The Penn State Scandal

By Joe Sexton (New York Times)
November 30, 2011

I have served as both Metro editor and Sports editor at The New York Times. No matter the job, giant news seems most often to break on Saturdays - Times Square bombings, crane collapses, the death of Al Davis, the iconoclastic coach of the Oakland Raiders, ferry crashes, hurricanes, helicopter disasters in the Hudson. Saturdays all.

I love big news. I don't always enjoy having to scramble to chase it on Saturdays. Deadlines are different and more frequent; staffing is thinner; important people to reach -- reporters or the subjects I want reporters to interview -- can be hard to find.

But, as Al Siegal, one of our legendary editors, liked to say, once the NYT kicks into gear, it's an impressive thing to watch. A Cadillac he might have called it. Al, of course, is retired. So, make it an Escalade.

Anyway, word of the arrests and indictments at Penn State started spreading Saturday morning, Nov. 5. Pedophile coaches, sadly, are not new things. Football programs placing their fortunes on the field ahead of doing the right thing is, too, hardly novel. The striking aspect of the Penn State saga was the apparent culpability of the school's senior officials. The athletic director had been indicted; so, too, the man in charge of the campus police. It was then, and remains now, possible that Penn State's president will be indicted.

Bill Pennington, a veteran sportswriter, was launched. Mark Viera, a freelancer who had done much work for us over the years and who had attended Penn State and knew the players and the landscape, was sent. Pete Thamel, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., for the college football game of the year between LSU and Alabama, got an early flight to Harrisburg for Sunday morning. And Nate Schweber, one of the most intrepid and brave freelancers, was in his car. I had used Nate on any number of stories when I was Metro editor, from the serial killings of prostitutes in Atlantic City to the attempted subway terror attack of 2009. He'll go anywhere, ask anything, and almost always come back with the goods.

The grand jury report was rich with ugly detail, and it was not that hard to write a compelling Page 1 story. In such breaking stories, Day 2 and Day 3 often prove more challenging. People clam up. Local reporters have longtime sources. Neatly outlined prosecution briefs dry up.

But it was obvious to us where, in the immediate aftermath of the arrests, the attention would turn: Joe Paterno, the man who had, the week before, become the winningest coach in college football history. So, we aimed a story at saying as much as we could about his role, or, at minimum, highlighting the serious questions about his performance he would have to face. We also turned around a reaction piece from a campus in shock and denial and in a slow boil toward true outrage.

It didn't take long for us to recognize our most formidable competition. It was the Patriot News of Harrisburg. Reporters there had done ample and fine and audacious work over the last year chipping away at the story -- revealing an investigation, identifying victims, and much more. It was heartening to see -- a smallish paper in tough times for the industry doing courageous, ambitious, dogged work in taking on some of the most powerful and recognizable institutions and people in the state. Hats off.

But the NYT was there in force by Monday, and by Tuesday midday we had produced our own major scoop: Paterno, after more than six decades at the school, was not going to survive as coach. Twitter went nuts. Paterno's family called it premature. Everyone credited the NYT. No one matched us. The next day, Paterno was fired.

How did we get it? Let's call it the payoff from hard work over many years -- Thamel is the finest college sports investigator I know; and tips from sources made on the fly, thanks to Viera.

Our reporting efforts got a huge boost when Matt Purdy, the head of our investigations department, offered to have Jo Becker join the reporting team. Jo is a Pulitzer winner and a force of nature. She knows where to look; she gets people to talk; she has a great natural feel for sizing up subjects and sources. And she goes nonstop.

She soon produced a Page 1 exclusive look at an underappreciated ssaide of the story: the fact that the investigation of the accused Penn State coach had begun when the state's current governor, Tom Corbett, was attorney general. He had known the investigation was going on, and felt certain it would result in arrests. But for months, he had kept quiet. Because he was duty bound to. Strange circumstances; great reading.

Jo, along with Pete and Mark and Nate, then turned out the best, most informed, most provocative look at the nature and pace of the 18-month investigation. Critical breaks, alarming findings, unanswered questions. It rocketed to the top of the most-emailed list. On NYC's major sports talk radio station, a host read the story aloud on the air, word for word, and through commercial breaks.

Dean Baquet, our new managing editor, also had the very smart idea to turn an old piece of great work to new, immediate advantage. Years ago he had worked with Nina Bernstein, an award winning reporter, on a series about the failings of campus police forces. Nina remembered the stories, their lessons, some sources, and perhaps most importantly this: things as screwed up as campus police forces almost never get fixed, or fixed for good. So she returned to the subject, found the same problems, and turned out a story that led to an avalanche of thanks, tips, and calls for action.

In closing, it's been a wild and exhausting two weeks. Tips have led to breakthroughs and more tips. Just how insular a community like State College is -- full of strong emotions and multiple conflicts -- became astoundingly clear. One of our reporters was chased off by dogs; another was threatened by a tow truck driver. Many conversations took place both in trailer parks and in the hallways of academia. More than boys had been violated it seemed. A proud university's sense of superiority and privilege and arrogance had been blown up, too.

More TK, as we say in the business.