In late March of 2006, the journalistic echo chamber quickly spread the image of drunken, disorderly, publicly urinating lacrosse thugs around the world. It began with an appallingly biased five-column, front-page March 25 article in the Raleigh News & Observer. The headline -- "Dancer Gives Details of Ordeal" -- conspicuously omitted the word "alleged." So did the subhead, "A Night of Racial Slurs, Growing Fear, and Finally, Sexual Violence." False. As was much of the coverage in the Durham Herald-Sun.
Nifong whipped the national media into a feeding frenzy with his assertions on March 27 and thereafter that the lacrosse players were clearly guilty of raping the "victim," of pounding her with racial slurs, and of forming a "wall of silence" to cover it up.
Of course, it was understandable that in the early days reporters and others would wonder: Why would a woman make up such a charge? And why would a prosecutor embrace it so confidently unless he had the evidence to prove it? So the initial coverage was bound to highlight Nifong's charges.
Far less understandable was the sparse coverage of the four captains' public statement on March 28 that the rape charge "is totally and transparently false"; that the "team has cooperated with the police" and "provided authorities with DNA samples"; and that "the DNA results will demonstrate that these allegations are absolutely false."
For a defense lawyer to allow such a prediction unless certain it would prove out would court professional suicide. This put careful journalists on notice not only of the claim of innocence but also of defense lawyers' confidence -- after grilling the lacrosse players and investigating other evidence -- that the DNA would set them free.
USA Today ignored the statement entirely in a March 30 article that, instead, stressed that "the flier being distributed outside Duke's student union Wednesday night looked like a wanted poster: 40 faces of young men, smiling smugly for the camera." Reporter Sal Ruibal reached out for a gratuitously pejorative adverb to describe a bunch of kids smiling for their official photos.
Chimed in columnist Christine Brennan: The lacrosse players were "giving us all a whole new definition of the word teamwork. ...Perhaps if no one is found guilty of any criminal activity in this unseemly affair, the collective silence of the Blue Devils someday will be seen as admirable. For now, though, the sports world's vaunted concept of team is reaching a frightening extreme."
In this atmosphere, The New York Times initially stood out for its reasonably balanced coverage. The first Times reporter to conduct detailed interviewing about the evidence in the rape case was sportswriter Joe Drape, who authored or coauthored articles that appeared on March 29, March 30, and March 31. In each article, he quoted Nifong but also presented a defense viewpoint.
Drape quoted Durham defense lawyer Bill Thomas providing an unanswerable reply to Nifong's taunts: "Everyone asks why these young men have not come forward. It's because no one was in the bathroom with the complainant. No one was alone with her. This didn't happen. They have no information to come forward with."
The more Drape pushed, the more he came to believe that Mangum was not credible and her rape charge was probably false. Encouraged, Bill Thomas provided all the evidence of innocence then in his possession to the Times reporter, expecting a great article. But in early April Drape called Thomas and said there would be no article because he was "having problems with the editors."
And soon after Drape privately told people at Duke -- and, presumably, at the Times -- that this looked like a hoax, his byline disappeared from the Duke lacrosse story. The word among people at Duke and defense supporters, including one who later ran into Drape at a race track, was that the editors wanted a more pro-prosecution line. They also wanted to stress the race-sex-class angle without dwelling on evidence of innocence. They got what they wanted from Drape's replacement, Duff Wilson, whose reporting would become a journalistic laughingstock by summer, and other reporters including Rick Lyman.
Times editors also got what they wanted from sports columnist Selena Roberts. Her March 31 commentary, "Bonded in Barbarity," seethed hatred for "a group of privileged players of fine pedigree entangled in a night that threatens to belie their social standing as human beings." Virtually presuming guilt, Roberts parroted already-disproved prosecution claims that all team members had observed a "code of silence." She likened team members to "drug dealers and gang members engaged in an anti-snitch campaign."
Roberts also took a swipe at Duke itself: "At the intersection of entitlement and enablement, there is Duke University, virtuous on the outside, debauched on the inside.. . . Does President Brodhead dare to confront the culture behind the lacrosse team's code of silence or would he fear being ridiculed as a snitch?" The message was clear (and soon heeded by Duke President Richard Brodhead): Lynch the privileged white boys. And due process be damned.
Despite the passionate commitment to "diversity" and trashing of "privilege" in her Duke columns, Roberts herself lived a rather privileged life, with a home in Westport, Connecticut, a bastion of rich whiteness. Hypocrisy, perhaps?
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