This is what’s lame about print journalism today….
By most measures Washington Post reporter Sally Jenkins’ exclusive interview with disgraced Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was a grand slam homerun. It’s what newsroom editors like to call, a "great get." Which is that’s understandable, except for one thing.
Jenkins sacrificed her journalistic soul by writing a sugar-coated, Joe Posnanski-like schmooze piece rather than playing it straight down the middle, asking the tough questions and convincing readers that her mission was not to spare the rod.
Posnanski, I’m sure you recall, was notorius for being brilliantly effusive but traveling ultra light when it came to doling out hardnosed criticism.
Remember however, this was supposed to be a hard news interview.
However, it’s clear from reading Jenkins’ story hat she telegraphed her mission to Paterno. It’s pretty obvious from her writing that Paterno understood in advance that it would be a sympathetic work with but a handful of lightly-asked questions to which he would be able to respond with grandfatherly-like, naive answers that would largely go unchallenged.
Sally Jenkins is no Bob Costas.
In Costas’ interview with alleged child molester Jerry Sandusky – Paterno’s former coach who is accused of multiple indecencies with children during his time at Penn State – Costas set the standard for being just polite enough to keep the inquisition going, but tough enough to drill down past the bullshit.
Jenkins did not.
Instead she immersed herself in what too many sportswriters and journalists today mete out in abundance; flowery, cookie-cutter language and treatment that passes for great writing but poor reporting.
Take the story’s lead sentence:
"Joe Paterno sat in a wheelchair at the family kitchen table where he has eaten, prayed and argued for more than a half-century. All around him family members were shouting at each other, yet he was whispering. His voice sounded like wind blowing across a field of winter stalks, rattling the husks."
What is this, a Charles Dickens novel? Now check out the lead on CNN‘s report on Jenkins’ masterpiece.
"Legendary football coach Joe Paterno, who was ousted from Penn State University over an alleged child sex abuse scandal, told the Washington Post he felt inadequate to deal with the initial allegation of abuse."
Notice the lack of artifice compared to Jenkin’s flowery intro?
It’s like this, many, if not most of the people I’ve met in the newspaper biz are really writers not reporters.
Oh sure, they may go by the title reporter – it comes with the job – but there’s a huge difference between somebody who loves to write about stuff and somebody who loves to dig deep into a story to try and get to the bottom of things. Someone unafraid to ask tough questions and deal with the fallout.
It’s not easy and it goes against most writer / reporter’s wanting to be a nice guy grain.
Remember former Star staffer Dan Margolies? Former Pitch main man David Martin?
Those dudes could write, but their principle aim was to break news and let the chips fall where they may. They didn’t attain their reps by pussyfooting around and bending every which way but loose to ensure the subjects of their reporting would be pleased with their approach. Let alone the finished product.
Who really cares, for example, that the Post reporter had dinner with the Paterno family and watched as they passed the mashed potatoes?
“You know, he didn’t want to get specific,” Paterno told jenkins. “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it.”
Never heard of "rape and a man," Please.
Where were the Bob Costas-like followup questions painting Paterno into the obvious corner for more specifics as to why he didn’t take further steps to bring things to a head with Sandusky rather than blithely passing the information on to somebody higher up the ladder at Penn State?
Especially when Sandusky continued to hang at the school with young kids in tow.
Instead, Jenkins pretty much let Paterno off the hook with a nonchalant treatment of his statement that, to this day he’s unwilling to judge Sandusky, saying, “I think we got to wait and see what happens."
After more than a decade, the waiting is over.
On and on the interview continued with Paterno’s son weighing in that his dad is not the victim, wife Sue saying that she’d have gathered a bunch of guys and punched Sandusky in the nose, and a ton of unrelated hooey about how underpaid Paterno’s been over the years and how many Academic All Americans he’s had.
It’s one thing to be embroiled in writing Paterno’s biography like former Star sports columnist Joe Posnanski. However Posnanski’s getting paid a reported $750,000 to kiss up to Paterno and ensure that the book gets down. If he comes down too hard on Paterno before the book’s done and the Sandusky scandal is fully vetted, who’s gonna buy the book? The answer being practically nobody.
So Posnanski has to walk on his tiptoes.
That’s a far cry from being in the position Costas was with Sandusky and Jenkins was with Paterno.
Whole whole different kettle of fish.