Palin Champion’s New Project: Clearing Joe Paterno’s Name

Radio host and filmmaker John Ziegler has a new documentary in the works.

Gene J. Puskar, File / AP

John Ziegler, a political filmmaker and radio host best known for his exuberant support of (and public fallout with) Sarah Palin, has a new mission: exposing what he believes to be the unfair tarnishing of late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s reputation.

Ziegler (read more about his background in this excellent David Foster Wallace Atlantic piece and in his own denunciation of Palin) is raising money to make a documentary about the assassination of Paterno’s character by reporters covering the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

An energetic Ziegler replied in under a minute to BuzzFeed’s e-mail query. He has no obvious ties to Penn State, and says his lifelong concerns about media bias drive his interest in the issue. “I think the Penn State story is one of the worst examples of media malpractice that we’ve ever seen,” he said. “It was very clear to me early on this was a story ripe for media malpractice, but it was worse than I ever could have imagined.”

The problem, according to Ziegler, started in November of 2011 when the NBA was on strike, football was in a lull and there was little other sports news. It’s at that point, he says, that ESPN and other outlets began to turn what was a story about Jerry Sandusky into a story about Paterno.

“The media is full of cowardly stupid people who act in packs,” he said. “They’re in an echo chamber and they think there’s only one side to the story.”

Ziegler has made a career of sweeping in to become the loudest voice of an outnumbered minority on a controversial issue. In his op-ed about Sarah Palin in The Daily Caller he referred to himself as a sort of “shadow spokesman” for the former governor, who gave up much of his life and savings to rally for her before their falling-out.

It seems he’s heading down the same path for the Paterno family, whether they like it or not. On Twitter, Ziegler has a following of Paterno dead-enders who, like him, believe that the coach was exonerated by investigators, acted appropriately, and wasn’t given the right to due process when the Penn State Board of Trustees fired him.

Ziegler’s project is divided into five steps (detailed on his website here); he promises to release a sort of summary short on YouTube in November and is hoping that by next year, he can complete a full-length documentary to be shown in theaters on the East Coast and later iTunes, cable channels, Hulu and Netflix. So far, he said, he’s raised about $26,000 for the project and spoken to sources including former football players, Board of Trustees members, former PSU president Graham Spanier and even members of the Paterno family.

“The idea that there was a cover-up in this case, a concerted cover-up, is absolutely, positively preposterous,” he said. “It doesn’t even pass the original smell test. It makes no sense, and it didn’t happen, and that I’m sure of.”

Asked about statements Paterno made to journalist Joe Posnanski shortly before he died that he wished he had done more, Ziegler said: “That’s the most misinterpreted statement in the history of man. The head of the TSA after 9/11 said he wishes he had done more. Is he responsible for 9/11?”

John Ziegler, a cardboard cutout of Joe Paterno, and former Penn State star Franco Harris.

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