One key question seems to have been overlooked as The Pennsylvania State University child sex abuse scandal unfolded in November. How and why did most of the news media manage to miss—or ignore—the warning signs of this firestorm?
Perhaps there are extenuating answers to that question when it is asked in regard to developments in 1998 or perhaps even 2002. But it’s hard to reconcile the notion of a "watchdog media" with the total lack of attention paid to a column published in the daily Beaver County Times (in Beaver, PA, a small community some 25 miles northwest of downtown Pittsburgh) in April of 2011.1
That column was written some seven months before a grand jury indictment accused Jerry Sandusky, who had been a top assistant football coach at Penn State, of molesting eight boys during some 15 years, including several alleged incidents on university property. Mark Madden, who is clearly not a fan of the late long-time PSU head football coach Joe Paterno, began the column this way: "The Jerry Sandusky situation seems a matter of failure to connect certain dots, or perhaps unwillingness in that regard."
Madden is a controversial radio talk show host in Pittsburgh, but also has a reputation for solid reporting. (One Pittsburgh resident described him as "noisy but reliable.") His column dealt with material during the lengthy grand jury investigation that had been reported piecemeal in various news outlets including the Harrisburg Patriot-News and the Centre County Daily Times in State College, the home of PSU’s main campus. Madden set out to connect some of the dots:
Allegations of improper conduct with an underage male first surfaced in 1998, while Sandusky was still employed by Penn State. That incident allegedly occurred in a shower at Penn State's on-campus football facility. No charges were filed.
Sandusky retired the next year, in 1999. He was 55, prime age for a coach. Odd, to say the least—especially with Joe Paterno thought even then to be ready to quit and Sandusky a likely, openly-discussed successor.
It seems logical to ask: What did Paterno know, and when did he know it? What did Penn State's administration know, and when did they know it?
Madden went on to suggest a possible cover-up by Paterno and Penn State. Immediate reactions to this column included a pair of vitriolic online comments criticizing Madden (as well as one supporting him), and a deafening silence from state and national media, despite the news peg of an ongoing, year-old grand jury investigation. In retrospect, the reaction of other media outlets seems to have been almost a Machiavellian effort to protect Paterno’s status as a football icon. Just ignore a column that raised some legitimate questions and don’t rock the Penn State football boat or question its coach. Just let things ride . . . until the release of the grand jury report in early November, 2011 made it impossible to let them ride further.
Or perhaps it was the difficulty of getting anyone connected with Penn State to confirm any of the whispers about Sandusky—what Gary Sinderson of WJAC-TV in Johnstown-Altoona, Pennsylvania, said were "very powerful people connected to other very powerful people blocking the truth from coming out." This veteran journalist, who heads the station’s State College bureau, wrote that he failed to report the story because he is “a one-man band” and simply "didn’t have the time to get the needed verification to move the story ahead or to convince my bosses it’s not a rumor, but a real story."2
Mike McQueary, a Penn State assistant coach himself until mid-November when he was put on paid leave the day Paterno and the University’s president were fired, was a graduate assistant in 2002. He has claimed he saw a boy of about 10 apparently being "sexually" molested in a University locker room shower, allegedly by Sandusky. McQueary has been sharply criticized by some for failing to intervene directly.3 But in the aftermath of the charges against Sandusky, McQueary claimed at least once that he had intervened to end the incident, and said that he did report the incident to police as well as to Paterno and other university officials.4
It’s easy enough now for the media to pillory Mike McQueary, or "JoePa" Paterno,5 for "not doing enough" in 2002 or subsequent years to halt Sandusky’s alleged predatory behavior. Paterno apparently reported McQueary’s accusation to his own superiors but, as of this writing, it seems that he did little more about it.
The broader questions, though, should be: where were the "watchdog media" in all this? Where did their loyalties lie in this situation? Wasn’t it an ethical lapse for them to look the other way from 2002 (or 1998) on, as Penn State officials may also have done?
