Friday, November 18, 2011

Wall-to-Wall Coverage Produces Some Standouts

After two weeks at the wrong end of cameras and microphones from across the world, many Penn Staters might be more than ready for the attention to cease.

That’s not going to be the case for a while, though. All those segments on “Good Morning America,” “The Today Show” and even "Saturday Night Live," along with entire programs dedicated to the topic by “Anderson” and “Rock Center,” among many others, might continue for a while.

Sure, it hurts to hear the charges, to realize the impact on Penn State and to share the pain of alumni all over the world, but if the truth eventually comes out and anyone who harmed children is punished it will be worth the temporary pain.

Certainly there have been media missteps -- maybe more than missteps -- during coverage of the story, but there have been standouts as well. Because most of my exposure to the situation has come from ESPN, a partial listing includes:

“Mike and Mike in the Morning” on ESPN Radio: Hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic have a good show, and their perspective and questions have helped shape some reaction nationally. They’ve been inquisitive, honest and mostly measured.

Tom Rinaldi: One of ESPN’s best, he was on campus from the start and found the correct sources. He was tough, but revealed an understanding of the community, especially after the candlelight vigil, and showed compassion when appropriate.

Roger Cossack: It’s always good to hear him share insights on legal matters on ESPN. When he’s talking about you, your program or your team, though, that’s not a good thing. He’s informative and almost always has interesting insights.

John Ritchie: A former Cumberland Valley standout recruited by Penn State, specifically Jerry Sandusky, Ritchie revealed his conflict between who he knew and the allegations. He said his mom had considered retiring and working for The Second Mile. He was conflicted, as are many close to the situation. It was honest, good TV.

Bob Costas: A strong interview from him was not a surprise. Best of all, though, in his segment-ending banter Monday night with “Rock Center” host Brian Williams, Costas did not throw all of Nittany Nation under the bus, giving good insight to the conflicting emotions the situation has prompted.

One thumbs-down (amid many possibilities) to Armen Keteyian and CBS News.

The oversell on their supposed interview with Penn State assistant football coach Mike McQueary earlier this week was inexcusable, and Keteyian's defense to a Washington, D.C., radio station that any other network would've done the same does not make it any better. The interview -- a brief exchange in a doorway -- did nothing to further the story, but it probably did drive some viewers to the "CBS Evening News" for a few moments.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sustained Focus on Penn State Reveals Warts for All Involved -- Including Some in the Media

Watching family home videos can be embarrassing, but at the same time it usually prompts some enjoyment or fun because those videos chronicle important or memorable activities and events.

Watching unforgettable family moments play out live, in high definition on national television, can be much less enjoyable. Especially when the media converges, and the story itself transforms into one of the most salacious and sensational stories in years -- a small-screen miniseries.

"It's like living inside a case study," said Malcolm Moran, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society who serves as director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. "What has happened here with the media, and continues to happen here, will be written about for years."

In fact, Paterno and his relationship with the media have been a case study at Penn State for several years, with faculty member Mike Poorman teaching COMM 497G Joe Paterno and the Media. This week, Moran, who teaches courses in sports writing and ethics, Poorman and many other faculty members have incorporated the news into their classrooms -- as this article from The New York Times relates.

As the nation has followed news about Penn State this week, what viewers have found has often been both compelling and unflattering. It's been even harder for those of us closer to the action to stomach.

But while it's troubling to discover the crimes and lies that were happening right next door, it's necessary to acknowledge the work the media has done with the story in general. With a close-up view, my assessment of their work would be that it's been generally fair, albeit in a few instances lazy.

As it should with a sports-related story of this sort (and, in fairness, there has been no story of this sort before), ESPN has generally led the way on TV since the story gained traction last weekend. Cameras and talent, including the tenacious Tom Rinaldi, converged on Happy Valley by Monday. The lineup of satellite trucks was well established by that afternoon.

