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Media outlets demonstrate questionable judgement in Freeh Report coverage

Last Thursday offered the country a chance to see exactly what happens when authority figures abuse their power. The release of the Freeh Report revealed plenty of unsettling information about the events and actions leading up to the indictment of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on charges that he molested several boys while at the school and later in his capacity at The Second Mile charity organization.

The capsule summary, for those who still haven’t heard – or more importantly – read the findings: Not only did Sandusky abuse and rape young boys, he was enabled to do so by top administrators at Penn State, including former football coach Joe Paterno. Further, Paterno and the other PSU brass engaged in a deliberate cover-up, the better to avoid any negative publicity that news of Sandusky’s actions would bring. It was a damning report, and it generated outrage throughout the country.

As Freeh stood before assembled media in a Philadelphia hotel conference room, answering questions and explaining the findings, the media massed to cover and analyze the report. As expected, Twitter offered the most immediate and broad response, allowing for a variety of reaction in a short time. But as the Big Boys found their stride, people were exposed to some interesting approaches to coverage.

A couple came from ESPN and the Big Ten Network, two entities with different missions. ESPN had plenty of hits, thanks to its army of reporters and analysts. Jeremy Schaap did his usual fine job reporting from Philadelphia. He adds gravitas to whatever event he covers and can be counted on regularly for objective, thorough information. The network’s live SportsCenter programming allowed for televised coverage of the press conference, giving needed perspective to the 267-page report.

But ESPN made some decisions that demonstrate it remains committed to an agenda that doesn’t always mesh with the goal of presenting and breaking down sports’ big events. Its national radio network cut away from Freeh’s press conference to air commercials and then returned to speak about something other than the report. A spokesman told Ed Sherman, whose “Sherman Report” web site is a fine outlet for media news, that affiliate and advertiser obligation forced the airing of commercials. Okay (I think), but did those requirements also force host Doug Gottlieb to discuss NBA free agency upon his return to the air? My inclination is not to blame Gottlieb for that choice. Since ESPN broadcasts NBA games and programming across its platforms, it stands to reason someone higher on the food chain than the host “suggested” the topic switch.

As mystifying as that bit of news judgment was, the TV network’s decision to make former Penn State player Matt Millen a centerpiece of its Freeh Report coverage was downright flabbergasting. Anybody watching Millen try to manage his emotions and walk the tightrope between condemning Penn State and protecting the coach he loved and respected had to have swung between outrage and unease. Millen repeatedly argued that while Paterno didn’t do enough, the lack of action by AD Tim Curley, school VP Gary Schultz and president Graham Spanier was worse. Forget that in November 2004, Paterno told Spanier, Curley and two others to pound sand when they arrived at his house and asked him to resign, following a 4-7 season, the school’s second straight losing campaign. Forget that Paterno had the power to stop a university VP from conducting a full investigation into possible criminal acts by Penn State players. According to Millen, it wasn’t Paterno’s fault.

ESPN has no shortage of college football commentators on which it can draw for analysis in situations like the one last Thursday. Instead, it chose to use Millen, whose Penn State ties made it impossible for him to be forceful and direct. It was a poor choice, and it hampered ESPN’s coverage of a big story.

At least ESPN covered the Freeh Report. The Big Ten Network didn’t devote any serious time to the story until 9 p.m. the next night, and it tried to dismiss its late-to-the-party decision by insisting that it isn’t a true journalistic entity and therefore is not bound by the strictures of other news organizations.

Fair enough. If that is truly the case, we can live with that. But from now on, BTN must be transparent in its mission to propagate the actions and intentions of the schools in the Big Ten Conference. Stop trying to make programming appear as if it were newsworthy and promote it for what it is: propaganda. You can’t have it both ways. There is nothing wrong with a conference’s operating its own TV network. Nothing at all. But the casual sports fan doesn’t understand the distinction between an entity devoted to providing news and objective analysis and one whose goal is to push forward a specific agenda. The Big Ten Network must be crystal clear on that, so that viewers don’t believe they are receiving impartial coverage when watching future studio shows, game coverage and other offerings from the Network.

Finally, there is still work to be done and not just by those who are debating whether to remove the Paterno statue from in front of Beaver Stadium. Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett was state Attorney General from 1995-97 and later from 2005-11. What did he know throughout the investigative process, and what (if any) steps did he take to pressure Penn State into stopping Sandusky? Further, what really happened to former Centre County D.A. Ray Gricar, who disappeared without a trace in 2005, several years after refusing to press charges against Sandusky. His body was never found, and his computer was recovered from the Susquehanna River, without its hard drive.

The latest chapter in the Penn State scandal has been written, but there is more to come. Let’s hope the journalistic community is able to focus on the bigger picture and not extraneous agendas.

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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