Media feeding frenzies #94: Duke University lacrosse case

Oh boy…

Justice delayed

Of course, Nifong had information and power the media did not. His failing in the case cannot be overstated, nor can it be equated to that of a throng of journalists and pundits, however odious some of their reporting and commentary. But the media deserve a public reckoning, too, a remonstrance for coverage that–albeit with admirable exceptions–all too eagerly embraced the inflammatory statements of a prosecutor in the midst of a tough election campaign. Fueled by Nifong, the media quickly latched onto a narrative too seductive to check: rich, wild, white jocks had brutalized a working class, black mother of two.
“It was too delicious a story,” says Daniel Okrent, a former New York Times public editor, who is critical of the Times’ coverage and that of many other news organizations. “It conformed too well to too many preconceived notions of too many in the press: white over black, rich over poor, athletes over non-athletes, men over women, educated over non-educated. Wow. That’s a package of sins that really fit the preconceptions of a lot of us.” [emphasis added]

The lessons of the media’s rush to judgment and their affair with a sensational, simplistic storyline rank among journalism’s most basic tenets: Be fair; stick to the facts; question authorities; don’t assume; pay attention to alternative explanations.
“The outcome of this whole story is square pegs can’t be fit into round holes, and we saw the dangers of what happens when modern media attempts to do that,” says Duke senior Ryan McCartney, who for much of the saga was editor of the Chronicle, the independent student newspaper. “Hopefully this case will kind of go down in the books as a lesson to media organizations on all levels to…second-guess themselves any time they think a story is clear-cut.”

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3 Responses to Media feeding frenzies #94: Duke University lacrosse case

  1. R. B. Parrish says:

    DNA testing cleared the entire lacrosse team two weeks before anyone was arrested; and that information became public one week before Nifong made his first arrests.

    The DNA results were so absolute that had anyone already been in prison for the crime, they would have been released. (The tests also showed that Mangum had contact with several other men, none of the lacrosse players.)

    The press response? It was as if it didn’t happen. (Nor was Nifong pressed on why he was continuing with his prosecution.)

    The media also knew about the troubled background of Mangum (local media had stories about her in their archives) and that she had made negative comments about her co-dancer; but this wasn’t reported as it would have challenged the story line.

    The lacrosse players, however, were turned into cartoon villains.

    When a corrupt prosecutor goes after you, you hope the federal government will step in and the FBI will investigate. That didn’t happen in the lacrosse case (despite death threats made inside a courtroom, and much else.) The feds went AWOL.

    Or you can hope that the media will expose the wrongdoing.

    There was certainly enough for a dozen exposes to be run about the case and about Durham corruption; as was said, there were Pulitzer Prizes lying around all over Durham just waiting for an enterprising reporter to pick them up.

    To date, no one has taken up the offer.

  2. dwighttowers says:

    Thanks for the additional info. It sounds grotesque. I hope those men were able to emerge with their reputations intact. The other tragedy in this is that it can make people who really have suffered rape more unlikely to receive any justice…

    It occurs to me that these sorts of media feeding frenzies should be taught to school kids so they quickly learn to be very suspicious of these scandals. That’s probably impossible to do, unless you hooked it on that early Simpson’s episode where Homer reaches for the Gummy De Milo stuck to the babysitter’s ass…

  3. R. B. Parrish says:

    “I hope those men were able to emerge with their reputations intact.”

    When you are accused of rape, the stigma remains. (What employer wouldn’t pause at seeing “Duke lacrosse” on a resume? )

    Moreover, for the rest of your life, if you get so much as a parking ticket, it will be news. (The current brohura over Reade Seligmann’s tax lien is likely a smear concocted with a phony document; it’s not unknown for persons involved in major litigation against powerful academic and political figures to be subjected to such.)

    There used to be a TV show called “Branded”, about a man falsely charged with a crime. I think that appellation would fit here, as well.

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