Throughout the week, the media's determination has been matched only by the related missteps of those on whom the cameras and microphones were turned. From ambush interview attempts with administrators and man-on-the-street moments to stunning silence by those in charge and a silly spokesman (that was Scott Paterno, not Chris Farley, speaking for his family and to anyone who would listen Tuesday) -- the amazing options have rarely disappointed the media.

Plus, the story seems to have tentacles, twists and turns that will never end.

It's all happening quickly, too. That's why those who attempt to exercise hindsight or perspective about the media's coverage are even more at fault than the media themselves who have made the (generally small) mistakes.

It's easy for critics such as the Poynter Review Project, columnist Richard Sandomir in The New York Times and even @RobLowe to pan ESPN's coverage of the Wednesday evening happenings, but that must be nit-picking, at best. From the sloppy-all-around news conference by the university's Board of Trustees to student rioting downtown, it certainly felt like ESPN had its cameras and commentators on the pulse of what was happening.

Just because we as media consumers in this age expect everything to be on TV or available on our smart phone, that does not mean making it happen is easy. Especially with hastily called news conference or spur-of-the moment demonstrations.

Criticism about not enough cameras of the streets full of thousands of students, of which a relative few got violent? Did people need to actually see the footage to know what was happening? More cameras downtown in the area where students were protesting (and rioting) would not have added depth to the story, just more "sexy" shots.

And with reports like what follows about some news media members apparently trying to incite students, the overall story adds another layer. This from a column by Penn State faculty member Russell Frank, a longtime journalist who teaches ethics, on Thursday ...
"Joe Paterno made enormous contributions to this university. But he's not a cardboard cutout in a shop window. He's a man, with all the flaws that men have. It's touching that so many students thought otherwise. Now they know.

Now they know what a media circus looks like. Three students in my ethics class told me they saw reporters trying to incite the crowd that gathered in Beaver Canyon on Wednesday night. One raised and lowered his arms, the way football players do when they want the crowd to make more noise. One complained that what he was seeing wasn't a riot, and urged the students around him do better. One told the students he interviewed what he wanted them to say."

Honestly, ESPN and others have not missed much, if anything, about about the story. While it's been hard to watch from our seats here -- kind of like looking through a life-sized magnifying lens that reveals a lot while distorting some things -- the circus has, in some ways, been necessary.

The biggest missteps by radio and TV types have come as they try to out-shout each other and share each possible tidbit of information as quickly as possible. The fact that it's not a simple story has made things even more challenging and changeable.

"I've never been around a story that's changed as much as this one," Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski told students in the Paterno class Thursday. "A lot of people are here just to spout their opinion. Everybody's trying to top each other -- 'No, I'm more against child molestation than you are.'

"There are some people who are doing good work, but a lot of people came here to bury Joe."

After Penn State cancelled Paterno's weekly news conference Tuesday, media members turned to each other as sources for stories, and they became justifiably more upset about access and information they could not get from the university.

By Wednesday night, after an afternoon retirement announcement by Paterno and his subsequent firing by the university's trustees that night, ESPN had expanded to an all-Penn State, all-the-time approach.

Somehow, though, the balance and perspective initiated each morning by "Mike and Mike in the Morning" on ESPN Radio, remained through most of ESPN's offerings. With Rinaldi and others on the ground, and capable studio hosts like Steve Levy and Stuart Scott, ESPN tracked down Penn Staters for interviews and regularly leveraged the talents of its deep stable of college football experts, especially those with Penn State roots, for opinions.

That produced memorable TV when Matt Millen broke down while discussing the situation. Also, Todd Blacklege, who initially hoped to avoid doing much radio or TV work related to the story, offered only pained silence when asked on radio if Paterno should be allowed to coach on Saturday. (That reaction itself was a "yes" that became moot when the trustees made the decision to fire the veteran coach.)

Even with all their efforts, there was some perspective missing from what ESPN and other TV outlets offered. And on both TV and radio it was easy -- as Scott Van Pelt repeatedly displayed -- to generalize.

