The article Justice Delayed written by Rachel Smolkin in the American Journalism Review made for interesting reading. It purported to provide an unbiased review of the news coverage of the Duke case. It seemed to deliver on that promise until I read this:
In the News & Observer, metro columnist Ruth Sheehan also produced an early conspiracy-of-silence rant. Her March 27, 2006, piece began: "Members of the Duke men's lacrosse team: You know. We know you know. Whatever happened in the bathroom at the stripper party gone terribly terribly bad, you know who was involved."
Unlike many columnists, however, Sheehan reassessed as evidence of the players' innocence deepened. Her April 13, 2006, piece, published three days after defense attorneys announced that DNA tests found no links between the accuser and the athletes, invoked the specter of Tawana Brawley, the black girl whose 1987 account of a gang rape by white law enforcement officers quickly unraveled. "There is no punishment on the books sufficient for a woman who would falsely accuse even the biggest jerks on campus of gang rape," wrote Sheehan, who then divulged that she had been raped 20 years ago that week. At the time, she told no one.
The problem with praising this reporter's change is that it celebrates a swing from one extreme to the other. The ethical solution to unsubstantiated accusations against the Duke players based on a visceral reaction isn't to make unsubstantiated accusations against the alleged victim or to make sensationalistic comparisons that "invoke the specter" of a previous case.
This article fails to mention those who compared the Duke lacrosse players to the Scottsboro boys who were black men convicted and sent to prison for the alleged rape of white women. Apparently, if the lacrosse players were innocent then the comparison was seen as valid journalism no matter how many major flaws there were in this comparison or how this comparison attempted to elevate this case to the biggest injustice since the 1930s. This omission sends the message that racist hyperbole is fine if directed at the right target.
The solution to the sensationalism attacked in the article isn't to switch who you say is wearing the black hats with who you say is wearing the white hats. The alleged victim has still not been charged with a crime, but this article puts forth the idea that it is good journalism to say "There is no punishment on the books sufficient ..."? I don't think so. That might or might not be a good punditry, but it isn't good journalism.
Many of those praised for good journalism made this same mistake and demonized this woman and Nifong. They are labeled as good journalists or as neutral observers only because they picked the "right" side in this case, not because their journalism was or is good.
Anyone who calls this case a hoax fails the good journalism test. This article quotes at least one person as an expert observer who does call this case a hoax, but that isn't mentioned. There has been no proof that the alleged victim perpetrated a hoax or made any intentionally false statements. There has been no proof that Nifong knew that the players were innocent and decided to frame them in order to win an election.
But hey, why wait for proof?
If it's wrong for people to make assumptions about the lacrosse players who attended the party based on one player's email which reveled in violent images of skinning women and which referenced the party where a crime was alleged, then of course it must be right to make assumptions about the DA Nifong based on the fact that he was facing an election that would decide whether or not he kept his job.
This second narrative still sells. And isn't that the bottom line?
This article makes it clear that prosecutors' public statements cannot be accepted as is, but AG Cooper's statements are accepted as is even though he faced enormous political pressure to not only investigate this case but to declare these men "innocent" if there wasn't enough evidence to prove their guilt. And he gave those applying the pressure exactly what they wanted. He mirrored Nifong yet he got praised for doing so. He got praise for making statements about someone not charged with any crime because he directed those statements at what the public considered an appropriate target.
Many of the so-called good journalists discredited the second dancer's credibility before she changed her story to support the lacrosse players but once she made that switch she magically became a credible witness rather than being someone who could have sensed the wind changing and who adapted perfectly to that change. Her revised story has been accepted without question, but core credibility doesn't work that way.
Now that the case has been dropped, accepting the statements of all the players and all defense attorneys without question is as dangerous as accepting the initial statements made by Nifong. They clearly want to do more than see the criminal case resolved, they want to control the narrative.
The current "Nappy Headed Hoax" narrative not mentioned once in this article is about selling books and boosting the pundits' celebrity status. What's journalistic standards got to do with it?
One paragraph of this long article mentions that not all the offensive comments were directed at the lacrosse team by citing 2 slurs used for the alleged victim, but the ratio of offensiveness which occurred doesn't begin to match that described in this article.
There was a strong narrative from the beginning that said basically, "She's a n****r 'ho and therefore the players are innocent." This narrative that denies the possibility of criminal sexual violence against strippers or 'hos isn't mentioned in this article a single time not even when referencing the offensive terms used to describe this woman.
The high interest in this case is mentioned, but this journalist fails to mention other journalists who used limited crime statistics to put forth the idea that white men don't rape black women or who used this case to attack all prosecutors who dare to prosecute those accused of committing sex crimes against slimy women like this one or who used this case to attack all victim advocates.
The author of this article attacks the New York Times for saying the evidence was ambiguous but uses a defense attorney as the expert "proving" this claim to be false. That's the same mistake journalists made when they relied on Nifong as their unchallenged expert.
This article makes the mistake of oversimplifying the evidence in this case and making it seem like every detail of what happened has been proven not just beyond a reasonable doubt, but period. Digital photographs -- which can be doctored -- are accepted as unquestionable proof with no need to explain how journalists know these specific pictures couldn't have been doctored or had their timestamps altered.
These are pictures which the alleged victim stated must have been altered, but apparently there is no need for any journalist to investigate this claim. We just know she's a liar, isn't that enough?
Good journalism needs to consider, "What if we are wrong, what if the system ultimately got it wrong?" when there is an exoneration or dropping of the charges as well as when there are criminal charges made.
Good journalism also needs to consider whether attempting to try the case in the media is a miscarriage of good journalistic principles that can and will be exploited by whoever provides material that makes good copy or good sound bites.
In the fight to control the narrative between the prosecution and the defense many real crime victims get trampled, but that isn't even worth mentioning a single time in this article.
The author of this article captures what I still see happening after this so-called correction:
Perhaps the most complex lessons about the media coverage of the Duke case involve issues of narrative. Unquestionably, the media too readily ran with a simplistic storyline, sacrificing a search for truth.
Unfortunately this article, like the stories it covers, ultimately settles for a simplistic storyline.