Hypocrisy in Media's Penn State Storyline
The Penn State University football scandal has been ugly in a variety of ways, but not all of them are immediately obvious. In particular, the mainstream press, so proud of its progressive views on most moral matters, showed the puritanical streak they always reveal when a person widely believed to be of good moral character can be knocked down and branded a hypocrite. The media coverage in this case displayed the classic American journalism tactic of conveying salacious stories under cover of moral indignation. This was obvious in the rush to make Penn State football coach Joe Paterno the center of the story.
The real focus should naturally have been former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State officials who knowingly covered up the knowledge of Sandusky's misdeeds. What Sandusky allegedly did to so many innocent boys over the course of at least two decades and probably more ought to be enough to make him the obvious villain in this story, the clear center of the press coverage. Yet he was rather quickly shoved to the background -- my web search for stories on the scandal found that four times as many mentioned Penn State coach Joe Paterno as mentioned Sandusky.
It is equally clear that Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz are morally culpable and that they engaged in criminal behavior in covering up the matter, according to the grand jury testimony. There is no telling, at this point, how many boys were victimized as a result of their alleged refusal to bring the matter to the attention of the proper authorities when they apparently knew full well that a criminal action had been done on their watch. The same allegedly applies to university president Graham Spanier, who was fired by the institution's board of trustees.
Yet all of these obvious alleged wrongdoings were given much less coverage than was accorded to Penn State coach Paterno. Instead of a story about sexual predation and a cover-up by government employees, this became a story about hypocrisy -- a particular obsession of the U.S. media in recent years. Paterno should indeed have been subjected to much scrutiny for his involvement in the matter, but his emergence as the central cause of concern indicates an agenda among the press, whipped into a frenzy by a partiality toward simplistic, heroes-and-villains storylines.
It's apparent that Paterno was wrong in failing to follow up on the matter after sending it up the chain of authority, according to the grand jury testimony. He should have kept after them, it's now clear. And the lateness and weakness of his mea culpa suggests a lack of sympathy toward the victims, something which he did not correct until a few days into the week's events.
Even so, Paterno does not make sense as the central figure of the story, if name recognition and his personal reputation are removed from the equation. He was not a witness to the event, and one was in fact readily available: assistant coach Mike McQueary, the young man who reported the incident to Paterno. In coverage based solely on the facts, the press would naturally have pursued McQueary as a central figure.
This is not to whitewash Paterno, of course, or to suggest that he should not have been received a good deal of press coverage. After Paterno sent the matter on to the proper authorities at the university and found that it had been dropped, he may well have breathed a sigh of relief that any suspicions he had were disproven, especially given that investigating the matter further would require him to suspect that the people above him in the university hierarchy were moral monsters and criminals. That sounds a good deal like wishful thinking, however, at least in retrospect, and it certainly can be seen as a disastrous lapse in judgment for which Paterno should indeed pay with his job and his place in history, if the grand jury testimony is correct.
Yet although Paterno's involvement in the mess is undeniable, the rush to make him the center of the news coverage strongly hints at the media's true motive: the pursuit of a juicy celebrity story with a sex scandal angle and a chance to portray hypocrisy among the powerful. If this had been, say, a local abortionist who covered up the activities of a molester, the national press surely would never have bothered with it. But JoePa, the beloved Penn State football coach and well-known advocate of high moral standards, exposed as a collaborator in child molestation -- now, that's news.
Newspaper columnist Mitch Albom made a similar point in his article on the matter (which I highly recommend), showing how the media manifested these prejudices:
Headlines this week screamed "Should Joe Go?" -- as if his dismissal were the core of the issue.
Albom correctly points out what the real story was:
But the focus must remain Sandusky. He's the devil in these details. He's just not as famous as JoePa.
His conclusion is spot-on:
Paterno may have been a scalp that abates the fury. But making him the story is, in a weird way, doing a bit of what critics are assailing: allowing a football program to overshadow a tragedy that takes place every day in this country and must be stopped.
In light of this frenzy, the Penn State University board of trustees rushed to conform to the media's opinion that the real story was about a secondary figure's moral responsibility, as the local police chief put it, and not about the actual crimes committed. That explains why assistant coach McQueary was not fired even though he witnessed Sandusky in the act of molesting a boy, and, after failing to intervene, did exactly what Paterno was publicly pilloried for doing.
It's vitally important to remember this last point in judging the press coverage of this matter. McQueary testified to the grand jury that he saw Sandusky committing a vile, criminal act against a young boy. He did not intervene, he testified. He then reported the event to his superior and did nothing further, according to his testimony. Paterno at least has the excuse of not knowing what had happened. McQueary does not. One would expect the press to pursue this angle.
Yet they have not, and McQueary remains employed by Penn State. The reason, it seems, is that, like Sandusky, "he's just not as famous as JoePa." Moreover, McQueary does not have a national reputation as a moral beacon, thus removing the desirable hypocrisy angle. As a result, the press paid scant attention to him, and his firing would do little to take the focus off of Penn State. Only the firing of Paterno would do that.
The riots by Penn State students after the announcement of the Paterno firing also played into this scenario. Once again, the focus was on Paterno, not the person who actually committed the crime or the people who knowingly covered it up.
Ultimately, there are no heroes to be found in this matter. Perhaps they will arise later. Yet there is something to be learned from this, beyond the obvious message that covering up crimes is wrong -- which most people already knew anyway. To wit: the press are increasingly inclined toward these weird morality plays in which obvious crimes and moral failings are swept aside in a rush to convey feigned horror over the lesser faults of people who have been widely thought to be forces for good.
Such crusades may make for entertaining controversies, but they carry the danger of trivializing real evils.
S. T. Karnick is editor of The American Culture (http://theamericanculture.org).