The Spectacle: John Ziegler, in Centre County, & the Confusion of the Joe Paterno Legacy

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I have had some exchanges with John Ziegler. You might know him, most famously, for the last standing dude who believes Sandusky was innocent, and makes a big show of it. Nobody knows exactly what his relationship with the Sandusky’s are, some say he was a paid spokesperson, a propaganda media of sorts. I’m not sure of the truth, but I doubt that. What I know from watching Ziegler, and reading everything for years, is that Ziegler loves the attention that comes with a wrangling opinion that is opposite of all the rest. He has made a living on it.

After all, if John Ziegler was agreeable, and agreed with all of us and was mainstream, nobody would give him the time of day, because average opinions are just that. Controversial opinions are different. They spark outrage, and they spark a need to respond. Ziegler doesn’t have a face or demeanor for television. He is a natural born radio host. Famed author, whom I am about to quote a lot through this article, David Foster Wallace wrote this: A hosts persona is not the same as outright acting. For the most part, it’s probably more like the way we all are slightly different with some people than we are with others.

Ziegler admittedly has his cult following. There is a breed of die-hard Penn Staters who think Sandusky was “framed,” and without a shadow of a doubt Ziegler is the cult leader. I was there initially, and if you are from that tiny twisted town of Happy Valley, you were probably there too. Nobody wanted to believe the pervasive rumors of Jerry Sandusky. I was in high school when I first heard them from kids going to State High at the second mile. I was working in Philadelphia when the grand jury presentment on Sandusky came out, I remember specificially thinking to myself “F#ck, so the whole thing was true after all.”

A rumor is a rumor. There were pervasive rumors all over. I was a docent at the historic Boal Mansion. Not because I really wanted to be interested in history, but more to build my extra curriculars on my college application. My best friend in high school joined me, her dad was a real estate broker for remax. Neither of us had driver’s licenses so we got driven there by her mother who was an art professor. She said in the car, “Now you two girls need to watch yourself.” She was talking about Chris Lee, the last remaining Boal of Boalsburg who owned the Boal mansion. He wasn’t interested in little girls though, he was interested in little boys. Point is this: In a small town rumors are rampant. Some of them are true and some of them are false. I would be lying to you if I told you I never heard shady things about Chris Lee, I would also be lying to you if I wrote here I never heard a shady thing about Jerry Sandusky.

Like I said, I went to State High. My understanding of the Second Mile was that they brought talented athletes in from inner city schools to give them the best education possible at State High. But don’t be stupid. State High was a blue ribbon school. Still is one of the top public high schools in the nation. You can’t find a private school in the vicinity of Centre County that can match the type of education, and competititive athletics you will find at State High. Basically newcomers moving to State College who seek out charter schools or private schools just haven’t done their homework. When I entered my freshmen year of college, I was a cut above the rest at the University of Georgia. They were teaching things to me in entry level english courses that I had learned my sophomore year of high school in the State College Area School District. Some of these idiots from rural Georgia didn’t know what a semi colon was. And this was a “good” state school. State College Area High School set me up for life. PhD’s who couldn’t get jobs at Penn State took teaching jobs, it was literally a college campus. State High also cut me down. The competition for grades and athleticism was astounding to me. These were the sons and daughters of academics. State High was a serious, competitive, wealthy and driven high school. I would have likely excelled more at Bellefonte Area High School, State High is a serious place of academic learning, and the demands at that school are unlike any other country public school or private school you can find in that region. There is a level of stress that comes with going to State High, because the bar is set high and the competition is cut throat.

Meanwhile, my understanding of the Second Mile was limited. There was little diversity. The Second Mile kids came in and went to school along side us. They all happened to be talented athletes. There was a reason that State High Athletic Teams were winning state championships. The Second Mile imported athletes. And it was a second opportunity, to go to an almost all white wealthy school in bedroom community and excel due to their physical abilities. The school excelled too, producing NBA and NFL players, and college scholarships for athletics left and right. Producing, among the top five percent of the class, ivy league students. The class sizes were large, State High is not a gentle school, the level of competition and the expectations of academic and athletic success were crippling. The class size of over a thousand made it nearly impossible to be competitive for a student that would have been top of the class in a podunk community.

Bottomline is I remember the rumors. I sat with my track and field friends during a lunch period. “Jerry is weird.” Or, “Stay away from Jerry.” The year was 2001, it was ten years before the grand jury struck. The Second Mile students staying at the Second Mile center didn’t necessarily have proof, but they heard about it from other kids. Just like Christopher Lee, the rumor was out there. But the rumor entailed more of a “watch yourself” message, than anything else. There was no talk of law enforcement or reporting, it was just one of those things spread by concerned citizens or peers in my class, “don’t let you catch yourself alone there with that person, because people are saying he is weird.” And that was it, nothing traumatic, no specifics, just a rumor. Which is what makes Sandusky or Chris Lee so eerie, it was like people knew all along. It was public knowledge that these guys were creeps, and the reaction was not inflammatory, it was calm and cool and cautionary, “watch yourself” because I heard X or I heard Y.

