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.