Monday, June 19, 2006

Duke lacrosse: Seeking to avoid responsibility

Raleigh News & Observer news columnist Ruth Sheehan is getting kudos today for acknowledging that Durham DA Mike Nifong may not be all he should be and ought to step out of the Duke lacrosse case.

I’m glad Sheehan’s saying that but I’m very troubled by something else she does in her column.

Sheehan excuses herself and the rest of media from any responsibility for the hysterical, vigilante atmosphere that’s targeted the players and made a terrible situation worse, including more dangerous.

According to Sheehan, it’s all Nifong’s fault. She tells readers :

Say all you want about the media's rush to judgment. But the truth is we report on allegations and charges out of district attorneys' offices every single day. And when a DA, especially one with Nifong's reputation for being a quiet, behind-the-scenes guy, comes out not only saying that a rape occurred, but that it was a brutal gang rape, in which the woman was strangled and beaten, you had to figure he had incontrovertible evidence.
No you didn’t. That’s nonsense!

We’ve all heard sometimes defense attorneys spin cases; DAs do it too. Sheehan knows that.

She also knows that in recent years, we’ve had in North Carolina a number of highly publicized cases in which DAs have committed very serious wrongs, including withholding evidence that proved innocence.

Then there were all the pressures of a tough election campaign weighing on Nifong.

Most of all, Sheehan knows about presumption of innocence and due process.

What all of us had to figure out when the Duke lacrosse case broke was how to be fair and respect the rights of the accuser and the accused.

For Sheehan and the N&O that proved to be a “Mission Impossible.”

Let’s take a look at just how the McClatchy news organization’s N&O (Its motto: “Fair and Accurate”) and Sheehan went about reporting the story as it first became public.

On Mar. 24 the N&O broke the Duke lacrosse story with a report calculated to turn public sentiment against the lacrosse players.

The N&O referred seven times in that report to the accuser as either “the victim” or with the possessive “victim’s,” never once preceding them with “alleged” or “reported.”

Thus, in the first story other media and the public would read about the Duke lacrosse case, the N&O cast the accuser as the victim leaving the accused players cast as victimizers.

The next day the N&O produced a sympathetic interview with the accuser which it headlined across five columns on page one:

A woman hired to dance for the Duke lacrosse team describes a night of racial slurs, growing fear and, finally, sexual violence
But the N&O’s Mar. 25 story was about more than a sympathetic interview with the anonymous accuser.

A police officer was quoted as saying the police would “be relentless in finding out who committed this crime." The N&O followed that with an explanation that it granted anonymity to “victims of sex crimes.”

The N&O told readers authorities had vowed to crack the players’ “wall of silence.” The N&O didn’t tell readers about the cooperation players had provided police until advised by counsels to remain silent until counsels were certain the players’ rights would be respected.

The N&O ended its Mar. 25 story with this:
[Duke’s Paul] Haagen, a law professor who specializes in sports law, said studies show that violence against women is more prevalent among male athletes than among male students in general -- and higher still among such "helmet sports" as football, hockey and lacrosse.

"These are sports of violence," he said. "This is clearly a concern."
Prosecutors try to end their jury summations with something that helps the jurors understand why the accused would have committed the crime or crimes. They call it “the clincher.”

I don’t know if N&O reporters and editors have a name for their placement of Haagen’s remarks at the end of an interview in which the accuser “told her story.” (Well, one of them.)

I also don’t know whether Professor Haagen was told his remarks would be part of the accuser interview story or how they would be used. I plan to email him and ask. I’ll let you know what I hear back.

On Mar. 26 the N&O reported on a vigil at the house on Buchanan Blvd held by supporters of the woman the N&O reported two days earlier was the “victim” of an horrendous crime.

Here’s an excerpt from the Mar. 26 report:
"This is to let her know that we're with her," Tompkins said. "If anyone could come and take a piece of her grief, we would."

Religious groups, neighborhood associations, and students and faculty from the university sang "Amazing Grace" and prayed.

Allyson Van Wyk challenged parents of the lacrosse players to talk to their children.

"The parents need to make them stand up and be men," she shouted.
The next day, Mar. 27, Sheehan followed that with her “Team's silence is sickening” column, in which she savaged the players for doing no more than following advice of counsel. She ended with:
Every member of the men's lacrosse team knows who was involved, whether it was gang rape or not.

Until the team members come forward with that information, forfeiting games isn't enough.

Shut down the team.
But what did the N&O report Nifong said as the N&O broke the story and during the next few days?