It may well be that loyalty can create its own "moral universe," where the only things that matter relate to the people inside that universe. That’s an analysis advanced by Simon Keller, a philosophy professor who now teaches in New Zealand.6 But while that may explain some of what happened at Penn State, it doesn’t excuse the media placing Paterno or Penn State football or even the reputation of The Pennsylvania State University above a duty to look into a situation that should have drawn much more attention.
"'In this case, it is absolutely obvious that the wider moral obligation to protect real, vulnerable humans was far more important than any obligation of friendship or any obligation to an ethereal reality like 'the university' or 'the program,'" Mr. Keller said in relation to the inactions of people at "Penn State."7 The same might well be said of the media’s general failure to home in on the situation—at least when Madden’s column was published in April of 2011, if not much, much earlier.
Doesn't the "do no harm" principle ask more of the media than just doing no harm? Shouldn’t it also mean that they must–where possible–prevent harm as well? John Rawls must be turning over in his grave at the failure of society—including the media—to protect the children allegedly victimized in this case.
Sinderson, the State College bureau chief for WJAC-TV, attributed some of the media’s failure to laziness ("just repeating and reporting on what a few others have uncovered") and some to corporate downsizing that has left too few reporters to investigate first-hand rather than repeating what others have written or said.
Pushing the limits—informing the public and getting people to debate and discuss the issues, even when they include facts like the Sandusky case that they may not want to talk about—is a good thing. We need more of that kind of journalism.8
I certainly agree! As Madden might also. The end of his April column alluded to the need for such uncomfortable discussions, as part of a general indictment that includes the media along with everyone who shares blame for allowing Sandusky to extend his alleged abuses over a 15-year period:
Plenty of questions remain yet unanswered. Potentially among them: What's more important, Penn State football or the welfare of a few kids?
You might not want to hear the answer.
This article was updated on January 23, 2012, to reflect the passing of Joe Paterno.
1. Mark Madden, "Madden: Sandusky a State Secret," Beaver County Times, posted April 3, 2011 and updated April 4, 2011, at http://www.timesonline.com/columnists/sports/mark_madden/madden- sandusky-a-state-secret/article_863d3c82-5e6f-11e0-9ae5-001a4bcf6878.html#.TrxIPBuXDVk.email. The same might be said about the lack of attention to coverage (much of it by Sara Ganim) in The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, PA) starting March 31, 2011.
2. Gary Sinderson, "Why the Penn State Scandal Stayed Secret," TVNewsCheck, November 22, 2011, available online at http://www.tvnewscheck.com/article/2011/11/22/55595/why-the-penn-state-
3. See, for example, Michael Smerconish, "The Pulse: Why didn’t the assistant coach who witnessed a 2002 sex assault intervene?" philly.com, November 10, 2011, available online at http://www.philly.com/philly/columnists/michael_smerconish/20111110_The_Pulse__Why_didn_t_ the_assistant_coach_who_witnessed_a_2002_sex_assault_intervene_.html
4. Mark Wogenrich and Andrew McGill, "McQueary: 'I did stop it.'" The Morning Call (Allentown, PA), November 16, 2011, available online at: http://www.mcall.com/news/breaking/mc-penn-state-scandal-mcqueary-20111115,0,1687969.story
5. "Columnists Take Aim at Joe Paterno," The Daily Beast, November 8, 2011, available online at http://www.thedailybeast.com/cheats/2011/11/08/columnists-take-aim-at-joe-paterno.html; see also Ron Cook, "Paterno, McQueary need to do right thing," November 8, 2011, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, available online at http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11312/1188241-87-0.stm
6. Paula Reed Ward, "Penn State: Why doing the right thing isn’t as easy as it seems," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 13, 2011, available online at http://post-gazette.com/pg/11317/1189623-143.stm
8. Sinderson, loc. cit. See End Note 2.