Nobody really knew about Ziegler. Characters like Sarah Ganim or John Ziegler did not come on the scene until law enforcement and the courts came down with an indictment. Ziegler wa a character who seemed to profit and grow famous, or gain infamy, over a tragedy that struck our community like a hurricane. I was long gone by then, finished with college and working in the city. I remember reading about it, and I felt sick. So it was true after all, those “watch yourself” warnings weren’t expressed by Second Mile kids pissed off at authority or exaggerated by adults who were employed and annoyed by the Penn State beaurocracy. All that was true, and we knew it for – or at least had heard the rumors – for so many years.

Knowing it before the indictment hit made me forgive Joe Paterno, who formed our culture – even in high school. Who valued academics and athletics, who wasn’t money driven, who gave almost every penny he made back into the university. Or in his words, spent a life time turning boys into men.

Lots of people came out of the woodwork when the Sandusky scandal broke. I was in Philadelphia working in an law office in Center City. The shock of Sandusky didn’t effect me as much as it did the people around me, like Chris Lee, people had told me before. Not in definitive terms, but sort of like a rumor.

I have to say though, this article is not really about that. This article is about John Ziegler. Zeigler showed up like a fly on fresh shit. There was publicity to be had, and he had made his living on controversary.

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I’ve had my run in’s with Zeigler. He’s from California and a Georgetown graduate, his background is one that you think he would judge instead of defend. But if you look at Ziegler’s history as a radio show host, he made a living on saying things that raised eyebrows. When David Foster Wallace wrote about him, describing his gravelly basso whisper, and his beginnings at KFI AM-640 radio, Wallace was ruthless.

Wallace described a talk show radio host who had nearly gone flat out broke before making it big in California: He moved out here to LA over christmas – alone, towing a U-haul – and found an apartment not far from KFI studios, which are in an old part of the Koreatown district. 

Wallace portrays a younger man who is not at all dissimilar to the man who showed up to capitalize on the biggest scandal in Happy Valley History. In our lowest moments, Ziegler showed up to run his mouth and make money over our deepest shameful secrets. In front of national press, Ziegler set out not to defend us, or neither to embarrass us, he set out to propel his own name into fame by connecting it with the worst moments of our lives in this small town, a town none of the media really ever covered or paid attention to, except to know that it was the home of Joe Paterno.

If you look at Ziegler, he is exactly what you expect, Dressed, as in his custom for golf, wearing a white billed cap with a corporate logo, Ziegler appeared not in a suit like a lawyer or a politician, but like some accessible frat boy. And so many people wanted so very much to believe him. We didn’t want to buy into to the nightmare that something like Sandusky could happen in Happy Valley. Wallace says he was handsome in a somewhat bland way. I disagree whole heartedly. Perhaps Ziegler could have been handsome, but it was the fairy tale, deceptive and manipulative lies he was spewing from his small mouth, with his invisible adams apple lost in his double chin. Of course we all wanted to believe no such thing like Sandusky could happen in our world, of course Ziegler was speaking the fairy tale we all wanted so badly to hear. But it wasnt’ true.

Even our patriarch, our town hero, the defining man of this small town who we all admired and aspired to be like, even Joe Paterno admitted it was true. Ziegler was just a liar, and making a lot of money and gaining a lot of national press, selling a story we all so badly wished was true.

The interviews would come later. Long after we all stopped taking Ziegler seriously and became embarrassed by his presence. Dottie Sandusky appearing on late night television, with Ziegler perched next to her in his characteristic bulging eyes, interruptive fashion. The show was not about Dottie, or what she suffered, or what this entire town suffered at the hands of a monster. To Ziegler, on one of his rare appearances on national television, it was all about Ziegler. And the broken hearted, christian, half delusional, scarred scrap of a woman Dottie brought him along. She too wanted to believe Ziegler, and she does. To this day, I believe that Dottie Sandusky believes Ziegler. Not because Dottie has evidence that her husband is innocent, no not at all – Dottie believes Ziegler because she loved her husband and the actions of her husband are so unthinkable that she cannot force herself for even a second to believe any of it is true. That interview was reminiscent of a description in the David Foster Wallace article: When Mr. Ziegler’s impassioned, his voice rises and his arms wave around (which obviously only those in the radio studio can see). He also fidgets, bobs slightly up and down in his executive desk chair and weaves.

