Journalist and bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell visited State College to discuss the future of journalism and his latest book, ‘Talking to Strangers,’ on Wednesday at the State Theatre.
The premise of ‘Talking to Strangers’ revolves around the dangers people encounter every day by “defaulting to the truth” and assuming the best in others they don’t know very well. One chapter, in particular, focuses on the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal at Penn State, and Gladwell spent a bit of time during his talk discussing its implications and what, he believes, led university leaders to act as they did.
“People defaulted to the truth about Penn State and Joe Paterno because they believed that powerful institutions always cover up crimes,” he wrote in the book, which was released this past fall. “The misleading Grand Jury presentment led to a mismatched university response driving a media and society default to misplaced guilt.”
On Wednesday, he added that “Learning how to forgive people who’ve been deceived is really hard. Sometimes they’re negligent. Other times they’re not.”
When asked about the chapter on Wednesday, Gladwell responded with a question of his own, asking if Joe Paterno’s statue, which was removed in July 2012, had been put back up. When he was informed that it hadn’t, Gladwell affirmed, on two separate occasions, that he thinks it should return. Both times, Gladwell received a round of applause from the audience. He also went as far as to call the prosecution of university administrators “egregious.”
“I don’t know on what basis you’d take a man’s statue down for following his university’s policies,” he said. “Put the statue back up, because that statue is in honor of someone’s skill, integrity, accomplishments as a football coach. None of those things are in question here.”
Gladwell, who didn’t spend much time in the book discussing Paterno, elaborated that he believes that the late coach did what he was expected to do and shouldn’t be held to the same standard as someone with an advanced degree in clinical psychology.
“There’s a reason psychologists go and get years of training,” he said. ‘It’s because human psychology is complicated. We default to truth when we don’t have the necessary training.”
Because the event was focused on promoting student journalism, Gladwell also discussed his opinions on the coverage of the Sandusky scandal. He said while the case was unfolding, he emailed several sportswriters to ask questions and could tell many hadn’t done all their research, which he described as reading every court transcript end to end and footnote by footnote.
“One of the things that has always disturbed me about my profession is, in high-profile cases, journalists aren’t as scrupulous as they should be in their reporting,” he said. “Having read everything there is to read on this case, it’s not clear to me [Paterno] did anything wrong. He did everything he was reasonably expected to do.”