For the viewer, Monday and Tuesday evenings played out much the same. With little advance notice, a major news network promises an exclusive with a major figure in the Penn State scandal who has remained largely silent. With a quick press release and some social media goosing, the network hypes the appearance as best it can. It was only the actual broadcast and fallout that differed. NBC was praised effusively; CBS utterly destroyed.
It's inevitable but unfair to compare the two, because they came about through two completely different circumstances. The Sandusky phone interview came about by the work of a "booker," a producer at Rock Center whose primary or only job is to reach out to newsworthy people and get them on the show. It's not an easy job and it takes a certain mentality—part pitchman, part therapist, part agent—to convince a reticent subject that not only should they go on TV to tell their story, but they should do it for your network. NBC's booker landed attorney Joseph Amendola, likely through the promise of getting Bob Costas. Since Costas is the biggest and most dependable name in the field, Amendola knew he'd be getting the national attention he wanted, but also wouldn't be ambushed with an interrogation. It was a good get for NBC, and remember, the Sandusky phone-in was an unexpected bonus.
Armen Keteyian isn't Bob Costas, even though he's the biggest sports name CBS has to offer. Whereas Costas is a soothing boyish studio presence, Keteyian remains a reporter. He and a producer headed to State College over the weekend with nobody booked, just a camera crew and the plans to get whatever they could, for any CBS outlet who wanted it. (The dream result would be 60 Minutes, still the gold standard for TV newsmagazines.) Here's how Keteyian described it going down on The Sports Junkies in DC:
"It was one of those things where a lot of little pieces had to fall into place," he said. "It was hard to find Mike's address. Josh Gaynor - who's a producer here - Josh went up to the door. It turns out that it was the household we were looking for. Mike's wife came to the door. We were just basically gonna leave our cards in hopes of talking or meeting with Mike in the future.
"And then when Josh saw Mike in the house, he welcomed me up to the house, and I went up there and we were able to convince Mike to come to the door. And he wanted to speak out on the porch away from his wife, and that gave us an opportunity to talk. And then I just said to him, look, we've got a camera here, would you mind if we at least documented the fact that I was at the house? And he said it was OK.
Again, this is more akin to a young reporter on your local nightly news camping outside a disgraced politician's house in the hopes of getting a comment when they come out to check their mail. You would never see Bob Costas waiting on someone's lawn; Bob Costas has better things to do. But when Keteyian got more than a simple no-comment—McQueary saying he feels shaken "like a snowglobe" is a fabulous quote in any context—the CBS hype machine lumbered into action.
That's where things went wrong. The tape CBS got was perfectly usable, even spectacular with the right dressings: as part of a larger story on developments at Penn State. It did not deserve its own segment leading the CBS Evening News, and it did not deserve breathless promotion that failed to mention it would have nothing of the length, formality and value of the Sandusky interview the night before. But that's the nature of TV news. CBS knew NBC had landed a big scoop: Rock Center ratings were up 30 percent from the previous week. CBS also knows it's getting pounded in the Evening News timeslot. So they threw their hat in with their exclusive.
It was indeed an exclusive, and the first non-practice-at-a-distance footage of McQueary since everything hit the fan. So CBS was right to trumpet it, and you'll notice they never once referred to it as an "interview" in advance materials. But they were wrong and stupid not to temper people's expectations. Precisely because the timing was so similar to NBC's coup the night before, we all jumped to the conclusion that McQueary's talk would be the same: a sit-down interview rather than a gotcha interview. Because they neglected to make this clear, and probably did so on purpose for the ratings boost, they're getting much-deserved heat today. In a media conflagration like the Penn State scandal, you can't yell fire when there's only smoke.