Trying to Find Teaching Moments
After a night of wandering downtown State College and campus, sadly reporting on the riots that followed the firing of Joe Paterno (the resignation of president Graham Spanier didn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind), I got up this morning, and I went to class.
Mike Poorman ’82 developed and teaches COMM 497G, “Joe Paterno: Communications and the Media,” and this semester’s section conveniently meets Thursday mornings at 9:45. I sat in the back row, a few seats a way from a couple of current football players who are enrolled in the class, and listened to two of sports journalism’s best, Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated and Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports, speak about how the media has covered the sexual abuse charges against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky ’66, ’71g, the perjury charges against athletic director Tim Curley ’76, ’78g and acting vice president Gary Schultz ’71, ’75g, and the ensuing events.
Said Posnanski, who’s been living in town to write a biography of Paterno, “I’ve never been around a story that has changed as fast as this one.”
Said Forde, who parachuted in after the LSU–Alabama game last weekend to jump on the story, “I packed for two days and this is Day 4, with Days 5 and 6 to come. I might be running around here in gym shorts soon.”
The students asked good questions, including how journalists detach themselves from their emotions and events to report a story such as this, whether and how the media attention has affected the pace of events, and why the name of Jerry Sandusky—who is facing 40 counts of sex-abuse charges—has all but disappeared from the national stage. As a journalist myself, it was great to see students thinking critically—especially when many were obviously upset.
Sports journalism is a pretty small world, and I’ve known Posnanski and Forde for years. I’ve also been a guest speaker in some of Poorman’s classes myself. So I’ll just get out of the way and present the highlights of their interactions with the students:
On the speed of events: Forde wrote a column on Paterno’s retirement during the day Wednesday and worried that it wouldn’t be relevant by evening. Posnanski said the “Twitterification” of news contributed to the speed of events: “It’s a 24-hour cycle—I’m not knocking it—I’m a big part of it, it pays my salary—but this doesn’t happen 20 years ago.”
And the speed of events, Forde said, can put journalists in a difficult situation: “The Twitterification of everything, the colossal judgmental tone, the hanging jury in a sense, they have a way of warping your perspective to a degree.”
Poorman put it like this: “There is no news cycle. It’s just news.”
On the avalanche of media attention: The journalists agreed that many factors—including Penn State’s previously pristine reputation—are driving the wall-to-wall coverage. Forde noted that the coverage is much greater than what the Baylor basketball team endured when one of its players murdered a teammate in 2003. “Nobody cares about Baylor basketball,” he said. “Everybody cares about Joe Paterno.” Added Posnanski, “If this had happened at the University of Miami … it wouldn’t have been this big.”
Posnanski also noted that only one side of the story has been heard—it’s the state’s case for charging Sandusky with 40 counts related to sexual abuse of children, and for charging Curley and Schultz with perjury and failure to report abuse. No one has heard substantial detail from any of those three men, nor from Paterno, Spanier, or assistant coach Mike McQueary, who told the grand jury that he witnessed an assault.
On the university’s response: “I have never seen anything handled worse,” Posnanski said. “Maybe New Orleans, post-Katrina. From a PR standpoint.”
On Joe Paterno: Posnanski, who obviously won’t be writing the same book he came to town to write, stressed, “I am not in position to defend Joe Paterno other than to say he’s a good man. There are 60 years of proof.”
Lori Shontz, senior editor