New Movie Defending Joe Paterno Is Contemptible

“Framing Paterno” features people in deep denial about Penn State’s former football coach and his role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

A big reason last week’s presidential election went the way it did, many have pointed out in the days since, was because one side found themselves in something resembling an alternate reality, only getting news and information from hucksterish media figures who kept them in an epistemic bubble, before that bubble spectacularly popped on Nov. 6th.

Welcome to the Penn State version of that bubble. In “Framing Paterno,” a new, 32-minute mini-movie produced by John Ziegler and released last week on YouTube, we’re treated to—over ominous music—a revisionist history of the Jerry Sandusky case and Joe Paterno‘s firing, in which Paterno did nothing wrong and was railroaded by a conspiracy led by such nefarious forces as the university’s board and “the media.” Throughout, one thing is made clear: The biggest tragedy and outrage of the entire Sandusky episode was the way JoePa was treated.

Ziegler—a Bucks County native, sometime WIP host, and subject of a legendary 2005 magazine profile by the late David Foster Wallace—both directed the short film and appears on camera yelling at various reporters. Ziegler, who is not an alum and has no ties to Penn State, previously produced a pro-Sarah Palin documentary, so he’s experienced with defending the indefensible.

I’m sure the movie will make its own target audience very happy. But that doesn’t make it anything close to an accurate or fair representation of what happened in Happy Valley.

It’s actually much worse. Aside from the questionable facts, “Framing Paterno” is nothing less than an act of moral bankruptcy, for one simple reason: It has much, much more anger about the circumstances under which Joe Paterno was fired than it does about the unchecked molestation of several children. The two things aren’t remotely comparable, and the film’s failure to see that is what makes it utterly contemptible.

It’s really kind of sad, as we hear from a whole bunch of people still in deep, deep denial that their hero did a terrible thing, from university trustees to several ex-Penn State players. This includes Franco Harris, the Penn State and Pittsburgh Steelers football player who, with his constant Paterno apologies, has spent the past year systematically napalming his previously impeccable reputation.

I can understand that these people have loyalty to Penn State and to Joe Paterno, and that JoePa made a difference in their lives. But that doesn’t make him innocent of the very terrible thing he did. And this project’s lack of sympathy for Sandusky’s victims is absolutely appalling. If Ziegler or anyone he interviewed believes that the long-unpunished pattern of child abuse was a bigger tragedy or injustice than Paterno’s firing, none of them says so on camera.

What happened at Penn State—multiple people in power, over more than a decade, failing to stop a known child abuser—is, on the outrage scale, about 100 out of 100. Compared to that, Joe Paterno being forced out of his job a couple of weeks before he wanted to be is about a one out of 100. Even if Paterno had been railroaded completely, I would have considerably less sympathy for him than I do for the children who were abused.

The lack of perspective on display here is just breathtaking. We’re told that the “false media narrative … left devastation in its path.” Former Penn State player/Vince Fumo son-in-law Christian Marrone says, of Paterno’s firing, “I’d never felt that rage and anger … ever before.” Not even when he heard about all the children who were raped?

The movie explains away Paterno’s guilt with parsing, semantics and wild speculation. Mike McQueary never used the words “anal rape” when he told Paterno about the 2001 shower incident? But Paterno did testify that McQueary told him Sandusky and the boy were naked and doing “something of a sexual nature.” Sandusky was acquitted of the charge of raping that boy? He was also convicted of four other charges related to that same victim.

If Paterno knew in 2001 that the abuse was of a sexual nature and failed to demand Sandusky’s immediate arrest, that’s a smoking gun and the entire rationale of Zeigler’s documentary collapses. So Penn State trustee Anthony Lubrano alleges, without offering a shred of evidence, that the ailing Paterno must’ve been coached prior to his grand jury testimony, while also taking at face value Paterno’s laughable claim to not know what sodomy is.

Other major fallacies abound. The movie repeats the straw-man canard that “the media” made Paterno the villain and forgot about Sandusky; anyone who says that likely missed the significant media coverage of Sandusky’s trial. We’re asked why the Sandusky case got so much media attention while the molestation allegations against Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine did not. It may be because, while Sandusky was indicted, tried and convicted, the case against Fine collapsed, with multiple accusers recanting.

“Framing Paterno” shares something else with the right-wing Obama-scare genre: The biggest villain is always the media. “The media” is mentioned roughly every 15 seconds, as though the amorphous “media” committed worse acts than Sandusky himself.

Yes, there were times when individual reporters and outlets misreported various facts about the saga, which is also true of just about every major news story in history. Overall, though, the press treated the case with the gravity and seriousness that it deserved. Some reporters, such as the Patriot-News‘ Sara Ganim, who broke the story and won a Pulitzer Prize for her work on it, went well beyond even that.

At least when conservatives complain about media bias, the rationale is that the media is liberal. It’s never explained in the film why the press has an axe to grind with Penn State or Paterno, or has a motive to conspire against them. Did they all go to rival schools? Are they all Northwestern alumni, jealous of the Lions’ success in the Big Ten?

If there was any doubt about Paterno’s guilt, former FBI director Louis Freeh’s report eliminated it, with the exposure of damning emails and other university documents that prosecutors hadn’t previously been able to access. But the Ziegler film declares the Freeh Report inaccurate, just because they say it is. We’re never given any convincing evidence to doubt its conclusions. That Franco Harris says on camera that the report “exonerates” Paterno—which is the opposite of the truth—doesn’t make it so.

Penn State has done an admirable job picking up the pieces in the past year, and Bill O’Brien has done excellent work restoring both integrity and a winning attitude to the football program. I don’t doubt that the vast majority of people associated with the institution are understanding and accepting of the gravity of what took place there and working to make the university a better place.

Not the people associated with “Framing Paterno,” though. They should all be ashamed of themselves.

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