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Adam Smeltz: Daily News' Response to Conlin Allegations Sets Bar for Penn Staters

on December 28, 2011 9:12 AM

Immediately, the Pennsylvania newspaper's disgust and outrage were palpable.

No hint of hesitation. No qualifications or excuses. Just pure outrage and undiluted disgust.

Those are gut reactions you'd expect when credible allegations of child sexual abuse surface.

But the Philadelphia Daily News didn't just react last week when a celebrated icon -- its sports columnist Bill Conlin -- was accused of abusing children.

The Daily News also dropped itself into the eye of the storm.

It ran the rival Philadelphia Inquirer's exclusive investigation of Conlin, then began publishing its own, staff-produced reportage.

It put Conlin on the front page -- more than once.

It featured the scathing remarks of its online readers on Page 2. The Daily News top editor, Larry Platt, appeared promptly at a press conference with The Inquirer's boss. And its news columnist Ronnie Polaneczky imagined -- in print -- how a baseball bat could extract justice for Conlin's reported victims.

The published rage was authentic, genuine and natural, sparing no introspection, transparency or painful criticism. The institution and its insiders -- the newspaper's whole community -- appeared unafraid to confront the unthinkable with head-on impact, putting the first priority where it belongs: on those identified as survivors.

Everything else -- rightly -- came a far-distant second. A public institution that both commands and requires the public trust, the Daily News family showed the ethical fortitude to look inward and have an open, communal dialogue, even at its own expense.

Sound familiar?

Didn't think so.

The uncomfortable self-inflicted spotlight and critical public assessment encouraged at the Daily News have been heartbreakingly absent at Penn State. For the most part, anyway.

This, for once, is not a statement on the university administration or its board. This, rather, is an observation of the greater Penn State family, of which I've been a member since the womb.

So much of the blue-and-white bloodline has been unable -- or unwilling -- to take even a sliver of responsibility for the Sandusky and related scandals.

Introspection? Too often, that's played second fiddle to indignant knee-jerk defenses of Paterno, of alleged Penn State exceptionalism, of football culture.

Critical public assessments? Too often, the Nittany Lion faithful have condemned critics with incensed claims that "You just don't understand," failing to recognize that everyone -- Penn Stater or not -- has a stake in a public institution. Not to mention the protection of children.

Self-inflicted spotlight? Too often, Penn Staters have taken the lead of their university board and avoided the attention, dismissing it breezily as little more than sensationalism.

There has been some sensationalism, of course, but there's also a legitimate public demand -- inside the valley and far beyond -- for information, explanations, perspective.

And contrition.

Granted, some Penn Staters' apologies have made their way into the public discourse. Many have gone well out of their way to support victims of sexual abuse. Blue ribbons seem to be everywhere in the valley now.

That's heartfelt, thoughtful stuff.

But what's missing, loudly, is a groundswell of responsibility, a widespread willingness to ask the toughest questions of ourselves.

What's missing is sacrifice. Bona fide accountability.

A tabloid has set the bar. It's time for the Penn State community to meet its example.

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