Why The Penn State Scandal Stayed Secret

WJAC Johnstown, Pa., reporter Gary Sinderson says the university’s culture of protecting its reputation and limited time prevented him from investigating the "whispers" about former coach Jerry Sandusky. Corporate downsizing has eliminated a lot of enterprise reporting. “Pushing the limits — informing the public and getting people to debate and discuss the issues, even when they include facts like the Sandusky case that they may not want to talk about — is a good thing. We need more of that kind of journalism.”

Gary Sinderson is a longtime reporter for Cox Media Group’s WJAC Johnstown-Altoona, Pa., whose duties include covering Penn State from a bureau in State College, Pa. Needless to say, he has been extremely busy this month covering the sex-abuse scandal that has shaken the university and become a continuing national story. In response to inquiries from TVNewsCheck about media coverage of the scandal, the Penn State alumnus offered this essay.


I began hearing whispers about Jerry Sandusky several years ago. The volume of the stories, and from whom they were coming, kept the story on my radar screen. Jerry abused some kids? I first thought I’d put an end to this nonsense. I’d get the truth and quit the bad mouthing of a good man. But the story went the other way. Even law enforcement personnel told me, yes, they were looking into the stories and there may be some truth to them.

The issue of “off the record” plays a big role here. With some journalists, there is no such thing. If you’re talking to me, they say, it’s on the record. I’ve always used “off the record” as a way of getting to “on the record.” That’s where this story ran into huge roadblocks: very powerful people connected to other very powerful people blocking the truth from coming out.

People ask, how could this go on for so long? I think Sandusky was secretly enabled by some of these people, who knew, kept silent and were interested in protecting their interests. I hope the next phase of the grand jury investigation focuses on the cover up.


Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim, who broke the story of the grand jury investigation in March, worked here in Centre County for several years. We compared notes on the Sandusky issue. She did fine work and deserves the boatload of awards that will probably be coming her way. We both knew the truth of the story was in Harrisburg with the grand jury. The Patriot-News, to its credit, gave her the time necessary to work on the story.

Why couldn’t I report it? I didn’t have the time to get the needed verification to move the story ahead or to convince my bosses it’s not a rumor, but a real story. It’s just the nature of my particular job. I’m a one-man band, expected to crank out several stories a day. I may get a day or two to work on a large story, but not the time afforded to Ganim.

I could write a book about covering Penn State. You start with its dual nature. For years, if you wanted salaries or other financial information, the response was, we’re a private institution. But when it comes to requesting state and federal financial assistance, then it’s, oh  my, we’re a public college.

I know people who have worked in their spin machine of a public information office. For years, it was print oriented, “We don’t have anybody available to go on camera” was the response we in the TV biz would often get. Plus, they believed heavily in the 24-hour news cycle when the news was less than positive: ignore it, or make a short statement, and it will go away. Those negative news hounds will find something else to cover.

The administration and the athletic department are two separate operations. And we all knew who controlled that department: Paterno, end of story. You had a better chance of getting the truth out of the Kremlin than getting it out of Old Main or athletics. In fact, many in this biz refer to Old Main as the Kremlin. They are two huge money-making machines and nothing was going to get in the way of that priority.

Make no mistake, there are plenty of good people doing good things at Penn State, but I hope the folks in power at Dear Ole State review their public relations programs. This story is horrific, and the “Success with Honor” mindset and Penn State’s determination to maintain its pristine we’re-not-like-other-schools reputation contributed to it.

It is no wonder the world quickly gathered here when the story broke.

Yes, the Syracuse story gets more traction off the Penn State mess. The allegations there sound the same, but there’s a major difference. At the ‘Cuse, there are two people making allegations from long ago. Here, it’s appears to be a longtime pattern of abuse backed by grand jury testimony.

Some in this biz are lazy, just repeating and reporting on what a few others have uncovered. We have a lot of commentators and not enough folks on the front lines finding the stories for everybody else to talk about. Corporate downsizing has cut those positions. Pushing the limits — informing the public and getting people to debate and discuss the issues, even when they include facts like the Sandusky case that they may not want to talk about — is a good thing. We need more of that kind of journalism.

