Posnanski and Paterno: A Lesson about Reporting
We asked our intern, Erika Spicer, to attend Joe Posnanski’s talk Friday at the HUB. We’ve read and written so much over the past 10 months about Paterno and his legacy, and we were interested in Erika’s perspective—both as an undergraduate, and in particular as a journalism major. Here’s what she came away with.
As I sat in my plastic chair in Alumni Hall waiting for Paterno author Joe Posnanski to speak, I mulled over the fact I probably wasn’t going to learn anything new.
I am so tired of listening to people rehash the events surrounding Joe Paterno, I thought to myself, feeling a twinge of guilt as I sat among some Paterno supporters. With the release of Paterno in the midst of a new era for Penn State football, I knew where a lot of this discussion was headed Friday afternoon.
As I predicted, questions like, “How do you think Joe Paterno would feel about the NCAA sanctions?” popped up when moderator Malcolm Moran, director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism, which sponsored the talk, gave audience members the opportunity to ask Posnanski questions. Not that I could blame them –– after all, Posnanski not only spent months alongside Paterno and his family during the most chaotic time in our university’s history, but also during the time leading up to Paterno’s passing.
Posnanski made sure to point out that he wrote the book about Paterno’s life, not solely the Sandusky scandal. Regardless, I was afraid this would turn into the never-ending conversation of the Freeh Report and what Paterno should have/could have done.
But I knew Posnanski is an incredibly respected writer and journalist. He was also sitting 10 feet in front of me. No matter how exhausted the subject felt to me, I needed to listen.
I’m glad I did, too
Posnanski didn’t talk in circles about the Sandusky scandal. He remained calm, poised, and open to all questions. And like a true journalist, he didn’t insert too much of his own opinion.
Whether or not it was intentional, Posnanski talked a lot about truth and trust, and that’s what resonated with me most as a student journalist.
Paterno was known for being unreceptive to journalists, so Posnanski was convinced he wouldn’t be allowed to follow around the celebrity coach for months, let alone write a book about him. But after years of Posnanski’s persistence, Paterno gave him the OK.
Paterno’s “people” finally responded with, “Well, if you want to do the book, he won’t stop you,” Posnanski told us.
Staying true to form, Paterno didn’t back down easily to a journalist –– a type of skepticism a lot of journalists encounter.
Posnanski was open with Paterno about the book’s intentions. He took his time. He had hours-long conversations with Paterno in the family’s kitchen and even in Paterno’s hospital room. He said he was fairly certain Paterno didn’t even trust him until Sue did. But once Paterno opened up, the two formed a bond so close that Paterno started confiding in Posnanski. When Posnanski explained the context of Paterno’s famous “I wish I would have done more,” I got chills.
That statement was a result of Posnanski’s honesty. Posnanski, not intimidated by his celebrity source and instead focused on telling the truth, told Paterno he should have done more in the Sandusky scandal. Not only did Paterno admit this to a journalist, but he also posed the question in the first place.
That’s trust, and that’s what source relations are all about.
Close to the time of his death, Paterno even gave Posnanski a duffel bag filled with photos, notes, legal documents, and more. Could Paterno have removed legal documents pertinent to the scandal? Sure, Posnanski told us. But he trusted Paterno. He said that when Paterno would look him in the eye and tell him how he didn’t know about 1998 allegations against Sandusky, he didn’t see an ounce of deceit. Posnanski is no detective, but he said didn’t have reason to think otherwise.
Posnanski left me with restored hope in source relations. He might not have provided the audience with new answers or solutions. But, I’m hoping other listeners, besides me, will give journalists like Posnanski some credit for his commitment to honesty and seeking the truth.
By the way, going back to what the audience asked during the discussion –– Posnanski thinks Paterno would have had a few choice words for the NCAA and would have been disappointed in the university for not fighting back.
Erika Spicer, intern