Shame On You, Wall Street Journal

I would’ve thought that The Wall Street Journal was above this.

It’s not a tabloid. Its readers care more about the stock quotes than the sensationalism. If anyone would stay above the fray, I’d expect it to be the Journal.

And yet, even those bastions of journalistic integrity have been sucked into the traps. If you haven’t seen the story I’m about to rant about, consider yourself lucky. Don’t go searching for it, read it, and come back here. Just close this tab and go along with your day. You’ll thank me later.

But I’m assuming that article will spread like wildfire. It’s only going to stoke the flames that have been growing higher and higher in the past two weeks, a fire that may have started with Jerry Sandusky at its epicenter, but quickly consumed Joe Paterno.

It’s a powerful message that the only real damage from the “riots” two weeks ago came in the form of a tipped news van. I don’t mean to condone the actions of a few idiots–it was wrong, in every way–but it was emblematic of our frustration with a media that came to Happy Valley with one goal in mind: burying our iconic coach.

And now, a fortnight later, with the damage already done, The Wall Street Journal has joined those ranks, running a story that not only fails to be timely, but is also hardly fair and blatantly unbalanced.

It’s shocking and discouraging–if not completely unsurprising, given how this month has gone–to see a major newspaper give a forum to a disgruntled former employee for the voicing of grievances. Vicky Triponey, the former (and disgraced) Vice President for Student Affairs at Penn State, clearly went to the newspaper, selling a story, and in another sad chapter of this affair, the Journal bought it.

The story quotes a number of emails Triponey sent to senior administrators at Penn State–namely former President Graham Spanier–complaining that Joe Paterno was meddling, interfering with her ability to discipline student-athletes for violations of Penn State’s code of conduct, and implying that his players were above the law. To that end, it cites a handful of situations in which Paterno apparently clashed with the University disciplinarian.

First and foremost, I struggle to find any rationale for the Journal–for any paper, really–to publish this story. Not only does it fail to unveil any remotely new information (ESPN’s Outside the Lines famously questioned Paterno’s willingness to control his players in a segment that aired three-and-a-half years ago, even citing the same Vicky Triponey and her power struggle with the coach, and it was also roundly criticized for being one-sided and taking many of these very same incidents out of context), but it relies on anecdotal evidence focused on a narrow time span within Paterno’s 46-year career as Penn State’s head coach.

In other words, there could not possibly be considered a reason to publish this story unless the intent was to remind critics that they have something else to bash Joe Paterno about. The media already got the man fired and discredited, what’s a little more gasoline on the fire? This has nothing to do with Jerry Sandusky’s alleged heinous crimes, but who cares when you can rehash decade-old stories that paint Paterno in an unsympathetic light? Who needs timeliness or relevance–it’s not like those are the chief tenets of journalism or anything.

It’s important to keep in mind just how one-sided the story is. It does little more than quote Triponey’s emails–throwing aside a statement released by Paterno’s lawyer before getting to the meat of the allegations, and reporting a “no comment” from the University and from Spanier. It doesn’t contain any contemporary responses from Spanier or Paterno–although if Triponey was willing enough to hand over to the newspaper the emails she sent, it’s hard to imagine she wouldn’t be willing to “leak” those she received from administrators.

And given the tone of the story, if they were going to be remotely critical of Paterno–even taken out of context–they’d have been published. The story takes as infalliable the words of Triponey–a woman who, it must be reminded, cut all funding to the student radio station because one show, Radio Free Penn State, was critical of the Penn State administration.

She meddled in student government affairs, and left behind a legacy so uniformly negative that Safeguard Old State, a student-run advocacy group, once published the “Vicky Triponey Timeline of Terror.” Triponey is a woman who hardly anyone at Penn State during her tenure has a kind word for.

And she’s the lone real source for the Journal‘s anti-Paterno screed–if you don’t count a sentence from a student who was a victim in the “apartment fight” that spurred the Outside the Lines piece.

That’s one more notch in the “bad journalism” checklist: the story isn’t remotely balanced.

Here’s the thing: if The Wall Street Journal–hell, if Onward State–wanted to write a story titled “Paterno Placed Academics, Discipline First,” we could undoubtedly find enough people who’d be willing to speak with us, on the record, to write that story. We wouldn’t be presenting a whole story, but that’s obviously par for the course.

The only difference between this hypothetical and the story the Journal actually ran is that ours wouldn’t fit into the agenda the media has set out to accomplish: to try and drag the reputation of Joe Paterno through the mud. We’d actually be properly representing a man who oversaw a program that had more Academic All-Americans and fewer NCAA violations than just about any other in the country.

Well done, Wall Street Journal. Every time I think the national media can’t be any worse, you manage to find a new nadir. That takes real skill.

Unlike your brand of “journalism.”

Note: an earlier version of this post referred to the charges against Sandusky as indiscretions. The Wall Street Journal’s piece did not focus on the allegations against Sandusky, and I did not want this article to, either.

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About the Author

Devon Edwards

Devon is a 2012 Penn State graduate and current law student at NYU. Devon joined Onward State in January of 2011, after a lengthy stay in the comment section. His likes include sabermetrics, squirrels, and longs walks on the beach, and his dislikes include spelunking, when you put your clothes in the dryer and they come out still kinda damp but also warm, and the religious right.

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