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Wednesday, November 9, 2011
ESPN stumbles with Penn State coverage

By Jason Fry and Kelly McBride
Poynter Review Project

ESPN was slow this week to grasp the full implications of the recent criminal indictments at Penn State University.

On Saturday, news broke that a grand jury had charged former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky with 40 criminal counts of molesting eight young boys between 1994 and 2009, as well as charging the athletic director Tim Curley and PSU vice president Gary Schultz with perjury.

The indictment paints a picture of a moral failure of epic proportions at PSU, the kind of systemic blindness caused by misplaced loyalties, abject power and unwavering devotion to the wrong values.

We were watching the coverage closely, particularly on Monday and Tuesday.

With the biggest staff of sports journalists in the world, ESPN should have been leading the charge to ask tough questions and shed light on this scandal. Instead, it was the tiny Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. out in front of the journalism pack. Their reporters managed to track down two mothers of boys Sandusky allegedly abused. And the paper had the leadership to write a front-page editorial calling for Penn State trustees to clean house.

Meanwhile, the tone of the early ESPN coverage was spotty -- sometimes getting it right, but more often seeming inappropriate. It wasn't until mid-afternoon Tuesday that ESPN finally seemed consistently to ask the right questions and find the appropriate moral outrage. That's 72 hours after the story first broke.

Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news, defended the network's coverage, pointing out that from the outset managers were sensitive to the victims in the story.

"We urged everyone from outset to be sensitive to victims," Doria wrote in an email. "Some presentations were no doubt better than others in this regard. On Monday, when 'SportsCenter' returned to all-day live coverage, we were in place to provide comprehensive coverage of what we perceived as a big story."

Doria didn't articulate a specific strategy that would have ESPN steering the story, rather than simply reacting to it. We were hoping to see more of the former early on in the news cycle. And now that Paterno has been fired, the network is clearly hitting its stride. But earlier in the week, that was not the case.

We were particularly dismayed Tuesday morning, when ESPN and its vast resources seemed to be behind the curve, failing to turn up new information or advance the story and instead sounding tone deaf to the nature of this story.

A College Football Nation blog post Monday by Adam Rittenberg examined how the Penn State scandal could affect the Nittany Lions' recruiting. Rittenberg's post linked to one of ESPN's early news stories about the case, but made scant mention of the particulars of the case beyond that.

To be sure, college football recruiting is a topic of vast interest to a fair-sized audience, and there's certainly a story there at some point. But coming when it did, Rittenberg's post wound up looking myopic and trivial. Readers pounced in the comments. "10-year-olds anally raped? Quick, what are the recruiting implications?" asked one commenter, while another advised, "Leave your Bristol bubble and rejoin the human race."

We often marvel at the anonymous vitriol of web comments sections, but in this case the mob was right to take up its virtual torches and pitchforks.

By Tuesday, we expected ESPN to find its footing, but that didn't happen. When Penn State canceled a scheduled news conference that morning, that left "SportsCenter" with a reporter outside the stadium with nothing to report. Then in the 11 a.m. hour "SportsCenter" brought in Matt Millen, who played for Paterno and now works as an ESPN analyst, for an interview with anchor Chris McKendry.

Neither seemed prepared. McKendry's questions were indirect and non-specific. And Millen himself was understandably still working through the implications of charges. He started by defending Paterno's job and cautioning folks to withhold judgment of the legendary coach. Pressed by McKendry, Millen meandered, eventually choking up and acknowledging that if the charges are true, this is a massive moral failure.

We don't fault Millen -- particularly not for a very human show of emotion. Rather, he was the wrong person to have on the set at the time. It wasn't until "College GameDay" analyst Kirk Herbstreit joined "SportsCenter" in the afternoon that anyone on the air could fully articulate the appropriate hard-hitting questions and moral outrage.

That afternoon's "Around the Horn" treated the scandal like a second-day story, with the panelists (Tim Cowlishaw, Bill Plaschke, Kevin Blackistone and Bob Ryan) speculating on Paterno's job security and grading Penn State's crisis management, making only indirect mention of the alleged sexual abuse.

Only in the show's final moments did someone -- host Tony Reali -- make a direct reference to the victims. That was a contrast to Monday's "Around the Horn," during which an emotional Woody Paige had demanded to know: "What's going on with our national institutions -- our churches, our schools, where you have people [in positions] of trust? We've got to stop it right now. And the way you stop it is the people involved here at Penn State must go away."

We expected Reali to push Monday's panelists for more thoughts on why people trusted as leaders apparently abdicated their responsibilities, or ask whether the power of college football had been a corrupting influence, or other topics. But he stuck to the format, and we were on, with whiplash speed, to Patriots-Giants.

Some good work did stand out on Monday and Tuesday across ESPN's platforms. "Outside the Lines" got it right on Tuesday afternoon, particularly with the participation of ESPN.com writer Howard Bryant, who had written a scathing column. Herbstreit reiterated his analysis, saying that football is a distant second to the criminal charges and leadership failures at the university. Grantland.com writer Michael Weinreb did a good job articulating the mythical nature of football in State College, Pa.

In addition, the website's new stories were current, and senior writer Jeff MacGregor called out Paterno. But doing a lot of work and doing the right type of work are not the same things.

It's not surprising that those who know and love Penn State feel confused or betrayed or even dubious. The revelation of this scandal is the sudden, self-inflicted mortal wounding of a great tradition. It's appropriate to express that betrayal in the coverage. But it can't be all that or even mostly that, especially early in the news cycle.

Where's the reporting designed to hold the powerful accountable? Where are the sources and the witnesses close to the case? ESPN's lineup of former Penn State insiders aren't capable, especially in the dawning of a brutal reality, of doing that work. That's where ESPN has to call upon its heavy hitters.

Moving on to fallout and other issues is standard journalistic fare, but the Penn State scandal isn't any other second-day story, and can't be treated like one. It is so searing because it is about the sexual abuse of children, compounded by the apparent failure of leaders to take moral responsibility for protecting them and a gnawing suspicion that the power of institutions eroded that sense of responsibility. We would expect the instincts of a 24-hour broadcast newsroom to be quicker.

ESPN has built an incredibly powerful organization that is capable of having an impact. The network should live up to that, as it did in flashes Monday and Tuesday. And as this column came together Wednesday, we were pleased to see signs that ESPN was finding its footing. Jemele Hill wrote a take-no-prisoners column. Meanwhile, Rick Reilly focused on the effects of sexual abuse on children, speaking with former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, a victim of similar abuse himself, about what Sandusky's alleged victims have had to struggle with.

Both columns put the emphasis back where it belonged, as did TV appearances by Trevor Matich and Todd Blackledge.

The good news, such as it exists with this terrible story, is that ESPN will have a chance to make an impact. We are all going to learn much more about what happened, and we are all going to have to grapple with understanding the failure to respond. In article comments and viewer emails, ESPN's audience is beseeching it to lead on both fronts. Whatever its stumbles and missteps at the start, now that it has its journalistic bearings, ESPN can still do that.