Here’s Why the Media is Dead-Wrong to Condemn Penn State’s Honoring of Joe Paterno


paterno-coachWhenever there is a story in which the news media is universally on one side, the narrative doesn’t make sense, and it clearly benefits them, you can be pretty sure that something is wrong, probably VERY wrong. There has never been, and probably never will be, a better/worse example of this truth than how now deceased Penn State football coach Joe Paterno has been treated by the news media in the last five years since the “Jerry Sandusky Scandal” broke nationally.

We are seeing that yet again as the news media is blindly piling on Penn State for a much over-hyped (I am told reliably that the event will be no big deal) plan to “honor” Paterno this Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of his first game as head coach there. Scores of mainstream media opinions have scathingly condemned Penn State for daring to recognize this historical event because Paterno supposedly at least “enabled,” if not overtly “covered-up” the crimes for which Sandusky was convicted (weirdly, none of them seem to object that USC still displays a giant version of O.J. Simpson’s jersey in their end zone for every Trojan home game).

While I have written here a couple of times before about why I know Paterno to have been completely innocent in the Sandusky fiasco (though I have no connection to Penn State I have investigated the case for over four years and appeared in two major Today Show interviews with Matt Lauer to discuss my findings), I was going to let this occasion pass without comment. That changed, however, when Christine Brennan of “USA Today” wrote this piece last night castigating Paterno as someone who had “clear involvement” is Sandusky’s crimes and calling on Penn State to cancel this simple occasion.

The reason this provoked me to respond is that Brennan’s clueless column represents so much about what is wrong about journalism today, way beyond the grave injustice that the news media has done to a legendary football figure. You see Christine and I go way back. I gave her the title for her second figure skating book. She started on the golf beat for “USA Today” largely because I told her that this amateur by the name of Tiger Woods was going to change the world and that she needed to get on that bandwagon. At one point, very briefly, we kind of dated.


When she started continually moralizing on Paterno after the release of the Freeh Report in 2012, I got back in touch with her after many years without contact. I warned her that she was heading down an inaccurate path, but at that point in my investigation I wasn’t 100% sure.

Then, in 2014, we met at the PGA Championship in Louisville, Kentucky and she agreed to hear me out in person. For well over an hour I explained in great detail about how nearly everything the media thought had occurred at Penn State was either highly questionable, or totally false. I thought that she “got” it and was at least somewhat pleased that she didn’t seem to write about the case for quite a while after that.

But when the recent reports of the Penn State settlements with Sandusky accusers supposedly revealed that two payees had claimed, with zero real evidence or logic, that they had told Paterno personally of their abuse, Brennan went right back to the nonsensical “cover up” narrative (which she once told me she knew she had done a good job of reporting on, because get this, her stories were very POPULAR!). She never even bothered to ask me (a person she once trusted and knows has devoted a huge portion of his life to the case in a way she never could) a single question and she didn’t respond to a mostly polite email I sent her in reaction to her latest piece.

I obviously don’t know for sure, but it seems to me that Christine may not WANT to know how/why her version of this story is wrong because the current narrative has been so good for her. In a very real sense, she and the vast majority of the news media are like five-year-olds being told that there is no Santa Claus. They simply are too invested in the fairytale to even listen.

While the full story of what really happened with Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky is FAR too involved to get into here, there are a few basic facts that everyone should know regarding Joe Paterno’s lack of culpability.

