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When Duke prosecutor Mike Nifong lost his license to practice law a few days ago, it was an appropriate outcome for a district attorney who capitalized on a racially-charged accusation to pursue a non-existent rape case to bolster his chances for reelection. But what about the other culprits?
While Nifong vigorously prosecuted the now unraveled case, many in the media persecuted with equal vigor the falsely accused players, their parents, and those jocks in general who had the misfortune to be both male and white. New York Times columnist Serena Roberts, along with her reporting colleagues at the nation’s most prestigious newspaper, was a prime offender.
In a now infamous column, Ms. Roberts penned for last March 31, two weeks after the rape charge was made, the columnist opined:
At the intersection of entitlement and enablement, there is Duke University, virtuous on the outside, debauched on the inside. This is the home of Coach K’s white-glove morality and the Cameron Crazies’ celebrated vulgarity.
The season is over, but the paradox lives on in Duke’s lacrosse team, a group of privileged players of fine pedigree entangled in a night that threatens to belie their social standing as human beings.
While admitting, sarcastically, that the rape charge could be “baseless,” as the accused claimed, Ms. Roberts noted that the players “had been forced” to give DNA samples but that “to the dismay” of investigators, nobody had come forward to provide a damning account of the evening in question. Ms. Roberts charged that the silence stemmed from fear of being a snitch. “Does [Duke University President Richard] Brodhead dare to confront the culture behind the lacrosse team’s code of silence or would he fear being ridiculed as a snitch?” she added.
We now know that the culture that President Brodhead might have dared to confront but didn’t was the professorial culture of radicalism that led the so-called Gang of 88 members of the university’s faculty to take out a screaming newspaper advertisement applauding those who demonstrated against the accused players (see Charlotte Allen’s classic piece on Duke’s “tenured vigilantes”).
It was obviously a rush to a false judgment. But, you argue, Ms. Roberts is a columnist and they are allowed to take liberties. While not conceding that Ms. Roberts’ column was anything short of reprehensive, I’ll admit: reporters have different standards from columnists. Unfortunately, the Times reporters were, in their own sneaky way, worse than Ms. Roberts.
According to K.C. Johnson, the Brooklyn College history professor who moved to Durham to produce the highly regarded Durham-in-Wonderland blog on the case (and whose book on the Duke scandal, co-authored with Stuart Taylor is due in September), the Times’ reporting consisted of “duplicitous news articles that come across as neutral if you didn?t already know about the case.”
The newspaper was careful to quote sources from both sides. But its reporting might have convinced all but the most skeptical that the lacrosse players were guilty. Perhaps the most significant article was a five thousand plus piece by Duff Wilson that treated a memo by Sgt. Mark Gottlieb, one of the investigators, as pivotal even though the memo had been written from memory nearly four months after the initial interviews (for which Gottlieb made no notes) by a man who very much needed to bolster the prosecution’s case.
Stuart Taylor wrote:
Gottlieb’s memo is contradicted on critical points by the contemporaneous notes of other police officers, as well as by hospital records seeming to show that the accuser did not have the injuries Gottlieb claims to have observed. The Times blandly mentions these contradictions while avoiding the obvious inference that the Gottlieb memo is thus unworthy of belief.
It is almost entirely on this Gottlieb memo that the Times rests its summing-up fifth paragraph:
[A]n examination of the entire 1,850 pages of evidence gathered by the prosecution … shows that while there are big weaknesses in [District Attorney Mike] Nifong’s case, there is a body of evidence to support his decision to take the matter to a jury.
Taylor called this a “sly formulation.” He explained:
Whoever thought it up chose to focus on the legalistic question of whether Nifong can avoid having his case being thrown out before trial, while glossing over the more important question as to whether any reasonable prosecutor could believe the three defendants to be guilty and force them through the risk, expense, and trauma of a trial.
Unlike the Times, the Raleigh News & Observer, which like the more prestigious news outlet had also initially published stories that would lead an objective reader to accept the case made by the prosecution, reversed course when the DA’s case began to unravel. Johnson gives the News & Observer high marks for this quick change which was “critical to the outcome.” A scant five days before the hearings that led to Nifong’s disbarment, Johnson pointed out, Duff Wilson of the Times was writing stories that bolstered Nifong. Johnson said any reader relying on Wilson’s coverage was bound to be “surprised” that Nifong was punished.
The New York Times, which splashed these Duke students’ pictures on the front page, along with inflammatory charges against them, and went ballistic on its editorial page, carried the story of Nifong’s disbarment for prosecuting them on page 16, columnist Thomas Sowell pointed out Tuesday. Ms. Roberts, declining to join the two liberal columnists who have publicly said they were wrong (syndicated columnist Susan Estrich and the News & Observer’s Ruth Sheehan, whose apology to the team is noteworthy for its graciousness), has chosen another route.
Instead, in March of this year, when it was clear that the case was going to hell in a handbag, Ms. Roberts stuck again with a column that said, “There is a tendency to conflate the alleged crime at the Duke lacrosse team kegger on March 13, 2006, with the irrefutable culture of misogyny, racial animus and athlete entitlement that went unrestrained that night.” But that is exactly what she did. Ms. Roberts has engaged in “revisionist history to suggest she has never been wrong,” as Johnson put it.
Now that the case has gone kaput, the players and their families have reached a financial settlement with Duke University. Johnson notes that part of it is that they will not take action against the Gang of 88 (which like Roberts has not apologized). So the university finally did use its financial resource to take a stand in favor of the professors who were delighted to see Durham’s African-American community up in arms about a rape charge that turned out to be bogus. But it had fit in with what Charlotte Allen called their “meta-narrative,” or radical picture of how society works.
“What’s so striking about the early coverage,” K.C. Johnson told me, “is that it’s not just as if these people rushed to judgment and presented the case as if a rape had taken place but that they drew from this incredibly significant moral judgments.”
We don’t have a procedure to disbar reporters and columnists. And I am glad we don’t. But we must always remember that, whether it’s a rape case in Durham or a war in Iraq, they are biased. They wear blinders. Be grateful that today there are more sources of information than a press corps inhabited by those whose values are different from ours and are likely to lead them to duplicitous reporting. Don’t blame them. Their meta-narratives make them do it.
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Charlotte Hays is senior editor at the Independent Women’s Forum.