As of early April, now at the head of the guilt-presuming pack, The New York Times vied from early April 2006 on in a race to the journalistic bottom with trash-TV talk shows hosted by the likes of Nancy Grace, CNN's egregiously biased, wacko-feminist former prosecutor. The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, CNN's Paula Zahn, and many others joined in.
By late March, CNN, MSNBC, NBC, and Fox TV trucks were filling the parking lots, grabbing random students for interviews, turning the campus into a freak show set. The team's 46 white members had been branded as depraved racists from coast to coast.
Like the extremist professors, the media were not about to let mere evidence get in the way of a delicious "morality play that simultaneously demonized lacrosse, wealth, the white race, the South, and the male sex," as Charlotte Allen later wrote in The Weekly Standard. Consider the coverage of the disclosure of near-conclusive proof that the rape charge was a fraud: the April 10, 2006 release by defense lawyers of undisputed evidence that no lacrosse player's DNA had been found anywhere in or on Crystal Mangum.
The DA's office itself had previously told the court that the "DNA evidence requested will immediately rule out any innocent persons." Case closed, one might think. But most in the media treated it as a mere bump in the road. The Times, for example, put the defense bombshell on the sports page, rounded up people to dispute the defense claims, and misleadingly quoted a respected DNA expert to suggest that the DNA didn't prove anything. Sports columnist Selena Roberts, apparently oblivious to the evidence, wrote on April 11 that "Duke's lacrosse members established a Lord of the Flies ethos in Durham." Even worse were Nancy Grace and Wendy Murphy (an adjunct law professor who made over 30 appearances on the case and at one point affirmed, "I never, ever met a false rape claim, by the way. My own statistics speak to the truth").
"The authorities were leading the lynch mob and the press was behind them clapping and screaming," defense lawyer Joe Cheshire later recalled. "It was stunning to me how they leapt to a conclusion, and their absolute unwillingness to listen to anything that wasn't what they had already decided they wanted to be true."
There were honorable exceptions, including the meticulously fair coverage of MSNBC's Dan Abrams and ABC News "Good Morning America's" Chris Cuomo. Some conservatives, including MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, also stressed the evidence of innocence that came pouring into the public record. (Our book is critical of Scarborough's coverage based on three early programs, a lapse for which I have apologized after having my attention drawn to his more numerous subsequent comments highlighting evidence of innocence.) Times columnists David Brooks and Nicholas Kristof put the paper's news columns and sports pages to shame with forceful pieces in May and June 2006 headlined, respectively, "The Duke Witch Hunt" and "Jocks and Prejudice." Newsweek atoned for putting mug shots of two Duke defendants on its cover by running on June 19 a strong piece demolishing Nifong's phony case. Investigative reporter Joe Neff of the News & Observer did stellar work throughout. Producers working with the late Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes" spent months putting together a devastating expose of the case's fraudulence that finally aired on October 15.
The Chronicle, Duke's student newspaper, consistently outclassed almost all of the national media. So did an ideologically eclectic group of case-specific blogs, some flavored liberal (such as TalkLeft.com), some conservative (such as La Shawn Barber's Corner), some mainly just honest (such as Liestoppers and my co-author KC Johnson's Durham-in-Wonderland).
But the Times and Duff Wilson did their best to turn the tide back in Nifong's favor in a 5,600-word monstrosity that ran on August 25, 2006, with Jonathan Glater sharing the byline. It was shredded from top to bottom just over three hours after it had appeared on the Times web site, in a 3:20 AM post by the Liestoppers blog's brainy analysts. A few days later I wrote in Slate:
"The Times still seems bent on advancing its race-sex-class ideological agenda, even at the cost of ruining the lives of three young men who it has reason to know are very probably innocent. This at a time when many other true believers in the rape charge . . . have at last seen through the prosecution's fog of lies and distortions."
Not until a week after the dramatic exposure on December 15, in open court, of Nifong's conspiracy to hide the most powerfully exculpatory DNA evidence of all did the Times evince the slightest suspicion that this was not a case of privileged white males oppressing poor black woman. This was a rogue prosecutor oppressing innocent young men, aided and abetted by a mob that included the Times itself.
The bias driving media coverage of the Duke case had many roots. "When this case first made national news," Sharon Swanson of the News & Observer reflected later, with commendable candor, "I was viewing the scenario through the prism of white liberal guilt. I felt somehow responsible that young black women were still being exploited by affluent young white men in the South. I stereotyped the entire Duke lacrosse team."
Also at work was the attitude underlying a hoary slogan long embraced by reporters as the essence of their trade: "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." How many of those who glory in this idea ever stop to ask themselves whether all of "the comfortable" deserve to be afflicted? Should every child born into an affluent family be afflicted for that alone? A stunning array of journalists and academics -- many quite comfortable in their own right -- exuded exactly that attitude in their gleeful sneering at the "privileged" Duke lacrosse players.
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