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Defending Penn State and Joe Paterno: Swinging Back at the Clickbait Media

by on May 06, 2016 5:00 PM

Today in America the most important person in any media organization is your headline writer. The lure is the clickbait headline to hook us into a report that in many cases does not even reflect the tone of the story, let alone the truth.

I know it. Penn Staters know this. We have lived it. We thought it was a lesson learned and that is was something in the past.

Last night it happened again.

The headlines stated:

Report: Joe Paterno Told About Jerry Sandusky Sex Abuse as Early as 1976 (USA Today Web Site)

Former Penn State coach Paterno told of child sex abuse decades ago: court document (Reuters)

Child Told Paterno of Sex Abuse in 1976, Court Papers Allege (

Bombshell Report: Paterno Knew of Sandusky Abuse 40 Years Ago (New York Post)

The headlines drove the news cycle as the clicks picked up.

Then this story proved Mark Twain’s quote: "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

All of this was driven by one line in an insurance case decision. Even in the filing the judge carefully used the word allegedly because there is no established factual basis.

Facts, why wait for them? Rush out the story and a salacious headline and let’s go.

Have we learned nothing? The Rolling Stone UVA Rape case; the Duke Lacrosse Case; Patrick Kane… I could go on.

Four and a half years of allegations against Joe Paterno made by the media, The Freeh Report and the NCAA have all been proven false.

Yet here we go again.

For Penn Staters and for this community they’ve done this to us again.

The fact remains Joe Paterno was investigated and cleared by the prosecutor who declared that he was not involved in a cover-up.  Nothing that has been reported today or may be reported in the coming days has changed that fact.

But the allure of a salacious clickbait headline drives eyeballs.

The defense that a story’s accuracy outweighs a sensationalized headline is a cop out. Every editor knows people often fail to read beyond the headline; collecting bites of news just by perusing the web page and reading the headlines.

I’m guilty of it too.

But we as a society need to understand that we are being intentionally misled and manipulated not for the greater good, not to rally us to a just cause. We are being misled to garner clicks and make money for a for-profit media that is hyper-competitive, that is under greater pressure than ever.

President Obama struck this chord in a speech just recently when he stated, "But 10, 20, 50 years from now, no one seeking to understand our age is going to be searching the Tweets that got the most retweets, or the post that got the most likes.  They’ll look for the kind of reporting, the smartest investigative journalism that told our story and lifted up the contradictions in our societies."

He is right.

As I wrote in the dedication to the book Paterno Legacy for journalism students: “In a world where the pressure to be first often outweighs the responsibility to be right, I hope you always look in your heart and pursue the truth. It is the most solemn responsibility of freedom of the press. Realize your mistakes will have consequences for real people.”

There is a right to freedom of the press but with every right there comes responsibility. The clickbait media is the very definition of irresponsible journalism.

When presented with a complex story, the clickbait media can just focus on one thread of a story.

In January 2015 when the NCAA settled and gave the wins back that was just part of the story. What was under-reported was Penn State’s signing a new agreement with the NCAA to pay the $60 million in fines.

Yesterday Penn State lost a lawsuit with their insurer in a decision that may cost the University as much as $100 million. But they focused on one line that was an allegation that focused on one man and that became the story — because it both distracted from the insurance story and because that man’s name draws eyeballs.

Like the NCAA giving the wins back, the unsubstantiated allegation became the clickbait that drew our eyes away from the real story. They drew our eyes away either intentionally because of the powers that be or because journalists failed to investigate and lift up the contradictions in our society.

They reported what would make them money.

Either way I am reminded of the movie Malcolm X when the title character was speaking to his community about the powers that be: "I say it again, ya been had! You been took! You been hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led astray!”

At some point we as a community, we as a society need to stand up and demand better from our media — but we have to demand it by rejecting what they are feeding us.

Until we do that we are only getting the media we deserve.


State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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