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Russell Frank: We Are -- Going to Be OK

by on November 11, 2011 6:16 AM

It's time to stop calling this place Happy Valley. The name doesn't fit. It never did.

The out-of-town reporters describe us as "an idyllic community," "a tranquil football Eden" "nestled" in the mountains of central Pennsylvania.

Spare us. As many Penn State students have learned this week, this is the real world, where the grownups in charge are craven, conniving or clueless – and maybe all three. There are no saints here.

Joe Paterno made enormous contributions to this university. But he's not a cardboard cutout in a shop window. He's a man, with all the flaws that men have. It's touching that so many students thought otherwise. Now they know.

Now they know what a media circus looks like. Three students in my ethics class told me they saw reporters trying to incite the crowd that gathered in Beaver Canyon on Wednesday night. One raised and lowered his arms, the way football players do when they want the crowd to make more noise. One complained that what he was seeing wasn't a riot, and urged the students around him do better. One told the students he interviewed what he wanted them to say.

They got their riot. But here's the unfortunate thing. A thousand people can mill around peacefully for 99 minutes, but if 25 people get violent or destructive for one minute, those images will lead the newscasts and make the front page.

One of my students was interviewed on one of those radio shows where the hosts abuse their guests for the amusement of their audience. She called the riot "an irrational response to rational anger."

You or I may agree or disagree about whether the Board of Trustees should or should not have let Paterno finish the season, but certainly a college student did not deserve to be ridiculed – and then made the target of hateful Tweets and Facebook postings – for articulating the view that Paterno deserved better than what he got.

She was the second of my students who cried on Thursday. Little wonder that in addition to chanting that Paterno be given "one more game," the students in Beaver Canyon late Wednesday cursed the news media.

As a journalism critic who is also a journalism advocate, I mounted a defense in my ethics class. True, lurid sex + celebrity + schadenfreude (ah, the pleasure of seeing the self-righteous laid low) make for an irresistible story, but would you rather have the news media do what Penn State administrators seem to have done and sweep a tale of child abuse under the rug? This was a story that needed to be told.

Not surprisingly, the students are also deeply worried about the reputation of the university and the devaluation of their degrees. One member of my class said that a company had rescinded its offer of an internship to her friend because it no longer wanted to take on a Penn State student.

This caused my urban legend antennae to go up, but even if the story is true, I told my class I would be very surprised if very many prospective employers would punish the students for the sins of their leaders.

Because when the satellite trucks roll out of town and the Queen-of-Hearts columnists stop screaming "Off with their heads," our reputation as a great university won't rest on our winning football tradition or our legendary football coach, but on our engaged and compassionate students and teachers and researchers.

One of my ethics students asked me how the faculty felt about the revelations and upheavals of the past week. I teased her about asking such a reporter's question. Some, I suspect, think Coach Paterno did what he was supposed to do and should have been allowed to retire when he was good and ready. Some probably think he didn't do nearly enough and should have been shown the door. And some, I'll wager, glanced up at the latest media freak show, shook their heads and went back to their microscopes and data sets.

But here's what I think. Many of us pointy-headed Ph.D.s don our Penn State sweatshirts and ball caps and gather in front of flat-screen TVs to eat pizza and watch the game, just like everyone else. But even among the most rabid fans are those who think our culture cares a little too much about sports and not enough about things that ought to matter more.

When I came out of my ethics class on Thursday I ran into Dan Walden, founder of Penn State's American Studies, Jewish Studies and African American Studies programs. He's been here as long as Joe Paterno and should be just as recognizable and just as beloved.

If any good can come out of this ghastly situation, apart from increasing awareness of child abuse, maybe, just maybe it will lead us all to restore the lost balance among academics, athletics and partying.

We – the students, faculty and staff – are Penn State. Not Graham Spanier. Certainly not Jerry Sandusky. Not even Joe Paterno.

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Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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