Ziegler was not about the cause. I actually don’t believe in my heart that Ziegler believes in his heart that Sandusky is innocent. I think to Ziegler it’s all just been a big show. But instead of sitting on a radio show, where nobody can see his exaggerated gestures and bobbing and weaving, suddenly he is sitting on the national news with the nation tuning in. Suddenly the painful lies he is propogating have made him center stage.

Wallace describes the early Ziegler as a Rush Limbaugh character. Inflammatory, republican, slightly less racist than Limbaugh (but still racist). Bent to bend people out of shape, because when do you really listen to talk radio? It’s not the 1960s, you listen to talk radio when your caught in traffic driving, and likely already in an angry state due to your circumstances. There is an underlying pattern of the John Ziegler show that is, thanks to it’s socialistic leanings, incompetent media, eroding moral foundation, aging demographics, and undereducated masses, the United States, as we know it, is doomed. In my view we don’t know how much longer we still have to enjoy it, so we shouldn’t waste precious moments constantly worrying or complaining about it. However, because not everyone in this country is yet convinced of this seemingly obvious reality, the show does see merit in pointing out and documenting the demise of our nation and will take great pains to do so. And because most everyone can agree that there is value in attempting to delay the sinking of the titanic as long as possible, whenever feasable, the John Ziegler show will attempt to do its part to plug whatever holes in the ship it can. With that said, the show realizes that no matter how successful it (or anyone else) may be in slowing the downfall of our society, the final outcome is pretty much inevitable, so we might as well have a good time watching the place fall to pieces.

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David Foster Wallace remarked that, the superficial glib long gone “plugging the holes” of the American demise. But what happens when “plugging the holes” results in delusion. Yes we all wanted to believe in the innocence of Sandusky because we did not want the university or our small happy little town to be ruined across the news. Yes, none of us wanted to believe that something as terrible as Sandusky anally raping little boys on campus could occur here. But it did happen. So plugging the holes and denying the truth did little, or is doing little, to help with a necessary forward moving progression of the future. So the Ziegler cult followers who are caught in this want to believe, this hopeful dellusional conspiriacy theory that this is all one big set up, well – I feel sorry for those people. Because what happened did happen, and I used to believe in the tooth fairy and fairy tales too. But at some point we have to grow up and address things head on. And that is what Joe Paterno wanted. Paterno never came out and said “Sandusky is innocent” and this is all a big set up. Paterno said “kids go home and take care of yourself, go study and get up tomorrow.” And he also said the most comforting words I have yet to hear in my life: “Things have a way of working themselves out.”

Had Paterno said “It never happened,” or “It was a conspiriacy to get me out of coaching,” then maybe I wouldn’t be sitting here telling you what I am telling you. But if this man we deified, who formed a culture and formed a community, never came out and publicly denied the actions of Sandusky, then even the most bleeding heart Penn State fans should take a deep breath and accept the horrible truth. Sandusky did it, and fairy tale weavers like Ziegler – while they might be easier to believe than the unthinkable – are just that: Weavers of fables and fairy tales.

Ziegler isn’t for the truth. Ziegler is a talking head in want of fame so badly, that he is willing to settle for infamy. It goes without saying that there are all different kinds of stimulation. Depending on ones politics, sensitivieis and tastes in argumentation, it’s not hard to think of objections to John Ziegler’s climatic claim, or at least some urgent requests for clarification. Leaving aside whether John Ziegler’s claims are clear or coherent, is it even remotely helpful or productive to make huge, sweeping claims about some other region’s/culture’s inferiority to us. What possible effects can such remarks have except to incite hatred. Aren’t they sort of irresponsible?

Wallace said this in the 1990s about Ziegler on a fledgling California radio show. What has really changed? Ziegler is still that man who is preying on the sensitivities. Or maybe it is better to say that he is part of a peculiar, modern, and very popular type of news industry, one that manages to enjoy the authority and influence of journalism without the stodgy constraints of fairness, objectiviy and responsibility that make trying to tell the truth such a drag for everyone involved. It’s a frightening industry, though not for any of the simple reasons that critics give.

In other words, Ziegler’s modus operandum and money making scheme to garnish public attention has changed little in the 20 years of time that David Foster Wallace wrote that article. In the era of “Fake News”, both on CNN and on Fox, Ziegler was maybe a little ahead of his time. He was predacious on human vulnerabilities and sensitivities in the 1990s, and in finding the Penn State scandal, he managed to find a population full of the most vulnerable, shocked, grief stricken and devastated people who were literally reeling in trauma. It was the perfect backdrop for a fairy tale, where he could fabricate and manipulate evidence to make a pain filled population who wanted to believe, that maybe none of it ever happened at all.

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For this is how much of contemporary political talk radio understands its function: to explore the day’s news in a depth and detail that other media do not, and to interpret, analyze, and explain that news.

