On the Media: 'Today' draws fire from public for airing Sandusky comments

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In sports parlance, Monday was a lose-lose.

It was a loss for those who tuned in to NBC's "Today," hoping perhaps for revelation or enlightenment, and for the victims of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal at Penn State, who were once again brought to the attention of the national media.

It was a losing situation all around, except, perhaps, for NBC.

There's no doubt that giving a forum to documentary filmmaker John Ziegler resulted in a ratings boost for the network. Perhaps that counts as some sort of victory, but with a Roger Maris asterisk. People watched, all right, but they had criticism for "Today" host Matt Lauer's interview with a man who claims his only goal is to reveal the truth behind the scandal.

Mr. Ziegler appeared on the program Monday morning, playing audio excerpts from his telephone interviews with Sandusky. He said he is working on a new film project about Joe Paterno, "Framing Paterno," that will show how the media helped railroad the iconic coach. The Sandusky interviews were part of this larger project.

NBC initially touted the interview as if its own staff had scored an exclusive. But it changed gears after Mr. Ziegler's involvement became known last week. Worse, even before the interview ran in the first hour of "Today," the coach's family was trying to distance itself from Mr. Ziegler.

"Why would we oppose Ziegler's analysis if it credibly exonerated Dad? We oppose it [because] it seeks to do so with a false narrative," Scott Paterno posted to Twitter several days ago.

In a statement released early Monday by its attorney, "the Paterno family would prefer to remain silent on this matter, but they feel it is important to make it clear that they had no role in obtaining or releasing this recording. Moreover, they believe that any attempt to use this recording as a defense of Joe Paterno is misguided and inappropriate."

When Mr. Lauer -- who took a fairly hard-line stance in questioning Mr. Ziegler -- read the family statement aloud, Mr. Ziegler replied he "found [it] to be sad, heartbreaking for me, considering I put a year of my life into this with no compensation, no thought of compensation."

Sad? Heartbreaking? Viewers had a tough time feeling sorry for Mr. Ziegler or NBC.

Typical online response: "The reporters know without a doubt the pain they are causing the victims by interviewing and giving publicity to this terrible crime. Are the reporters not also guilty of abuse? Please, no stock answers like 'the public has a right to ....' It's over, the criminal is in jail; the people who covered for him will pay. Let the victims try to heal as far as possible without repeated wound-openings from the media."

In a statement to NBC News, attorneys for several of the victims said their clients "have heard enough from Jerry Sandusky. They are focused on healing and holding Penn State accountable for choosing to protect Jerry Sandusky and themselves instead of protecting children from years of horrific sexual abuse."

Sandusky, former Penn State defensive coordinator, was convicted last June on 45 counts of sexual abuse of children and was sentenced to up to 60 years in a Pennsylvania prison. Mr. Ziegler has said he interviewed Sandusky for more than 31/2 hours, and indicated that for all he knows, Sandusky might be guilty as charged.

The filmmaker's concern was in getting Sandusky's opinion about whether Paterno knew there was the danger of having a pedophile in the midst of the Penn State football program. Mr. Ziegler said in the "Today" interview that it was Paterno's "dying wish" to make the truth known.

Paterno was fired in 2011 and died of cancer less than three months later.

"Why are you so sure your cause is a just cause?" Mr. Lauer asked.

One must give Mr. Ziegler points for passion. His blog at www.framingpaterno.com includes an open letter to the media on how to perform a "hit job" on him. One of his suggestions addresses the fact that in 1993 he spent a year with longtime Steubenville High School football coach Reno Saccoccia in order to write a book. Mr. Saccoccia has come under fire after witnesses testified in a recent trial that he knew about the rape of a 16-year-old girl by two of his players but did not report it to school administrators or local law enforcement, as required by Ohio state law. The two football players were convicted.

Mr. Ziegler's old friendship with Mr. Saccoccia, he said, prompted the media to label him "insensitive" to rape victims:

"While absurd, I can certainly see you trying this one, especially since the media's rush to misjudgment is so similar in both cases. The truth is (I know, you don't normally care about that) ... I have been advising him for the past several months on how to handle the media firestorm which I knew, largely because of my experience with the Penn State case, was coming his way. I am at least as certain that Reno Saccoccia was not culpable in the crimes of his players as I am in Joe Paterno's lack of blame for those of his former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. As for insensitivity to rape victims, such a charge is so baseless it doesn't deserve a response."

Not surprisingly, advocacy groups for victims of sexual abuse have been among those speaking out against the NBC interview.

Alison Hall, executive director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, called the interview "crazy."

"What happened [to the boys] is something they're going to have to live with and for this guy to still deny it and deny it, it's hard for the victims.

"Sure, he showered them with gifts and he took them places, but he also assaulted them," she said.

On Monday, Penn State spokesman David La Torre released a statement that also spoke for the masses: "Jerry Sandusky's statements today continue to open wounds for his victims, and the victims of child sexual abuse everywhere."

Perhaps we have grown as a nation, willing to let the young victims heal. Maybe we won't rush to watch the next time someone screams "exclusive." Maybe ... no, too late. Despite the heat on NBC for taking the bait on this one, it was already being announced that Mr. Ziegler was scheduled for CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight."

Lose-lose and lose.


Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.


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