His bottom line? “I think you’d be hard pressed to make a case there’s a systemic problem at Penn State.”

What else do we know from present-day observers? In its discussion of Penn State, CampusReform.org, a project of the conservative Leadership Institute, noted the college has one of the nation’s largest Army ROTC programs and a “thriving” Air Force ROTC program. “Fortunately, Penn State’s administration seems supportive of these groups and the ROTC programs,” the site concluded.

Penn State has produced other leaders in conservative circles. One grad, Patrick Coyle, is a vice-president at the conservative Young America’s Foundation. In his online bio, he notes while on campus he “fought against liberal orthodoxy.”

The precise character of political relations at Penn State—in Santorum’s time or today—isn’t the most pressing issue of the 2012 campaign, or even of the upcoming Pennsylvania primary.

There is, though, an important takeaway: The impulse some journalists displayed here—to go out, report stories, and take a harder look at politicians’ rhetoric—is one that should be applied to larger issues. Too often when a politician says something that raises eyebrows, journalists assume “everybody knows” he or she is just appealing to the base. They then go on to write about what the political implications might be.

Sometimes, the claims are wrong, unsupported, or overblown. Sometimes, the answer isn’t clear.

Either way, journalists have a responsibility to take a close look at such claims. In this case, Heller, Redden, and Smeltz are among those who get points for doing just that.

Ken Knelly served as metro editor at The Times-Tribune in Scranton and as senior editor for government and business at The State in Columbia, S.C. He owns Clearberries, a communications consulting and training firm, and works for a Christian college in Northeastern Pennsylvania.