Which all sounds great, except of course “explaining” the news really means editorializing, infusing the actual events of the day with the host’s own opinions. And here is where the real controversy starts, because these opinions are, as just one person’s opinions, exempt from strict journalistic standards of truthfulness, probity, etc., and yet they are often delivered by the talk-radio host not as opinions but as revealed truths, truths intentionally ignored or suppressed by a “mainstream press” that’s “biased” in favor of liberal interests.

Without getting to philosophical or esoteric, I realize there are different metaphysical and ephemoral versions of truth, and that media can “spin” things one way or another, and people subscribe to different media outlets that are inlign with their beliefs. But at the end of the day, there is one truth, and there is one reality. Your opinion on that one truth is yours, and you might want to watch the news media outlet that presents the truth in a way that is in line with your own moral values, but at the end of the day and at the end of it all – regardless of your opinion, or John Ziegler’s opinion – the shit happened: The fact of the matter is that it is not John Ziegler’s job to be responsible, or nuanced, or to think about whether his on-air comments are productive or dangerous, or cogent or even defensible.

Like many of you, I stayed up late last night watching Al Pacino on HBO play Paterno. I wanted to see if Hollywood could ever understand what happened in my hometown. I wanted to see what the rest of the world thought of us. I wanted to know that while I am here in Atlanta, and I say I am from State College, what are people’s immediate impressions and conclusions? So many times after I tell people where I am from, their immediate response is to inquire about Sandusky.

Years ago that was not the case. Prior to Paterno dying, prior to Sandusky scandal, I was in college at the University of Georgia.

“Where are you from?”

“State College, Pennsylvania,” I would respond with a smile, because everyone at University of Georgia (or almost everyone was from Georgia).

“Is that the name of the town?” So many would respond..

“Yes, but some people call it Happy Valley, it’s home to Penn State.”

“Oh yeah…. Penn State….. Isn’t that where that Joe Paterno guy coaches?”

Now times have changed. I live in Atlanta instead of Athens, and when I tell people where I am from they don’t ask about about Paterno any more. They ask about Sandusky. I recently quit smoking cigarettes, but indulge in them from time to time. It was Christmas in 2017, and I was in Savannah, Georgia where my parents retired. Ironically enough, Joe Paterno’s oncologist built a vacation house and eventual retirement home across the street. They are never home, and my parents keep an eye on their home. Like a good southern home they have a set of rocking chairs on the front porch.

My middle brother still smokes cigarettes, so I cheated. We snuck off, far far away from where my parents couldn’t smell cigarette smoke when they went to bed. We sat in the rocking chairs of Joe Paterno’s oncologist’s empty retirement home. It was dark and the crickets were buzzing, because in Georgia in December – it’s nice and warm and crickets buzz.

My brother gave me a cigarette and we sat down in the Georgia darkness in the rocking chairs of some big old house. He said, “Hey doesn’t some guy from State College own this place?”

“Yeah, Joe Paterno’s oncologist.”

“What’s an oncologist?”

“It’s a cancer doctor.”

“Joe died of cancer?”

“Sort of,” I responded, looking at my cigarrette with a measure of guilt knowing Jo Pa died of lung cancer. “Technically he died of lung cancer,” The sad irony struck me then, smoking a cigarette on the porch of Joe Paterno’s cancer doctor. Then, after a minute, I extinguished my cigarette in a the coke can we had brought, I was full of guilt. “Technically he died of lung cancer, but actually in reality, I think he died of a broken heart.”

“Yeah I could see that, Penn State killed him.”

I half agreed and half disagreed, but didn’t have the insight yet to respond. It was both Penn State and Sandusky. Sandusky ruined a lot of things, one of them was Joe Paterno. Penn State could have prevented both. Paterno, a man I grew up respecting, and whose principles were driven into me long before I ever understood the significance and importance and impact on so many people’s lives. So when people like Al Pacino or Ziegler, get up on TV for some fame and destroy a reputation, my heart breaks too.

Zeigler can say what he would like. He lives in California and is from Philly. He is not one of us. He is a canniving carpet bagging fame seeking talking head who says whatever controversial things he can possibly say so the news will publish it. Too ugly for being a TV anchor, he sits like Rush Limbaugh (a hate spewing coward) in a basement somewhere saying whatever the hell he thinks people will talk about, regardless if he truly believes it. David Foster Wallace was right about the hypocrisy of Ziegler. Ziegler is full of shit and out to make a living, he is a living hypocrit. The crowned king of fake news. There are four final points I want to drive home to him:

  1. Paterno never denied the charges in the Sandusky indictment
  2. Paterno urged us to pray for the victims, that it was never about him, and that things have a way of working themselves out.
  3. Hollywood will never understand State College like someone whose lived it
  4. John Ziegler is like most every talking head on the news, don’t buy a word of it. He’s out for the attention, and trying to make a living.

 

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