On the Scandal at Penn State: Hey CBS News–When You Don’t Have It, Don’t Hype It. Lessons From Watergate

Nov 16, 2011

There’s an exemplary scene in the movie version of “All the President’s Men” that goes basically like this: Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein have been working their asses off on one of their stories about the Watergate scandal. They are pushing to have the story put on the front page of the paper. Ben Bradlee, the Post’s editor, reads the story and asks them a few questions. He then crosses out some words and adds some others and orders the story to be run, but to be buried inside the paper.

Bernstein goes ballistic, arguing that it’s a front page story. Bradlee, says no, they had overhyped what they had, they had NOT really nailed it, and it wasn’t a front page story. The argument goes on until Woodward finally says to Bernstein (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Stop it. He’s right.”

It’s an important lesson for journalists. And sometimes it’s tough to resist the temptation not to hype material that is not worthy, especially when you’re in a very competitive situation on a breaking news story.

That’s the place CBS News found itself yesterday, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011, in its reporting on the scandal at Penn State. And unfortunately, CBS News made the wrong call.

NBC had already aired its spellbinding interview of accused child molester Jerry Sandusky — wherein he admitted to Bob Costas that he had played with young boys but said he did not molest them.

The Associated Press had reported that Penn State coach Mike McQueary had told a friend by email that he stopped an assault by Sandusky on a child in 2002 and then he spoke to police, which was a different account of what McQueary did than the grand jury released.

And CNN was reporting that Penn State was not cooperating in releasing any documents it had about Sandusky. Startlingly, CNN also reported that the public university was exempt from a state law that makes such records public, and, shockingly, that the university may have lobbied the Pennsylvania legislature to be made exempt once it knew it had a problem with Sandusky.

So what did CBS have? Its chief investigative correspondent, Armen Keteyian, had spoken to McQueary, who heretofore had not spoken publicly. Whew! It could be competitive.
But wait a minute. What exactly had McQueary said to Keteyian. With the camera running, here’s that conversation:

Keteyian: Do you think you have any idea when you think you might be ready to talk?

McQueary: This process has to play out. I just don’t have any thing else to say. That’s all.

Keteyian: Yeah. Well, OK. And then just one last thing. Just describe your emotion right now.

McQueary: Ah, all over the place. Just kinda, uh, shaken.

Keteyian: Crazy?

McQueary: Crazy.

Keteyian: You said, what, like a –

McQueary: Snow globe.

Keteyian: Like a snow globe.

McQueary: Yes sir.

Huh? That’s it? Stop the presses! If Ben Bradlee had been CBS managing editor my bet is that he would have started laughing and then thrown Keteyian out of his office, telling him to come back when he actually had some news.

Instead, CBS hyped the hell out of it, as if McQueary had made some bombshell revelation. They sent out a press release marked “high importance,” and Scott Pelley began his “CBS Evening News” with the story.

He introduced Keteyian with these words: “Armen Keteyian is in State College tonight with another development.”

So now feeling “like a snow globe” qualifies as “another development” in this scandal.

But there was more.

After the interview was shown, Pelley then addressed Keteyian: “Armen, in that brief conversation you had with McQueary on his porch, part of that was off-camera. I wonder what he told you.

Keteyian: “Well, Scott, he’s very rattled by this whole experience. Off camera he was telling me how concerned he was about his personal life, his personal safety, and the future in coaching. Because obviously he’s caught in a very difficult situation here. I think the word shattered or shaken really operates here, because Mike is just in a state where he really doesn’t know, it appears, which way to turn.”

Well, at least that’s somewhat more enlightening than “snow globe.”

What we do know is that McQueary has lawyered up. And in the email the AP was given, McQueary had written to his friend, "Do with this what you want … but I am getting hammered for handling this the right way … or what I thought at the time was right … I had to make tough impacting quick decisions."

Let’s hope CBS handles the story the right way moving forward.#

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