As Friday night conspiracy theory powwows go, this one is fairly benign. At 6 p.m., hors d’oeuvres in the King of Prussia Radisson. At 7 p.m., a documentary in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom. Each of the 250 registered guests has been provided with a nametag bearing a photo of a smiling Joe Paterno, his arms folded in front of him. Some display oversized “JVP” (Joseph Vincent Paterno) lapel pins; others prefer “409” t-shirts (the number of wins Paterno racked up at Penn State).
The occasion is “Upon Further Review: Penn State One Year Later,” a symposium dedicated to the belief that Joe Paterno was unfairly blamed, and probably framed, for covering up the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The documentary, The Framing of Joe Paterno, sets an urgent tone. “This is the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” says filmmaker John Ziegler on screen, simultaneously exhorting the crowd and making a subtle fundraising pitch. “We’re going uphill into the wind on ice with lead bricks around our feet. Because everyone’s against us on this.” Ex-Nittany Lion tailback Franco Harris, the emcee and spiritual leader of tonight’s event, raises the stakes. “If we lose due process here in our country, we have a real big problem.”
Ziegler’s 30-minute documentary, scored to low, buzzing music that plays on loop, contends that grad assistant Mike McQueary neither saw nor reported explicit sexual abuse in the 2001 incident that led to Paterno’s firing, but rather, saw something vague, and said something vague. Ziegler is a conservative radio host-turned-filmmaker whose previous movie Media Malpractice detailed how “Obama Got Elected and Sarah Palin Was Targeted.” He is the only panelist unaffiliated with Penn State, and says his expertise is media criticism. With goatee, he bears a passing resemblance to Todd Palin.
After the documentary ends, Harris lumbers on stage to begin a PowerPoint presentation documenting the “Surma Vendetta,” an apparent conspiracy in which PSU Trustee John Surma got Paterno fired to act on a grudge his brother Vic, a disgruntled former player, harbored against his old coach. After pointing to a slide featuring an angry email from Vic, Harris turns to the crowd: “So, is there any connection? I don’t know. But I just want to say, guys, we’re not going to leave anything unturned. And it just doesn’t make sense for Joe to be fired.”
Next up, Eileen Morgan, a fortysomething PSU alum with spiky black hair, refers attendees to a laminated document they picked up on the way in. There are diagrams of the Penn State locker room that aim to illustrate that McQueary couldn’t have seen what he said he saw, due to the impossibility of various angles. “[McQueary’s] six-foot-four, over 200 pounds, certainly he could have handled the older Sandusky,” Morgan asked. “So what stopped him? It was the fact that he didn’t see anything that required him to step in and intervene.”
The final slideshow of the night is presented by Ray Blehar, a tired-looking federal government employee who runs the website notPSU.blogspot.com (not to be confused with Ziegler’s FramingPaterno.com). The crown jewel of his presentation is an investigation into the 1998 charges against Jerry Sandusky, which he calls “probably one of the most important reports I’ve ever written in my life,” and which had its “nationwide release” the day before. But Eileen had already investigated emails pertaining to the ’98 investigation (who did “coach” refer to, and what does “touch base” really mean?) so I get up to stretch my legs.
Just outside the ballroom, I find Anthony Lubrano, a Penn State trustee and reliable talking head, pacing nervously. Several panelists have pulled out at the last minute. “Frank Fitzpatrick from the Philadelphia Inquirer was here, but his editor was concerned about how many Penn State people were here,” says Lubrano, whipping out his iPhone to show me a goodbye message citing journalistic ethics. (Fitzpatrick would later send Ziegler some tweets using the hashtag #conspiracynuts.)
Fox sports anchor Howard Eskin also bailed, blaming his producer, while talk radio host Dom Giordano, Eskin’s replacement, never showed either. “I think we were used,” says Lubrano, who had appeared earlier that week on Giordano’s show with Harris, thinking reciprocity was in store.
As Lubrano likely anticipated, the panel discussion lacks drama, since everyone agrees with one another. Harris tosses softball questions, Lubrano sits glumly, Ziegler tells conspiratorial anecdotes about shady NCAA officials, and a Harrisburg lawyer called Rob Tribek provides the legal expertise. “A grand jury could indict a ham sandwich!” he says at one point, quoting famous New York state jurist Sol Wachtler.
Meanwhile, Lubrano can’t help but bring up Eskin again, who bailed, setting off a guy in the audience from Westchester County, New York who says he graduated with Sue Paterno in 1962. “What does Bill O’Reilly have to say about this?” he yells. “Conspiracy!”
Harris asks his guests if there’s been enough focus on the victims.
“My only thought on the victims,” says Ziegler. “And I can’t stand, every time I do a media appearance, you almost have to spend the first 30 seconds saying, ‘Sandusky’s guilty, I’m sorry about the victims,’ and all that business, which is political correctness run amok.”
Before adjourning for the night, Harris cues up one more film, a short montage featuring images of Joe Paterno and Penn State’s campus. In the background, the theme music from Gladiator swells, as a British narrator tackles Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.” (“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/But make allowance for their doubting too … “) Behind me, two women weep quietly.
After the movie, I meet the man I’ve been sitting next to all night, a ’76 graduate named Ron Williams wearing a single braid of hair down his back and a denim shirt with a Penn State logo on the breast pocket. “We don’t accept what the Freeh report says,” he tells me. “We’ll be here until the re-instatement of Joe occurs.”
“If you stay on top of this, you can really rake something,” says Williams’s companion Gail V., who doesn’t want to be identified because she attended, but did not graduate from Penn State. “This dynamic is going to change really quickly. Follow Ray Blehar, follow John Ziegler, and then you can make a lot of people happy doing it.”
Gail then leads me to the podium, where she gets Ziegler’s attention, and tells him to talk to me. As I wait by the stage for the filmmaker, who’s mobbed by attendees, I make small talk with a guy who identifies himself as a U.S. Marshall. “Who brought you here?” I ask him. “Somebody,” comes the answer.
When I finally introduce myself to Ziegler, he snorts and tells me Philadelphia magazine has been “horrendous on this issue.” But I’m the only reporter around, so he keeps talking to me. “It’s draining, psychologically. I mean this has been an incredibly draining experience,” he says. “It’s very frustrating. The truth doesn’t have any impact. The truth used to be paramount. At least I thought it was.”
He perks up after a group of admiring women get him going on the Manti Te’o story—another instance of “media malpractice,” in his view. “There’s no question that the media gave him a hell of a lot more slack than they gave Joe,” Ziegler says.
As I stick my hand out to say goodbye, Ziegler shakes it, telling me, “Hey, thank you, I’m sure you’ll do a hatchet job. But thank you.”