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Investigating the investigators at ESPN

ESPN’s investigative unit is a SEAL Team of American journalism, and Don Van Natta Jr. is one of its top operatives. His reports cut deep and often evoke cries of outrage. His most recent story for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com was a profile of Mike McQueary, one of the most intriguing characters in the Penn State sexual assault scandal.

After its publication last month, Van Natta’s story was praised by many, but also attacked by some for its outing of a sexual abuse survivor, use of anonymous sources, naming of a source who requested anonymity and its perceived bias against the convicted rapist Jerry Sandusky and the late coach Joe Paterno.

This would seem like piling on -- a 7,000-word story -- except that McQueary is expected to be a key witness in the upcoming trial of three top university officials accused of a cover-up. Not only may his credibility determine the fate of defendants threatened by long prison terms, it could reflect on the past actions of various interests in the university community and the media. Attacks on McQueary and/or Van Natta may thus signal those interests at work.

Which is not to say the attacks should be dismissed.

It seemed like an opportunity to examine the anatomy of an investigative report, arguably the most important form of journalism, and one whose techniques can sometimes seem slippery. Throughout several long conversations Van Natta was unfailingly professional, cooperative and yet assertive in defense of his methods. He also went on and off the record.

My interest in the Van Natta story was piqued in part by writer/filmmaker John Ziegler, who protested that Van Natta violated an agreement with him not to use the name of a grand juror he interviewed. The name of Ziegler’s site, Framingpaterno.com, is an accurate description of his perspective, and he theorizes ESPN’s choices in the story were dictated by a commitment to a simple narrative.

I was also alerted by several mailbag correspondents, who complained that McQueary’s admission of his sexual abuse was reported without his direct permission. That disclosure was the most sensational in Van Natta’s article, “The Whistleblower’s Last Stand.” As a 26-year-old graduate assistant coach, McQueary had walked in on Sandusky and a young boy in a Penn State football shower room on Feb. 9, 2001. A strapping 6-foot-5 former quarterback, McQueary was subsequently criticized for neither disrupting the action nor notifying the police. He said he informed his father that night and Paterno the next day.

A PAST TRAUMA SHARED

More than 10 years later, by then a Penn State assistant coach, McQueary cried as he told more than a dozen wide receivers and tight ends in his position group, according to Van Natta’s story, that “he could relate to the fear and helplessness felt by the boy in the shower because he too was sexually abused as a boy.”

According to his story, Van Natta interviewed “two players who were there and others familiar with the 40-minute session” and later in the piece quoted Patrick Flanagan, who had been a redshirt freshman receiver on the team, saying that “[McQueary] said he had some regret that he didn’t stop it.” It was not made clear in the article whether Flanagan was one of the two players there or one of the others, familiar with the 40-minute session, who spoke to Van Natta.

That kind of imprecision, presumably to protect sources who demanded anonymity, gives the impression of cutting corners. The confession itself was paraphrased, never offered as a direct quote. Despite alluding to long, mostly off-the-record conversations with McQueary himself, Van Natta never states whether or not the coach actually confirmed his locker-room declaration, much less gave the reporter permission to reveal it.

For some, that was unacceptable. Typical was an e-mail from Marcia Wright-Soika of Wilmington, Del., who wrote: “The reporter revealed that Mike McQueary privately told members of the Penn State football team in 2011 that he was a victim of sexual abuse. … The magazine went ahead and printed it anyway, violating a long-time journalistic principle that protects the privacy of sexual abuse and rape victims.”

Ethicist Kelly McBride, who previously served in an ombudsman role at ESPN as part of the Poynter Review Project, expressed her criticism on the Poynter Institute site. She wrote that Van Natta had not put the sexual abuse issue in context with enough reporting and concluded, “The threshold for identifying someone as a sexual assault survivor against his or her wishes should be exceedingly high. … Is there reason to doubt McQueary’s truthfulness about the abuse? There’s no reporting that supports or undermines his claim. The writer could have at the very least revealed McQueary’s reaction and McQueary’s father’s reaction, when they learned that ESPN was going to publish the story of the abuse.”

Her original story was later revised to include a response by Chad Millman, editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com, who expressed confidence in the reporting and described a carefully reached decision to print McQueary’s declaration. ESPN guidelines clearly prohibit identifying a victim of sexual abuse unless the victim publicly steps forward, as in a legal setting such as a civil suit, or if the story has a higher editorial imperative. It is not clear whether McQueary speaking to players in a position meeting can be interpreted as a public disclosure.

Said Millman, “Given that he is a central figure in the upcoming trial of Penn State officials and his own whistleblower lawsuit, a big focus is on what he saw, what he said and who he said it to. As a result, we carefully considered that if he was a victim of sexual abuse, that may have affected how he processed what he saw and what his reaction and statements were in the aftermath.”

BASIC QUESTIONS

Whatever the setting, reporters need to answer the basic question, “Who told you that?” And in particularly sensitive stories, there is an accompanying question, “Why did that person tell you that?”

