high-profile home-game against Nebraska has yet to be played.  There is no shortage of remaining angles towards covering this story.

And let's be clear about what that means.  It means that before all is said and done, this story will be covered beyond the capacity of public consumption.  The media will pick it apart to the bone.  Then, inevitably, people will get sick and tired of hearing the story discussed from every possible angle.  In fact, from what I can gather in certain forums, this process of over-saturation has already started.  Which is why I think it is imperative to immediately discuss what happened over the first 96 hours of media coverage.   More specifically, I want to talk about the dramatic effect of the streamlined narrative during the initial coverage of this story.

In previous Pundit Roundup columns, I've complained about the disjointed media coverage of certain stories.  Essentially, I get very frustrated when micro-level considerations override and usurp the necessary macro-level analyses of specific issues.   This was especially true during the Cam Newton circus of last season.  However, during the initial coverage of the Penn State tragedy, that simply wasn't the case.  In fact, I want to spotlight how the media drilled down on a very specific set of points during the first few days of coverage.

In my opinion, the coverage of this story really kicked into gear after Dan Wetzel published his initial column on Saturday.  Its current effect is dulled now that everyone knows about the allegations, but, at the time, it was a complete and utter bombshell.  It put my entire stomach in knots, and I could barely force myself to read past the first paragraph.  Upon finishing the column, I had the following text message exchange with a friend.

            (xxx): Penn State better be cleaning house.  This is terrible.

            (xxx): Wait, what happened?

            (xxx): Go read what Wetzel just posted.

5 minutes later...

            (xxx): Whoa.

After Wetzel's article was posted on Saturday, college football writers from across the country chimed in with their own perspectives.  And, to the credit of these writers, their stories largely avoiding discussing unnecessary or irrelevant perspectives.  Initially, I saw very few articles talking about the effect the story would have on recruiting, the Rose Bowl, potential successors to Paterno, or any of the other ancillary issues associated with this story.  Because, as many people noted, those issues simply weren't worth discussing while everyone was still trying to understand the gravity of what this all meant.  As shown below, most pundits initially eschewed covering the "sports" angles to this story in favor of discussing three simple concepts: what happened, what should have happened, and who was responsible for the gaps in-between.  

While this streamlined narrative was likely due to the gravity of the story, I don't think anyone can question its effect.  As the articles over this story came pouring out of the most talented writers in the industry, it became crystal clear exactly how this situation was going to play out.  Wetzel's article was the opening salvo, and then the ensuing fusillade brought down the house. 

People are already pointing out that the coverage of this story is becoming too much about Joe Paterno and less about Jerry Sandusky and his victims.  At the beginning of the coverage, this was not the case.  Instead, when this story first came out, most writers squarely focused on the larger perspective and let the facts speak for themselves.  Put another way, they let the story be the story.  Here are some examples of the opening paragraphs for some of these columns.

Dan Wetzel

At approximately 9:30 p.m. on March 1, 2002, a Penn State graduate assistant entered what should have been an empty football locker room. He was surprised to hear the showers running and noises he thought sounded like sexual activity, according to a Pennsylvania grand jury "finding of fact" released Saturday.

When he looked in the shower he saw what he estimated to be a 10-year-old boy, hands pressed up against the wall, "being subjected to anal intercourse," by Jerry Sandusky, then 58 and Penn State's former defensive coordinator. The grad assistant said both the boy and the coach saw him before he fled to his office where, distraught and stunned, the grad assistant telephoned his father, who instructed his son to flee the building.

Spencer Hall

I don't really need outrage here. Facts should be enough for you. Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and VP of Finance and Operations Gary Schultz have been accused of perjuring themselves in a grand jury investigation of sexual abuse involving Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State defensive coordinator. Sandusky allegedly abused a child within the walls of the Penn State football facility with a third party witness looking on in horror in the year 2002. This was one of eight cases listed in the grand jury finding issued by the State of Pennsylvania. At least one happened.

In response, Penn State did not call the police. They did other things, but they did not call the police. Joe Paterno did not call the police, and Tim Curley did not call the police, and Gary Schultz did not call the police. The graduate assistant who witnessed the act did not call the police. Penn State President Graham Spanier did not call the police. A reported child molester and rapist was living and working in their midst, and working in a program that brought him into contact with boys, and not one person called the police. 

Matt Hinton

I'm going to try to tread lightly here, both as a moralizer and a messenger of unsavory facts. If you need the full scope of the State of Pennsylvania's case against longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, it's readily available. You can read about his alleged crimes in graphic detail.

The charges speak for themselves: Sandusky, a former Penn State player and 32-year veteran of the Nittany Lion coaching staff from 1969-99, is accused of sexually abusing at least eight underage males over a span of more than a decade, some of them on Penn State's campus, all of them through a charitable program he helped found for at-risk youth. Moral outrage is a given.

Rick Reilly (yeah, I know)

This is not about Joe Paterno.

If these boys really were molested, groped and raped by a middle-aged ex-Penn State football coach, then whatever misjudgment Paterno made will be a single lit match compared to the bonfire these boys will walk in for years to come.

Many of them won't be able to trust. Won't be able to love. Won't be able to feel -- nor trust or love themselves.

Bruce Feldman

When? When should Joe Paterno have gone above his athletic director? That's the question the legal community and college football fans and media try to wrap their heads around in assessing the despicable allegations coming out of Happy Valley.

But for eight young adults, their question would have been far more urgent and desperate as Jerry Sandusky allegedly robbed them of their innocence, one by one: When is somebody going to put an end to this? 

Perhaps the best opening to an article came from SBN's Andrew Sharp

Untold numbers of children were (allegedly) victimized in the most vile way possible, and knowing adults (allegedly) looked the other way. What's come to light at Penn State this week isn't a sports story, really. So using it to shine a light on the NCAA's blinding hypocrisy seems beside the point.

With this opening, Sharp touches on something important, which is that this remains a sports story that should not necessarily be treated like a sports story by the media.  In his article, Sharp concluded that "in the end, this is a human tragedy we're talking about. There is no morality play when everyone's morality failed.  College sports has problems, but this is a whole different scale." 

Other writers expressed similar sentiments.  In his initial article, Wetzel said the grand jury report "could be the ugliest scandal in the history of college athletics" and that "this is a scandal that goes beyond nearly anything college athletics has ever witnessed. These are the most horrific charges that can be made, the worst of the worst kind of crime that haunts victims forever."  In the article linked above, Bruce Feldman concluded that "what is alleged to have happened in Happy Valley is potentially much more damning and disgraceful than any story we've seen linked to college football in decades."   Andy Staples even invoked a higher power by saying "there is no defense. There is no rational explanation.  I hope, if placed in the same situation, I would protect the child. If I didn't, may God have mercy on my soul."  Indeed.

Conclusion: My goal for this column was fairly simple.  I wanted to encapsulate quotes from the initial coverage of the story before everything spiraled out of control.  Which, unfortunately, has already happened.  Even as early as Wednesday afternoon, the talking heads were already discussing each of the ancillary issues that were previously buried.  I suppose the fracturing of the narrative was inevitable, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

By and large, I thought the media coverage at the beginning of this story was pretty admirable.  Some of the segments from the columns highlighted above still get me choked up.  They serve as a reminder of the exact stakes involved with this story, which are pretty much as high as you can possibly get. And if the Pundit Roundup crew is going to rip on the media for getting the little things wrong, I think we need to similarly point out when they get the big things right. Which, in my opinion, is exactly what happened during the initial coverage of this case.