Comments (7)

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Elaine Kurtenbach says:

November 22, 2011 at 10:57 am

I returned to State College and Penn State close to five years ago, after a lifetime of working in local TV news departments. So now I have some unique perspective about the media and its coverage. I have a great deal of respect for the local media who have been involved in breaking this story, especially Sara Ganim (a Penn State grad) along with a legion of Penn State student journalists. Gary, I certainly know your constraints as a TV reporter, where you now have even less time to cover anything other than news of the day. The difficulty I have, is with the national media pack (particularly TV) that swarms on any story like this. I’ve been an interested observer of tv reporters who push a group of 4-6 students close together to make an event look more interesting. Also witnessed national TV reporters asking incessant questions of students, with every question having “Joe Paterno” in it, versus “Jerry Sandusky.” Investigating Penn State at this time is the right thing to do. The University will be better for it. But when the TV media starts doing the silly stories you have to wonder. For instance, on 30 Rock last night, Natalie Morales attempted to pull something out of her subject that wasn’t there, or he wasn’t going to say without professional counseling. One question which started with “I’m a mom….” was particularly stupid. Then Bob Costas, who was promoted as having new information, did nothing more than warmed over items, but it gave him the chance to say “Joe Paterno” at least nine times. The only valuable story was from Kate Snow, who interviewed professors including her own father. I love substantial reporting that uncovers new information, but it’s obvious from 30 Rock that they have marching orders to beat on Penn State, no matter what. So bring on the well-deserved scrutiny of Penn State. Just don’t jump the shark.

len Kubas says:

November 22, 2011 at 12:08 pm

“I’m too lazy to report on a pederast” is the only answer to take from this.

therese shock says:

November 22, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Gary, you mention that “law enforcement” was aware of the whispers and “there may be some truth to them”… off the record, or not, this is a major red flag that warranted a more thorough look (time consuming or not)… and, stonewalling is routine for any company/institution faced with seriously damaging issues… even syracuse kept its situation under wraps in the first go-round in 2005, opting not to involve police or prosecutors…
also, when did these “law enforcement” people make these remarks about the sandusky whispers? you don’t say, but i need to ask, was it prior to, or after, the grand jury began its work? this could suggest that the police had earlier knowledge/suspicion of sandusky’s actions (2002 shower incident?) than they seem to indicate now…

Rick Toothaker says:

November 22, 2011 at 11:50 pm

Gary, let me get this straight. You were prevented from reporting the facts you had in hand because powerful people blocked your reporting efforts: “That’s where this story ran into huge roadblocks: very powerful people connected to other very powerful people blocking the truth from coming out.” So you know there’s a coverup. You claim to have information that Sarah Ganim had. But you didn’t want to put in the extra hours to do the investigative journalism. What’s your solution now that you know there’s a coverup? You write: “I hope the next phase of the grand jury investigation focuses on the cover up.” And you must wonder why young people get their news from Jon Stewart, Steve Colbert and Twitter instead of their local TV news. Why don’t you do the reporting instead of leaving it up to the grand jury? That’s what Sarah’s doing.

    MARTY O'CONLON says:

    December 1, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Kevin: You missed Gary’s point. He’s saying that uncovering information for a story that important takes time. There simply aren’t enough hours in a day to crank out the worthless crap necessary to fill local newscasts and still investigate important stories. Obviously, Sarah was given that time by her employer –and it paid off.

Mark Wurtzel says:

November 23, 2011 at 8:43 am

One major contributing factor to why we see scandal after scandal in college athletics is the failure of the press to do its job. Instead of reporting, the press plays cheerleader. Here’s an example on perennial Big 10 powerhouse Ohio State:

Watch this clip from Bruce Hooley, the sports commentator fired for criticizing Ohio State. He’s covered college football for a couple decades and describes how things are done:

When journalism fails, bad things happen.

Maureen McDonald says:

November 25, 2011 at 6:58 pm

The best resource for news and information on the Penn State story for me has been Mike Francesca on the YES Network. He has done an exceptional and thorough job well in advance of other media outlets.

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