On his show Thursday, Van Pelt took an easy route to lump Penn State as insular and misguided simply because of the students' actions after Paterno's firing. While such talking heads clamor for the students to display proper perspective, they fail to do the same things. That's because the view from afar is often not as clear as an up-close look. And the story has nuances.

Conversely, those who have been on site have been able, at times, to bring a bit more depth to what they have produced.

Some here wish that positive stories -- about students going downtown to help cleanup after the riotous actions of others, about the fact that many do not want the actions of a handful to further damage the reputation of a half million people who are Penn Staters, about the fact that many have already pledged thousands of dollars to fight child abuse and other charities -- would find more airtime. That's just not going to happen right now, though.

A lot more remains for the story -- from the obvious (such as as sit-down interview by someone someday with Paterno) to the scary (if rumors about even worse things by Sandusky prove true).

If the media can continue to do what they've done so far -- even though it comes with embarrassment and emotional pain for those closest to the story, and even though it comes with a couple mistakes and some self-aggrandizing by certain media members -- that's OK. We'll deal with some shared warts because the truth needs to be discovered and those who committed heinous crimes or covered them up need to be held accountable.

Monday, November 7, 2011

'Roll Tide/War Eagle' Set for Debut

With No. 1 vs. No. 2 over on the field, college football's clear-cut No. 1 rivalry takes center stag when "Roll Tide / War Eagle" makes its debut at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

It's a rivalry worth documenting, and apparently a documentary worthy of the rivalry.

From director Martin Khodabakshian and producers Joe Tessitore (who does play-by-play for ESPN college football games) and Bruce Feldman (of CBS Sports, and formerly ESPN), the hour-long film promises an interesting look at the rivalry, which features the past two national championship teams.

During its premiere in Birmingham, Ala., last week, Khodabakshian told the audience the most-asked question about the film was about its title. He said it was simply a matter of alphabetical order.

He's proud of the final product, as are Tessitore and Feldman, who said the film was strong from start to finish.

"If you're not riveted by the first five minutes, by the energy of the film, nothing is going to get you," Feldman told Alabama sports radio shock jock Paul Finebaum (who plays a big role in the film) and his listeners last month. "Then the story takes over. There's a lot packed into the film."

Friday, November 4, 2011

CBS Sports Good Enough for 1-2 Game

Every sports-media outlet in the country has helped CBS Sports this week with an abundance of coverage and pre-game hype for the matchup between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama on Saturday night.

If viewers cannot find the game on TV, it will not be for a lack of information.

ESPN "embedded" reporters with each team (and, after that term was used with media members covering wars it seems somewhat inappropriate for a college football game anymore, even one of this magniture). Sirius/XM Radio got more mileage than usual out of its Southern-sounding lineup, especially the "Paul Finebaum Show."

Those are just two examples, a sampling of the efforts and hundreds of hours of hype for the game.

Still, what matters most happens once the contest kicks off Saturday night -- and CBS Sports should be up to the task.

While the Verne Lunquist-Gary Danielson on-air tandem might not be the best in college football, and maybe not in my personal top three, it's not far behind.

Lunquist brings a steady sound to games and does his job well. He's not spectacular, but he stays away from big mistakes. Danielson, who at first sounded out of place working Southeastern Conference games when he moved from ESPN to CBS Sports in 2006, knows SEC teams and traditions after a half decade focusing exclusively on that conference.

They work well together and rise to the occasion for big moments in a game. Best of all, they know the game is not about them. They focus on the field, and this game deserves that approach.

Beyond the guys in the booth, CBS Sports has Tracy Wolfson as its sideline reporter, and it can really flex its muscles in terms of football knowledge and reporting online -- with writers such as: Tony Barnhart, who just sounds like Southern football and has a well-earned reputation after years of work in Atlanta and now on radio and TV as well; Dennis Dodd, a talented and tenacious reporter; and Bruce Feldman, who recently moved from ESPN, and even prompted a policy change for that network in regard to as-told-to books. Plus, Feldman was a guiding force behind "Roll Tide/War Eagle," a documentary that will make its debut Tuesday on ESPN.