Malcolm Gladwell Interview: His New Book Blows Apart the News Media’s ‘Penn State Scandal’ Narrative
On Tuesday, best-selling author, intellectual and popular podcaster Malcolm Gladwell is out with a new book, Talking to Strangers. In it, there is a chapter devoted to reexamining the so-called Penn State/Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, which shocked the world when it became one of the biggest news stories of the century in November of 2011.
This is particularly significant to me because, after eventually becoming convinced — by actually speaking directly to most of the people at the real heart of the case — that almost nothing the news media told us about it was true, I have (foolishly) devoted much of the last eight years of my life to finding out what really did happen in that saga. Gladwell, who contacted me more than a year ago while researching the subject, uses an important piece of my investigation in justifying why he has shifted his position, and now believes that Penn State leadership was totally innocent, and can no longer say with any confidence that even Sandusky himself is guilty.
It is not hyperbole to say that there are few other media figures who have taken more brutally unfair abuse and ridicule from the public and others in the media — almost none of whom have even 1/100th my knowledge of the case — than I have on this story. It began when I started defending Paterno right after the scandal broke. Then, as my exploration got much deeper, I finally concluded in 2014 (voiced on a major Today Show appearance in which then-host Matt Lauer politely declared my controversial position career-ending), very much against my own self-interest, that, believe it or not, even Sandusky is a clearly innocent man.
All I have ever asked is that someone who is part of the elite media’s exclusive club have the courage to look at the facts of the case with an open mind and understand the unique circumstances of the unprecedented moral panic that gripped State College, PA and the national news media at that time. Gladwell is not the first to do so (a couple of others have intended to publish a revisionist history of the story, but have been effectively censored by a media establishment intensely invested in the original narrative) but he is the first to carry out the mission all the way to publication.
For these reasons, I was eager to interview Gladwell for my World According to Zig podcast and he generously gave me an hour of his time. The result is a discussion that should be required listening for everyone who ever covered the story, as well as anyone who cares about the truth of such an important matter.
The new “compelling” evidence to which Gladwell refers in the book has, he says, “convinced” him that the date of the central episode of the entire scandal — where then Penn State graduate assistant Mike McQueary allegedly witnessed anal rape in a Penn State shower — is still so catastrophically wrong that it fundamentally changes our understanding of the entire timeline. While complicated, we agreed that I have proven from every conceivable angle of this case — including the prosecution’s own witnesses — that McQueary did not urgently report this incident to Paterno the morning after it happened, but instead waited six weeks to do so. And in my opinion, only was provoked to go see his legendary head coach because a full-time job he badly wanted had just opened up the previous day.
When understood in the context of other evidence the media never told you about — including the many exculpatory statements of the alleged victim that night, who never even testified at trial — it is my strong belief that McQueary never even thought he witnessed any sort of sexual assault until desperate investigators, armed with a fatally-flawed allegation from one accuser, manipulated him a full ten years later. From there, if you understand the reality of the full case, everything else falls apart like a house of cards, especially against Paterno and the three former Penn State administrators who were all convicted of misdemeanors and inexplicably sentenced to prison (former Penn State president Graham Spanier is still fighting to remain free as Pennsylvania appeals a federal court throwing out his conviction).
Gladwell and I go into great detail on the issue of the date and our slightly differing interpretations of what this new timeline actually means. Here are some of Gladwell’s key quotes from the extensive interview, which can be heard at this link:
- “There is no way Joe Paterno even belongs in this conversation. Everyone should agree he was treated shamefully and that his good name needs to be restored.”
- “I am ashamed to be part of a society which tried to put Graham Spanier in prison.”
- “We were way, way, way, way too quick to come to judgement about the Penn State leadership and on Joe Paterno, and way too quick to think that Mike McQueary’s account is cut and dry when, in fact, it’s not.”
- “Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, Tim Curley, and Gary Schultz were the victims of a moral panic. It was crazy.”
- “The prosecution behaved egregiously in this case and continues to behave egregiously.”
- “The Freeh Report (conducted on the case on behalf of Penn State by former FBI Director Louis Freeh) is a whole other pile of crap.”
- The prosecution’s current date (their second official stab at it after originally incorrectly claiming it was March 1, 2002) for the McQueary episode, February 9, 2001, is “bullshit.”
- The news media’s total lack of curiosity in the real story of the “boy in the shower,” whom Gladwell correctly identifies in his book as then 13-year old Allan Myers, is “bizarre.”
- As for Sandusky’s guilt, Gladwell cautiously says, “I don’t know. The public should know that this is murky… This case is shrouded in doubt.” He adds that in reality it is, “the polar opposite of the Larry Nassar case,” when it has been portrayed by the media as very similar.
- In the news media, “There is kind of a group mentality that takes place in these cases, at least in the beginning.”
- “My hat is off to you John. I admire what you have done and I encourage others to look at it and reach their own conclusions… I think you are going to live to see at least some measure of vindication.”
Gladwell and I differ greatly when it comes to where this goes from here. He believes that eventually the news media will finally take a second hard look: “I remain quite confident that others will take this case up over time… I’m optimistic because it’s inevitable that truth and common sense surfaces.”
Having lived this case for so long, and having seen the media’s rampant malpractice up close, it is my conclusion that (because of the toxic nature of the subject matter and the huge number of chips the media placed on this narrative from the very first day the story broke) this will never actually happen. But I remain committed to trying until there is officially no hope. I still have a ton of important evidence which has never been released (including the only interview ever done with convicted PSU administrator Gary Schultz and Sandusky’s mind-blowing medical records, both of which should, in a rational world, destroy the entire case) and almost all the work for a career-making story has already been done — work I am more than ready to hand over to the right mainstream news reporter.
I am even willing to make this extraordinary deal. My many critics in the media can fully blame me for why they blew this story (after all, if I was a celebrity, or at least part of their club, they surely would have given my investigation a fair hearing long ago) if they just let the public know all the facts in a fair manner.
That is all I have ever wanted in this case. Unfortunately, in this modern media era, such a simple request is likely unrealistic.
John Ziegler is a senior columnist for Mediaite. He hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at email@example.com
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.