Sunday, October 22, 2006

Duke audience questions lax journalists (updated)

On Friday there was a panel discussion and Q&A held at Duke Law School to consider the question: “Why rape allegations against men’s lacrosse players became a national story on race, class and crime?”

We all know the answer to that question.

The Raleigh News & Observer on Mar. 25 published a story about a young black mother working to support her children who, at a party hosted by members of Duke’s Men’s lacrosse team was subjected first, to racial barks, and then beaten, strangled and gang-raped ….. (you know the rest of it, including the falsehood about the players refusing to help the police).

Within minutes of its publication the story “went national.” The networks “grabbed it;” satellite trucks were ordered to head for Duke and Durham; and reporters started racing to the airports.

Two days later, on Mar. 27 when DA Mike Nifong first spoke publicly about the case, he endorsed all the fictions that were in the N&O’s story.

Now, what about Friday’s panel discussion and the Q&A which followed?

The panelists were: Herald-Sun editor Bob Ashley (’70); ESPN sports analyst and attorney Jay Bilas (’86, J.D. ’92); Duke law professor and chair of Duke’s lacrosse review committee James E. Coleman Jr.; Chronicle editorial page managing editor and 2005-06 editor-in-chief Seyward Darby; News & Observer managing editor John Drescher (A.M. ’88); former Newsweek senior editor Jerry Footlick, author of “Truth and Consequences: How Colleges and Universities Meet Public Crises”; and Newsweek senior writer Susannah Meadows (’95). Frank Stasio, host of WUNC Radio’s “The State of Things” moderated. (ID info from Duke’s Office of News and Communications)

The two area daily newspapers – the Raleigh News &Observer and the Durham Herald Sun carried stories on the event.

Most of the rest of this post will focus on some important aspects of the event the two papers ignored.

They failed to mention blogs. Panelist Jay Bilas said he’d found some blogs very useful in helping him get a fuller picture of what was happening.

One audience member wanted to know how bloggers had gotten “so much right” when most news organizations had gotten so much wrong. Another said he felt it was because the bloggers had “the will” to “get it right.”

N&O managing editor John Drescher used those comments to pat the N&O on the back. Many bloggers, Drescher claimed, are just using material the N&O later published to criticize the N&O in hindsight for some of its early stories that were done at a time when the players, their families and lawyers were not telling their side of the story.

Drescher allowed that blogs can do some good but said he was very concerned that some were anonymous and not “vetted.” ( I thought that a rather odd statement coming from the managing editor of the paper that printed on page one the unsubstantiated charge of gang-rape by an anonymous accuser and later published, without identifying its source, the notorious “vigilante poster.” - JinC)

Drescher was also involved in a contentious exchange with an audience member who wanted to know when the N&O had learned of cooperation by players with the police. Drescher’s answer amounted to “as soon as possible” and Moderator Frank Stasio cut the questioner off. (I’ve posted often and for some months questioning when the N&O learned of players’ cooperation and when it reported it. I’ll post on Drescher’s comments at the panel in a day or two. )

One of the most important exchanges between panelists went unreported.

Newsweek’s Susannah Meadows said that when she learned players had gone down and talked to the police without attorneys, that helped her think the players might be innocent.

A few minutes later Professor Coleman said if he’d been advising the players, he’d have told them not to go to the police without attorneys. He said people shouldn’t draw inferences about guilt or innocence based on their retaining attorneys.

Coleman’s comments are very important for at least three reasons.

They remind us of how unfair were the media and public criticisms of the player’s for retaining and following the advice of attorneys.

They are a slap at Nifong who ridiculed the players for retaining attorney and questioned why they would do that if they were innocent.

They were part of one of the very few meaningful exchanges between panelists.

Here’s a small but revealing item both papers left out. When the question of whether the accuser should have been identified as “the victim” came up, panelists representing news organizations were asked to explain their organizations policy with regard to her and other rape accusers.

Stasio announced that although he was the moderator, he wanted to tell the audience WUNC’s policy on the matter.

There was some cross-talk as other panelists were explaining their organizations did and why in regard to the accuser. But Stasio couldn’t wait and broke in to explain how WUNC treated the “rape survivor.”

Well, you can guess what happened next.

This post is getting long so I’ll wrap up with a few closing thoughts. Perhaps in a day or two I may have time for a second post.

Excepting Bilas, Darby and Coleman I thought the other four panelists and Stasio engaged in a lot of blaming the player and family victims. I wish I’d kept a count of the number of times someone said in one form or another: “Well, that first week with the parents and players refusing ...” Also, a count of the number of times those five excused themselves with stuff like “We face deadlines” and ”What the 24 hour news cycle …"

I don’t know how parents and others close to the players were able to sit through so much self-satisfaction and avoidance of responsibility.

That said, I’m still very glad I was there.

For those of you who missed the event or were there and want a “second look,” Robert Bliwise, editor of Duke Alumni Magazine, one of the event sponsors, told me in an email yesterday “we'll be streaming the audio on the magazine's website next week.”

I’ve sent Bliwise an email saying I hope the stream will include the Q&A portion of the event. Many of the most thoughtful and important comments were made during the Q&A by audience members.

I encourage you to email Bliwise and let him know you want the Q&A included in the stream. His email address:

Jon Ham has excellent coverage of the event.

The Duke Chronicle Alumni Network, Duke Magazine and the DeWitt Wallace Center sponsored the event. I thank them.

UPDATE AT 11:45 am, Mon., Oct. 23.

I've just received from Bliwise the following email:

We're hoping the Q&A will be part of the audio stream; that'll be a technical issue, since audience members did not speak through mikes.

If any of you taped the session, especially the Q&O hang on to it very carefully. I'll say more about it all later tonight. Meanwhile, please email Bliwise and let him know how important it is that all of the Q&A be on the stream.

There's a lot tech people can do to overcome many miking problems.


Anonymous said...

Great post. It was good to meet you at the forum, after reading your blog for so long. You are spot on with your observations.

Anonymous said...

I notice that no one has mentioned the tirade. You know the one I'm talking about. Kinda' like when someone farts in company. There's the juror that Mike Nifong's hoping for.
The thought that's been bugging me is this. I wish I'd had a chance to ask Prof. Coleman. It was reported in the media that the laxers were DNA tested "by court order". I don't think that's precisely correct. I recall that the defense lawyers got a "letter of intent". That is to say, Nifong sent a letter that said "if you don't come down and get tested voluntarily then we'll get a court order to compel you". If there were a court order, would it not have been available as a public document as have the search warrants and the other court filings?

So had any news organization bothered to notice that a court order had NOT been issued then they would have been able to reach the conclusion that all 46 players going down to be tested, especially since it was clearly an unusual and broad request, in fact, represented an extraordinary level of cooperation by the players.

With regard to the "Blue Wall of Silence", this destroys the whole story the media's been trying to tell us. Had they bothered to check, they could have been able to know that they were being bamboozled by Nifong even if the defense lawyers weren't talking. Perhaps I should say "if they wanted to check".

Anonymous said...

What tirade?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the summary of the forum. Your summary certainly includes more info. than the local papers. Also, thanks for informing us that the audio will be available. I definitely hope they include the Q & A portion.