I undertook a customized search of N&O archives for the period Mar. 24 to Mar. 30 using the input word “Nifong.”

The first time an article with “Nifong” appeared in the search result was Mar. 28, after the publication of the N&O’s first three Duke lacrosse stories and Sheehan’s column.

Separate searches using the same dates and the input terms “District Attorney” and “DA” failed to turn up any archived items referencing or quoting Nifong in any capacity before Mar. 28.

On Mar. 28 Nifong appears in two N&O stories in the full Nifong mode so many of us have come to abhor.

In one story he calls the players “a bunch of hooligans” and in the other he says, "We're talking about a situation where had somebody spoken up and said, 'Wait a minute, we can't do this,' this incident might not have taken place."

I don’t question that Nifong’s remarks in the Mar. 28 articles were prejudicial to the lacrosse players. But they followed the N&O’s first three stories and Sheehan’s column.

By all means we should hold Nifong accountable for his actions.

But we must do the same with Sheehan, the N&O, and the rest of media that acted in ways that were grossly prejudicial to a group of college students who we may yet learn are the victims of a monumental injustice, and possibly, of crimes.

We must not let Sheehan, the N&O or the rest of media involved in unfairly targeting and framing the players dump what they are responsible for onto Nifong.

That shouldn’t happen because it would be unfair. And it shouldn’t happen because if they avoid acknowledging and correcting what they’ve done, it’s more likely that other individuals and groups will suffer unfair treatment from much of media just as the players have.

Media in America need to be held to a high standard; and it can’t be one it decides for itself.

Which of us would want to receive from a major news organization the kind of treatment the Duke lacrosse players received from the "Fair and Accurate" Raleigh News & Observer?
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Joan Foster said...

Editor Sill seemed rather cranky today , didn't she?

Joan Foster said...

Does anyone understand what the "rules" are at the Editor's Blog?

She huffed today that her blog was not a Duke lacrosse case blog, but the stated topic is just that. I re-read all posts and it seemed every one was "on topic" ...the N&O coverage of that case. Yet, she complains AGAIN of off-topic posts.

Ms. Sill is having a dialoque with her readers, and while it is critical, it is also civil. Last week, she stated all story ideas were welcome: today she seemed offended to be offered some.

John, your words were the ones that inspired many of us to post there. I wish she could see thst for the contribution it is.There's a another world outside that MSM fortress. And we, the natives, are restless.

JRW said...

Ruth Sheehan's cheekiness is enough to peel the chrome off a trailer hitch. She wants to have it both ways, thinking no doubt that most readers won't remember her fiery denunciations of the three Duke lax players and the team itself.

The N&O's performance in this wretched affair is revolting to anyone with enough neurons left to recall the Claude Sitton years at the paper. How the mighty are fallen.

JWM said...


Re: The cranky Editor Sill.

That was my read when I dropped by this afternoon.

I was planning to leave it at that.

But then you comment arrived and I couldn't resist.

See the post "The editor, the principal and "a pretty fine place."

And thanks.

Re: "rules" at the Editor Blog.

Think of the Mad Hatter's tea party.


You say: "Ruth Sheehan's cheekiness is enough to peel the chrome off a trailer hitch."

I agree. It's like she wakes up in the morning and her first words are "Hey, whatever!"

Thank you both for commenting.


Anonymous said...

Doesn't the reader have some responsibility? They paid for the information and willingly read it.

Presumably the reader understands that everything that appears in a newspaper -- including dozens of advertisements -- isn't the gospel truth.

If no charges have been filed and no guilty verdict reached, a reasonable person can assume anyone called a "victim" in a newspaper is technically an alleged victim.

Guy (vaxman) said...

Anonymous wrote...

"Doesn't the reader have some responsibility?"

-- Nope. The reader cannot dictate editorial policy. At least in theory, only an Editor can do that. The only vote a reader gets is the big one: hands pick another publication.

"They paid and willingly read..."

-- The idea that the reading audience of a newpaper pays for the content is a strong misconception. The fact is that the average payment for a copy of the newspaper is used chiefly to pay for the expense of delivering it to subscribers. Advertising pays for the content (ask any syndicated columnist).

... isn't the gospel truth

-- Nailed that one down. In case you had not noticed, people are so SO apt to believe anything in printed form, we wrote laws that make it a separately prosecuted offense to send any kind of fraudulent material through the MAIL. Remember: local authority comes for you when sign with the wrong identity. US Postal Inspectors come for you when you put that identity into a stamped envelope. Or, to put it gently: yes indeed, people do believe practically everything they read, especially if they happen to agree with it.