  • There is only one remotely documented situation where Joe Paterno was ever directly told, in 2001, of any sort of episode involving Jerry Sandusky allegedly doing something inappropriate with a boy and he immediately reported it to his direct superior and the head of the campus police (which had jurisdiction). Within two days of Paterno being notified on a Saturday, at least five (possibly more) people at Penn State were made aware of the report. After an investigation, Penn State told Sandusky’s boss (he was retired form Penn State at the time) the “Second Mile” charity about it. Since they knew well the nearly fourteen-year-old boy involved, they believed nothing criminal had happened and apparently took no further action.
  • There is absolutely zero evidence that anyone ever described that incident as “sexual” until ten years later. That’s when the witness, Mike McQueary, suddenly told investigators (who may have had leverage over him), who had clearly told him that Sandusky was now under a grand jury investigation for child sex abuse, that what he saw as “sexual.” This directly conflicted with the testimony of the two Penn State administrators who interviewed McQueary at the time (nearly five years after being charged in this case they have never been brought to trial and have had the major charges against them dropped). McQueary also somehow got the date, the month and year of this allegedly unforgettable incident completely wrong.
  • As for Paterno’s own infamous grand jury testimony that McQueary had indeed told him, ten years earlier, that he had seen something of a “sexual nature,” this is not nearly what the media wants it to be. It is instead the very hesitant and vague recollection of an eighty-four year old man who had just weeks before been involved in a radio interview that was so incredibly bad that it went viral. What the news media won’t tell you (I’m sure very few of them even know) is that in multiple interviews with police and Penn State lawyers before his testimony Paterno never used anything close to the word “sexual.” It is my strong belief that Paterno was effectively fed that word by prosecutors and hesitantly used it because he trusted that the much younger McQueary must have remembered the circumstances better than him, and he didn’t want to obstruct the investigation.
  • At Sandusky’s trial, he was actually acquitted of the most serious charge in the McQueary episode, largely because there was no accuser to testify. That’s because on the day Paterno was suddenly fired from Penn State in a media-induced panic, the only person who ever claimed to be the “boy in the shower,” and who was later paid by Penn State as that particular “victim,” told an investigator, on the record, and in great detail, that absolutely nothing wrong happened that night.
  • The two “settlement” allegations from the 1970s are completely ridiculous and, if somehow true, would actually invalidate enormous amounts of the pervious narrative with which the media feel so deeply and quickly fell in love with back in November of 2011 (after all, if Paterno was supposedly already aware that Sandusky was a pedophile for forty years, why in the world would he suddenly report McQueary’s allegation to administrators?!). Not only do these two allegations fail to even pass the laugh test, there is a far more rational explanation for them than Paterno engaging in a forty year cover-up for an assistant coach he never really liked.
  • What REALLY happened here was that Penn State set up specific rules for the nearly $100 million they gave away to the accusers of Sandusky. Key to those guidelines were that the accusers be under thirty years old (the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania) and be a former member of the “Second Mile” charity. It also helped if the allegations occurred on Penn State property. Simple math will tell you that if you were an accuser old enough to make an accusation as a kid in 1971 or 1976, you and your lawyer had a big problem. You were obviously way too old for the SOL and, since the charity began in 1977, you had two big strikes against you. That’s why it is no coincidence at all that the only two accusers in the ENTIRE case who claim to have told Joe Paterno about abuse by Sandusky just HAPPEN to be the only two accusers too old to even tenuously qualify for a settlement. In a remotely logical world, it is quite obviously far more likely that Paterno’s name was simply used to provoke a relatively small payout (in which Penn State specifically did not acknowledge the truthfulness of any story and which they never expected would ever be made public) than that Paterno led a cover-up of child sex abuse for forty years while somehow leaving zero evidence behind.

We live in an era where instant easy narratives created by an incompetent and corrupt news media are nearly impossible to reverse. Real life is complicated and usually the truth can’t be fit on a tweet. But the truth should still matter, at least a little. In this case, tragically, it has not. The truth of this saga is that, without Joe Paterno’s actions, Jerry Sandusky would undoubtedly be a free man right now.

The news media needs to stop blindly believing their fairytale here and learn the basic facts of the case. I can assure you that real story here is way more fascinating, and it doesn’t include a cover-up of child sex abuse to protect football.

[image via Shutterstock]

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John Ziegler is a nationally-syndicated radio talk show host and documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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