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Bob Costas was the talk of the media world in November when he interviewed Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach who on June 22 was convicted on 45 counts of child sexual abuse.
“Are you sexually attracted to underage boys?” he asked.
Sandusky repeated the question back to Costas.
“What are you willing to concede that you’ve done that was wrong?” he asked. Sandusky: “I shouldn’t have showered with those kids.”
An incredulous Costas: “That’s it?”
And so it went.
But behind the scenes, there was a fair amount of wrangling that went into landing the interview, as Costas and Rock Center executive producer Rome Hartman relay in a cover story for The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Costas had been working contacts in an effort to land interviews with Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who testified he’d seen Sandusky in the shower with a young boy, and head coach Joe Paterno, to whose son Jay he’d been reaching out.
NBC News bookers were in State College, Pa., circling Sandusky and his attorney Joe Amendola, who agreed to an exclusive interview when he learned Costas would conduct it for the network’s Rock Center.
Costas had read the gruesome grand jury report and spent an hour on the phone the day before with a social worker who specializes in forensic interviews with sexual abuse victims for the New York Police Department. But as Amendola was en route to New York — on an NBC-chartered plane — executives began to see promos for a CNN interview with him.
“I expressed my displeasure in fairly colorful terms,” Hartman said, adding that he does not know if Amendola made the last-minute and now-infamous suggestion to get Sandusky on the phone with Costas out of a misguided effort to make amends. “He knew, and we kept reiterating, that what we really wanted was an interview with his client.”
The call was patched through the control room. It lasted 36 minutes. At one point, the line died and producers had to phone Sandusky back.
The segment on the Brian Williams-hosted newsmagazine ran for eight minutes, but Costas pushed for more.
“I felt like they should have blown out whatever segment was after it,” he says. (It was a piece about Alabama’s controversial immigration law.) “They did make more time for it than they had originally formatted. Let’s put it this way: They had a big inning but left a few men on base.”
In retrospect, Hartman agrees, though he points out, “There was no shortage of damning stuff” in those eight minutes.
“It was a phoner, and it was one of the most gripping interviews that any of us will ever see,” he said. “Bob was pitch-perfect. He was respectful on a human level, but he didn’t give a single inch.”
Indeed, the interview (an extended version of which ran online) continued to reverberate throughout Sandusky’s trial. An exchange about his charity work — during which Sandusky said, “I didn’t go around seeking out every young person that I’ve helped for sexual needs” — was of particular interest to prosecutors, who on June 15 asked NBC News lawyers to authenticate a full, unedited transcript of the interview.
NBC News — and certainly dozens of other outlets — are still pursuing a sit-down with Sandusky and his wife, Dottie. But Costas prefers to let his November interview stand as his contribution to exposing an abuse that destroyed dozens of lives and ripped the lid off the insular world of college athletics.
Said Costas: “I don’t want to be in the Jerry Sandusky business.”
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