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ESPN caught out of position

Only CNN cameras captured aftermath

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / November 11, 2011

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It’s never easy to cover chaos, or foresee the next twist in a story that keeps growing more surreal by the hour. When a major event is rapidly unfolding on live television, the fairest way after the cameras and microphones have been put away to judge how a network handled those circumstances is to compare its approach to that of a media outlet with similar resources.

It is with that acknowledgement that the clear conclusion can be drawn: In covering the firing of iconic Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier Wednesday night amid the maelstrom of child sex abuse allegations against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, there’s no doubt that CNN did a superior job to ESPN.

That was most evident in the aftermath of the announcement around 10 p.m. by the university’s Board of Trustees that Paterno had been dismissed immediately rather than given the opportunity to retire at season’s end, as he announced he would do earlier in the day.

The news that Paterno would not finish his 46th season led to an immediate and ominous gathering of students on the State College campus, estimated to be around 2,000 at its peak. CNN’s cameras were there for the beginning of the escalating tension between students and police dressed in riot gear. Stunningly, ESPN did not have a live camera in place and did not have footage of the tense scene until 11:15 p.m. Instead, it relied upon “SportsCenter’’ anchors Steve Levy and Stuart Scott to conduct phone interviews with a who’s who of ESPN college football experts and personalities.

While the thoughts of Kirk Herbstreit, Chris Fowler, and Matt Millen - the former Penn State linebacker who thankfully was far more lucid than he was during a tearful “SportsCenter’’ appearance earlier in the week - were mostly worthwhile, any viewer who was flipping between ESPN and CNN knew ESPN’s voices had nothing on CNN’s video.

The most important and immediate story wasn’t Paterno’s legacy, but what was unfolding on the campus that essentially deified him. It simply was not a scene that could be conveyed by talking heads.

Among ESPN personnel, it wasn’t just “SportsCenter’’ anchor Linda Cohn who was aware of CNN’s superior real-time coverage (she tweeted, “Turned to CNN, had to see for myself. #unreal’’). On ESPN’s “Front and Center’’ podcast yesterday afternoon, executive vice president of production Norby Williamson explained with some candor his feelings about the network’s coverage.

“I will tell you that while I applaud the voices and the totality of the coverage in everything that we did, you always learn something from this, and I think when we look back and we look at a point of comparison, I think we were late and were a little remiss on our live coverage of the scene on the ground at State College,’’ Williamson said.

“By point of comparison, in flipping back and forth and looking at what CNN did, CNN did a spectacular job of giving the viewer the flavor of those 20 minutes from about 10:50 to 11:10, somewhere in that window.

“CNN had their camera in the right spot at the right time as the student insurrection, the gathering started. CNN did a great job with those 20 minutes with a sense of State College visually, which I think is what the viewer wanted.’’

Williamson’s estimate of 20 minutes is probably conservative. But even if it is not, the reality is that ESPN fell behind early when it didn’t have an initial live video feed from the Board of Trustees’ press conference, during which the reaction of some in attendance bordered on the irrational. (One questioner of John Surma, the extraordinarily poised trustees vice chairman who made the announcement, warned, “The campus is going to burn tonight!’’)

That was quickly rectified, but even with the “wall-to-wall coverage,’’ as Williamson put it, on “SportsCenter,’’ ESPN seemed to be chasing the news the rest of the night, at one point even using recorded, static footage provided by Comcast SportsNet while CNN was live.

Williamson didn’t delve into detail about why ESPN failed to have cameras at the sites of the most heightened campus tensions. But he did indicate that the personnel on the scene had a difficult time mobilizing once the student crowds had become riotous.

“You can do all the planning that you want, but once something like that happens, it’s out of your control a little bit,’’ Williamson said. “The flexibility to move satellite trucks or even get into your car and move . . . your ability to maneuver is really totally different.

“I think we could have done a better job of anticipating where we needed to be.’’

ESPN’s reporters, particularly John Barr and Tom Farrey, were in the right spots and described what they saw vividly, but without the benefit of live video accompaniment. There were times as a viewer when one felt concern for their well-being, whether it was Barr describing the toppling of a news van or almost offhandedly noting he was worried about getting trampled by students running away from police. At one point, Farrey was hit by a rock, but he reported, “I’m fine. It was a small rock.’’

CNN’s coverage had its occasional hiccups. Anchor Isha Sesay showed the limits of her knowledge of the subject when she asked a field reporter when the Nittany Lions play their next game. And Anderson Cooper’s interview with Oprah-approved Dr. Phil McGraw was a good excuse to lunge for the remote control.

“Look, I’m very proud of our coverage,’’ said ESPN’s Williamson. “I think we’ve done a good job on the story all week and will continue to do a good job.

“The one thing I think we take away from [Wednesday] night is I think we missed the story a little bit for a window there being live on the ground when the insurrection happened.’’

Unfortunately for ESPN, that’s when the story was at its peak. And that’s when CNN was at its best.

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.