That second question applies here and includes the motivation of Ziegler for sharing information with Van Natta, in this case the grand juror’s contact information, and the motivation of the grand juror for speaking to either of them. The tricky relationship between reporter and source is at play here, especially complex when the source has an axe to grind, as does Ziegler.

It was Ziegler who levied perhaps the most serious charge against Van Natta -- exposing the identity of the grand juror. Ziegler believed that Sandusky, Paterno and the former university officials facing trial had been victims of a rush to judgment, and he saw Van Natta as “a great white hope” whose story would “get to the truth” and “eviscerate” McQueary’s credibility.

Van Natta was aware of Ziegler’s take, and in one e-mail exchange with Ziegler, he agreed to keep the name anonymous. The grand juror (who asked me not to use his name for this story despite it already being on ESPN.com) had his own reason to talk; he was a Penn State graduate, a Paterno loyalist who, he told me, “almost cried at the attacks on Joe.” He told Van Natta, according to the magazine article, that “he was skeptical of McQueary’s claim that sexual acts were going on between the boy and Sandusky.”

In his story, Van Natta mentioned the grand juror’s name, hometown and workplace. Van Natta told me that was justified because the promise of anonymity was between Ziegler and the grand juror, not between him and the grand juror -- and the juror became Van Natta’s source once they made contact. During their conversation, Van Natta told me, the grand juror never requested anonymity, even when the reporter asked for such specific details as the spelling of his name, his address and where he worked.

The grand juror told me he had never requested anonymity from Van Natta because he assumed it had been promised; it was the reason he allowed Ziegler to offer up his e-mail and phone number. He said he was shocked after the story appeared and he began getting calls at work.

Van Natta’s response: “A few days later, the grand juror sent an unsolicited follow-up email with additional comments, presumably for the record because, once again, he didn’t say those remarks were on background or that he should not be quoted by name. I came away from all my communications with the grand juror convinced that he was not only willing to go on the record, but he was eager to do so.”

There appears to have been a miscommunication between Van Natta and the grand juror, who made clear to me he was anxious to get his opinion on ESPN, but not with his name attached.

THE GAMBLING QUARTERBACK

Beating up on Van Natta for naming a source is ironic since the basic rap on journalists, certainly including ESPN investigative reporters, is the overuse of anonymous sources. Van Natta, among others, is quick to admit that he would be out of business without them. He said: “Without anonymous sources I could not have done this piece or most of my pieces.”

Anonymous sources are the only sources in Van Natta’s recounting of McQueary’s “compulsive gambling habit” as an undergraduate football player. People referred to as “some who knew him then” and “several of his classmates and teammates” and “former coaches” and “a woman who worked for years in the football office” describe his “fa├žade” as a “model guy” while he was “fooling fans” and “pulling the wool over on Paterno,” who was “clueless” to the thousands of dollars McQueary lost to a bookie betting on his own game.

ESPN is rightly proud of tightening its guidelines on the use of anonymous sources in recent years, but the system seems to have slipped a gear here. Editors might have sent Van Natta back to find at least one identifiable voice. Van Natta contends that the entire issue is so “toxic” and the inhabitants of Happy Valley so sensitive that people simply refuse to go on the record even though what he was asking them about had happened 18 years earlier.

ESPN policy requires reporters to identify their anonymous sources to their supervising editors, which Van Natta says happened here. Millman seems to have been satisfied with the result. In answer to my question about why the gambling information was so important, he replied: “It revealed elements of McQueary's character and judgment from an early age and established, through comments of those in the football office, that Paterno could be unaware. Also, there is newsworthiness in discovering a college player and former starting quarterback for a high-profile program reportedly gambled on games, including his own when he was a backup.”

WHO DO WE TRUST?

Among the critics were those who argued ESPN and Van Natta left out details that could have countered that point of view. That’s all part of the deal for investigative reporters in the murky “Spy vs. Spy” world in which they operate. Because they usually know more -- or imply such -- than they can directly state or attribute, they often leave the reader/viewer with the choice of whether or not to trust the reporter. This is not always easy in an era of some infamous journalistic transgressions. Reporters become targets for those with special interests. In politics, it becomes more intense. In conflict zones, it can become deadly.

I wish Van Natta had come up with at least one on-the-record source for the gambling accusations; actually, I’d like to know whether McQueary kicked that habit or is still gambling. I wish Van Natta had clearly stated to the grand juror that their conversation was on-the-record, but I can understand the confusion; also, considering that the grand juror had a special interest in supporting the image of Paterno, I don’t think he was badly used.

And then there is the big hole in the story: Did Van Natta’s off-the-record conversations with McQueary confirm to him all those shards of information that, to the reader, could seem like rumor or speculation? Why was McQueary willing to talk so much to Van Natta yet not to the rest of us? Obviously we don’t know everything that Van Natta knows, but do we know everything we need to know to understand a tormented man with a key role in a terrible scandal?

Van Natta expects us to trust him. It’s what investigative reporters depend on. I happen to trust Don Van Natta Jr., but I feel forced to do so, and I’m not happy about that.