The modern media has a lot of major weaknesses, but one which often gets overlooked is how the narrative of a story can be greatly impacted by the coverage of previous ones which seem, at least on the surface, to be similar. A strong case can be made that this flaw is having a significant and negative impact in the coverage of the controversy involving GOP Rep. Jim Jordan and alleged sex abuse by an athletic doctor at Ohio State at least twenty-five years ago.
This whole story is a direct “descendant” from several others which created the conditions for this one to be reported on in a way which creates a potentially dramatic misimpression.
For instance, the “Catholic Church Scandal” clearly paved the way for the media to immediately buy totally into a narrative in the 2011 “Penn State Scandal,” which, after over five years of personally investigating it, I am completely convinced was demonstrably false. The casting for that tragedy was ready-made: Joe Paterno was the Pope (he’s even an Italian Catholic!), Jerry Sandusky was the pedophile priest, the administrators were the Bishops covering it all up, and the Penn State football fans were the Catholic parishioners looking the other way to protect their cherished institution.
The “Penn State Scandal” then quickly birthed the “Steubenville High School Football Rape Cover-up” (with which I am also intimately familiar and know there were major problems with that coverage). Then came the Dr. Larry Nassar case where Michigan State paid hundreds of female gymnasts millions of dollars for abuse that was clearly very real, but for which it is difficult to say why the school was really responsible, especially since they are a big part of why he was finally arrested.
It was the Nassar case which unambiguously influenced allegations being brought against Ohio State over Dr. Richard Strauss, who has been dead for thirteen years and was apparently never even arrested or sued for sexual abuse. The original compliant to Ohio State from accusers of Strauss even cited the Nassar case in their request for monetary compensation.
But even though the Nassar and Strauss cases may seem very similar, they really are not. Nassar, is alive, was found to have lots of child pornography, pled guilty, and his victims were girls who were much younger and presumably far more vulnerable than the Ohio State wrestlers.
One of the many problems with the media thinking that a story is just like some other book they have previously read and therefore think they already know the ending of, is that it creates extreme confirmation bias. We may have seen this just a few days ago when NFL running back LeSean McCoy was quickly presumed guilty by the Twitter mob of domestic violence in a case people originally thought was a lot like the infamous Ray Rice elevator beating episode. Well, now it turns out that the victim is no longer certain McCoy was involved in her attack at all.
A similar phenomenon may be happening with Jordan, whom I loathe for his lies about the Russia investigation, which have bizarrely even seeped into his defense here. Using vague, decades-old memories from people with a financial incentive to create publicity for this story, the media has crafted a narrative of Jordan being involved in a cover-up before it has even been proven (assuming, at this point, it ever could be) that there was even something significant to conceal.
Not getting nearly as much media attention are the many people directly involved in the situation who are strongly defending Jordan (I am told reliably that many more are to come). After all, that doesn’t fit the narrative, especially when the target is a prominent Republican in the middle of a heated midterm election season.
Perhaps the “best” example of the dangers of narrative journalism is exposed via CNN’s Sara Ganim, who is one of her network’s primary reporters on the Jordan case (Jordan has specifically attacked CNN for what he sees as their obsessive investigation of him on this). Her career was made when she won the Pulitzer Prize for her work on the Penn State case, which began, unbelievably, when she was just 23-years-old and working at a tiny Pennsylvania newspaper.
What most people don’t realize about Ganim is that at Sandusky’s trial the prosecution was forced to stipulate that she had contact with potential accusers at a critical point in the investigation, which could easily be interpreted as her as effectively cultivating them for the same state which was leaking her secret grand jury information. She also reported exclusively on an extremely dubious anonymous 1971 accusation that Joe Paterno told a Sandusky accuser to go away (having been leaked the settlement documents in the case, I know this accuser’s identity and I believe the story Ganim fell for wouldn’t even make for credible science fiction).
I totally get the idea that someone having knowledge in a subject makes it very logical to place them on a story which seems to fit that experience, but there is a very fine line between being an expert on a topic and being invested in a particular narrative, especially in the realm of sex abuse where accusations alone are so devastating and now can be difficult to combat. The reality is that Ganim’s career was made by a narrative that sex abuse cover-ups occur in big-time athletics. She is effectively like a reporter who is embedded in a presidential campaign during a crowded primary; her self-interest, and campaign’s, are directly, and dangerously linked.
In CNN’s defense, for whatever reason, they don’t appear to be having Ganim report on the Jordan story alone, but it is an interesting coincidence that they are the outlet most responsible for maintaining the heat on the story. They have also used the highly questionable tactic of allowing at least one accuser of Jordan (as Ganim did in the Paterno case) to tell their damning story anonymously.
This cycle of repeating narratives needs to end before more injustice is done. Unfortunately, since there now appears to be (a likely ill-fated) attempt to target Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in exactly the same way as Jordan, that is highly unlikely.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issuesand is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org