12.06.11

How Jerry Sandusky Played The New York Times in His Interview

The New York Times gave the ex-Penn State coach free rein to mount a pathetic defense against sexual abuse charges. Buzz Bissinger on how the paper royally botched the story—which should never have been printed.

Why did Joe Amendola do it? Why would any lawyer in his right mind let Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State University assistant football coach charged with 40 acts of serial sex abuse of minors, give a face-to-face interview to The New York Times after the debacle of the audio interview he gave to NBC’s Bob Costas?

For the very reason that the Costas interview was a debacle, a horrendous display of judgment by Amendola in which Sandusky, with his pauses and hems and haws, only incriminated himself further. Amendola felt he had to try to reverse the damage with another interview. The key, of course, was to find a willing participant.

Shockingly, he found one.

The New York Times.

Or as he told Sandusky at one point during the four hours of interviews with the Times’ Jo Becker last week: “You have a chance now to say things differently. This is your open mic.”

Open mic?

Is this the kind of journalism The New York Times, the best paper in the country and maybe the world, should be practicing, acting as an open mic for an alleged sexual predator who, between the criminal case against him and the civil suit filed last week, has now been accused of well over 100 separate acts of sexual abuse on minors, including allegedly butt----ing a 10-year-old naked in the shower, repeated b--- jobs and c--- and testicle groping?

Sadly, that’s exactly what The New York Times was, an open microphone for Sandusky to give another round of convoluted and unconvincing explanations, this time with sad-sack face and crooked-tooth smile because the interviews were face-to-face. As happened with Costas, I defy anyone to find anyone who has become more convinced of Sandusky’s innocence after the Times interview. Amendola should not have let the man near a reporter. But still, he got what he wanted for his client.

He got the open mic. (You can hear his reference in audio portions of the interview that are on the Times’ website).

Last Saturday’s front-page story on the Sandusky interview was barely worth printing, if it was worth printing at all, and I don’t think it was. It was a forum for Sandusky, with doleful eyes and a how-can-this-be-happening-to-me expression, to say whatever he wanted without the confrontation that is demanded in interviews such as this. Becker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with a superb reputation. She clearly thought that using sugar with Sandusky rather than spice was the best approach. But the yield was negligible—Sandusky revealed less about himself in four hours than he did with Costas in nine minutes because of his incisive questioning and appropriate skepticism. (For the record, Costas and I are friends. It should be noted that his interview of Sandusky was almost universally hailed, just as it also should be noted that he disagrees with my stance on the Times’ story).

There was something indecent about Becker’s tone of understanding with Sandusky, as reflected in the Times’ audio and video portions of the interview. The video was sickening, hardly dispassionate but blatantly sympathetic at the end, with a shot of poor, misunderstood Jerry walking his sweet dog, pondering his own unsweet future. It would have brought me to tears, except I still hear the smacking sound that was apparently made when he was allegedly violating a little boy in the shower.

Becker’s challenges to his assertions were lukewarm at best and freezing cold at worst, based on the audio and video portions. When he rambled on incoherently at times, she made no attempt to stop him and firmly say, as a reporter in this situation should say, “You are making absolutely no sense.”

She never made him squirm, as Costas did with his now famous question, “Are you sexually attracted to young boys?” followed by Sandusky’s even more famous nonresponse response. Based on the Times’ audio, she never said, “Do you really expect me or anyone to believe that the accusers who have come forward are all lying about the acts of sexual abuse they say you committed against them, which now number far more than 100? That cannot be possible. You are lying.”

At one point Sandusky said he believed he knew the victim whom an eyewitness said Sandusky had raped in the showers of the Penn State football locker facility in 2002. More important, Sandusky said the alleged victim would have refuted the accusation. It was a pivotal revelation, but there seemed to be no indication that Becker insisted to lawyer Amendola that she be allowed to question the alleged victim with the promise of anonymity that the Times routinely grants to sources. It would have provided some independent corroboration, or lack thereof, beyond the meaningless words of a criminal defendant who appears to have an impressive collective track record of lying. If Amendola balked, revealing unto itself, the interview should have ended.

Instead it appears that some type of agreement was made in which Becker promised not to ask any questions dealing with the eight alleged victims as outlined in the 23-page state grand jury report. I believe this since Becker, in prefacing a question to Sandusky at one point, said, “Without getting into the specifics of any one person…”

What kind of interview is that in which you cannot get into the specifics of any one person? Why allow such latitude to somebody who isn’t being accused of being a parking-ticket scofflaw but of heinous act after heinous act on minors, and is the subject of a grand jury report that is the most horrific I have ever read in a lifetime of reading them?

For those of us offended by the story, let’s hope that if we ever get into trouble, we get the same open mic treatment from the Times to say whatever the hell we want.

I emailed the Times for comment. I did get a detailed response from Dean Baquet, the managing editor of the Times and as hard-hitting a journalist as you will ever meet.

“A lengthy interview with the subject of many page-one stories is news whether you like the guy or not,” Baquet wrote. “Giving a guy some extensive quotes when you’ve run a zillion words of unanswered charges is always going to be worth doing…the fact, from his own mouth, that the university let him operate so long, without confronting him, was clearly newsworthy.”

Really?

It is well known from the contents of the grand jury report that Penn State did absolutely nothing about Sandusky, even after the first allegation of improper sexual contact with a minor in 1998 and then the accusation of rape in the shower in 2002. The lead of the Times’ story, in which Sandusky said former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno never approached him about any aspects of his questionable behavior, is hardly revelatory; Paterno, according to the grand jury report, when told that Sandusky had been seen showering with a young boy in 2002 and had perhaps done something of a sexual nature with him, told the athletic director and then ran away from the situation as quickly as he could. And just as Baquet suggests, all the allegations in the story come from Sandusky’s “own mouth.” How on earth can this man be remotely perceived as credible?

He can’t be. Because he isn’t. And if he isn’t credible, then why should anything he has to say be reported? Why should he be given any platform, any excuse or explanation for his actions, particularly when the Costas interview had already dug Sandusky a far deeper hole than anything the Times discovered? The paper of record was played by an idiot lawyer who should lose his license.

Congratulations.

Maybe I am too close to the story in terms of the passion and outrage it has aroused in me. Maybe I have lost balance. But as I pored over readers’ comments to Saturday’s article on the Times’ website, there were dozens upon dozens who questioned the paper’s journalistic judgment in forceful and articulate ways and were just was outraged.

Baquet said in his email that he suspects that “if some readers walked away thinking the story too soft, many more walked away thinking these were the quotes of someone who was guilty and even weird.”

Maybe so. For those of us offended by the story, let’s hope that if we ever get into trouble, we get the same open mic treatment from the Times to say whatever the hell we want, like this predatory pervert and monster just did.

Oops. I’m sorry.

Alleged predatory pervert and monster.

That’s my open mic.