“The Third Rail: Stories We’re Not Supposed to Tell,” was one of the last sessions of this year’s Logan Symposium, and it was a good one.
The session’s panelists were journalist and author Peter Beinart, The City University of New York; Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, documentary filmmakers; Sara Ganim, CNN investigative reporter; and James Pomfret, Reuters. What they spoke about were stories that powerful forces didn’t want told.
Beinart told how his critique of the American Jewish establishment’s unswerving support of Israel has met with strong resistance in that community, including members of his own family.
Deal and Lessin spoke about a conflict that developed over public television support for their documentary, Citizen Koch, in which they believed that support was cut because of concern the documentary would offend the politically conservative billionaire Koch brothers, one of whom sat on the board of the public TV affiliate in New York.
Pomfret, senior China correspondent for Reuters based in Hong Kong, told of the death threats and censorship experienced by reporters in China, and spoke of his own difficulties covering casino gambling in Macau.
It was Sarah Ganim’s presentation that interested me the most – in part because of her critique of sports reporting, which I share. Ganim is the young reporter who, while at the Patriot News in Harrisburg, PA, broke the story of the grand jury investigation into former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. Her reporting of that child sex abuse scandal involving Sandusky, Penn State officials and head coach Joe Paterno won the Pulitzer Prize.
Ganim told how the rumors of Sandusky’s behavior were common currency around Penn State, where those rumors appeared “on message boards and blogs, but no one wanted to believe it.
“He was thought of as a man who could do no wrong,” said Ganim.
Ganim said that in the end, the reporters who knew about the allegations against Sandusky but didn’t report them behaved like uncritical, adoring fans – not independent chroniclers, as they were supposed to.
“There is something different about sports reporting,” she said. “There’s this psychology of the fans” that almost infects the reporters and can make them afraid to write anything that isn’t rah-rah and boosterish.
Those fans, said Ganim, “can be really rabid, they identify with their teams.” Write something negative about a team member or coach, she said, “and you’ve attacked them and they hate you.”
She was astonished, she said, that after her stories began to appear, she heard from those reporters.
“Oh, we heard that you were looking into it,” she said she was told.
“They didn’t want to do it. They wanted to come to the stadium and cover the football game.”
I’ve often been surprised at how uncritical sports reporting can be, especially on television, where the favorite question of reporters, say, at a Red Sox game is along the lines of “How thrilling was it to hit that triple in the ninth inning?” Pay attention the next time you watch a game, and count the number of times a reporter begins a question with the formulation, “How thrilling/wonderful/exciting/ was it for you when you ____________?”
That’s it for my dispatches from the Logan Symposium. I’m off to meet at Peet’s Coffee with reporter and Maine native Annie Murphy, whose radio and print dispatches from Latin America are models of literate, in-depth reporting. You can smell the air, taste the flavors and see the faces in Annie’s reporting, they’re that evocative.
Back in Maine tomorrow.