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When the search for facts trumps the facts themselves: Filmmaker Goes Too Far by Naming Names

by on March 27, 2013 12:17 PM
This has been a crazy week for anyone hoping to understand what exactly happened in the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. Unfortunately, the only things we’ve learned is how difficult it is to determine what is truth and who can, or can’t, be trusted to deliver it. 
 
Documentary filmmaker John Ziegler has spent more than a year developing a film that exposes the media bias that led to the firing of Joe Paterno. Over time, his work developed into the belief that Paterno was framed for his involvement in the Sandusky case. Ziegler’s goal was to exonerate Paterno and help restore his name and reputation. 
 
Ziegler has put countless hours into this project. I have great respect for his dedication. Much of his analysis of the media reaction to the case has, in my opinion, been spot on. His mini-movie, The Framing of Joe Paterno, is an excellent representation of how the mainstream media created its own narrative about the scandal before they had all the facts.   
 
But in the last few weeks, it seems like Ziegler’s goal has been less about examining the media attention on Paterno and more about grabbing media attention for his own story. Ziegler’s methods have become increasingly convoluted and, in some cases, entirely inappropriate.
 
Starting on Monday morning, Ziegler made the talk show circuit to air audio of his exclusive jailhouse interviews with Sandusky. Several of the talk show hosts thought Ziegler was there to defend Sandusky and couldn’t see past their own narrative to get to Ziegler’s goal of discussing Paterno.
 
And that’s where Ziegler messed up.
 
Having a three hour interview with Sandusky is an amazing opportunity. If done the right way, it could provide valuable insight into the mind of a pedophile. It could help victim advocates and psychologists better understand how someone like this thinks and operates. It could help develop better tools for detecting pedophiles and identifying their behavior. Maybe Ziegler did come away with some of these details, but since most of the interview hasn’t been released, we don’t know yet. I hope there is more to come.
 
But the problem is, if your goal is to prove that the media railroaded Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky isn’t the person to talk to. Quoting Sandusky as saying that Paterno didn’t know about the sexual abuse allegations is like saying that the iceberg didn’t mean to cause the sinking of the Titanic. It doesn’t matter. Sandusky still maintains his innocence, so his responses to everything related to this case are largely irrelevant.
 
Continuing his attempt to clear Paterno’s name, Ziegler has also released information about Victim 2, the previously unknown boy that Mike McQueary saw in the shower with Sandusky. Ziegler uncovered a lot of information about the victim and, with collaboration from Sandusky, believes he can prove that no sexual abuse happened the night in question. Ziegler indicated on Monday night that he would publicize Victim 2’s name unless the young man contacted him to explain his side of the story. This is both unethical and out-of-character for someone who is trying to prove that the media has overstepped the boundaries of decency.
 
Although Ziegler later said that he would not release the victim’s name, he did it anyway. The document on his website has since been changed to conceal the name, but it was visible for several hours last night. If it was an honest mistake and the wrong file was uploaded to the web, I feel bad for Ziegler. Accidents happen. But I feel worse for the person named as Victim 2. Ziegler seems determined to keep the person’s identity public since, even without the name, he goes out of his way to provide detailed biographical information that can point the average person to the name.
 
And like the Sandusky interview, victim 2’s story doesn’t proves anything regarding the media reaction to Paterno or Penn State, which is Ziegler’s publicized goal. It’s possible that the boy McQueary saw is not the man Ziegler identified. It’s also possible that the man’s recollection about the night in question is wrong. But it’s not up to Ziegler, or anyone outside a courtroom, to force him to tell his story. 
 
Ziegler seems to have fallen into the trap of trying to be first rather than right with a big story. And just because information exists, that doesn’t mean it’s valuable.
 
I support the effort to look closely at the media reaction to the Sandusky scandal and to examine the errors of the Freeh Report. And, most importantly, to educate ourselves about child sexual abuse and how it happens. But focusing on getting the exclusive or developing new theories that aren’t central to the goal isn’t moving us any closer to the truth. I don’t think the Paternos or Penn State needs this kind of help.


Holly Swanson is a State College-based freelance writer. She is on Twitter @statecollegemom and can be reached via email at [email protected]
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