Opinion: Media Mangle

Media rehab and the Duke lacrosse case

Just because the players were exonerated doesn't mean media did well

Much of the media are desperately trying to rehabilitate themselves in the wake of the Duke lacrosse exonerations. This is not unlike the firefighter arsonist who sets a blaze and then arrives on the scene later — after tremendous damage has been done — to fight the fire and gain praise for his bravery.

That’s certainly the case for the newspaper here in Raleigh, The News & Observer. No paper did more at the outset to provide sparks for the bone-dry tinder of race relations in Durham. In news stories, columns and editorials, The N&O ran with the most salacious accounts, whether backed by facts or not.

And, it must be said, no paper has done better reporting than The N&O after it became clear that the original template of the story was horribly inaccurate. But does that mitigate the original sin? Journalistically, can The N&O feel proud of its performance in covering this case, taken in its totality?

Apparently, its editors think so.

Executive Editor Melanie Sill, in a column that ran on Sunday, said, “Our overall reporting was solid and on point, however, and it intensified as we ran into obstacles.”

As most media have done, she put much of the blame on Durham DA Mike Nifong for being so sure about the case and on the players for not making themselves available for interviews:

We were hampered early on by the unwillingness of the players, their families or other representatives to speak with our reporters. Nonetheless, we should have stated more emphatically that we had not been able to get their side of things.

We placed too much faith initially in District Attorney Mike Nifong and the paltry information provided by Durham police. In a few spots, some of our early coverage played to stereotypes, and a couple of opinion columns drew sweeping conclusions too quickly.

Sill seems to see her paper’s coverage on a scale not unlike the scales of justice, ironically. On the one side is the tray containing good journalism and on the other is the tray containing the bad journalism. If it tilts ever so slightly in the favor of the good journalism, then The N&O has done it’s job, she seems to say.

Also on Sunday, N&O ombudsman Ted Vaden expressed a similar view:

The newspaper has much to be proud of. It may be said without fear of challenge that The N&O led all other media in bringing to public attention the problems with the prosecution’s case that ultimately led to the dropping of charges and to a State Bar investigation of District Attorney Mike Nifong. The N&O was the paper that broke the rape investigation story in the first place, back on March 24, 2006, and it followed with a succession of firsts in the investigation of the prosecution’s case.

The N&O provided column space on Sunday to Kenneth Rogerson, research director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University, who took the media-apologist argument even further than Sill or Vaden:

We may not like what we read and watch in the news. We may have sympathized with either the accused or the accuser and have been frustrated at the lack of some viewpoints on certain days or weeks. But, eventually, in the Duke lacrosse case we have heard all sides. The journalists have done their jobs.

Like the fireman who actually started the fire that resulted in several million dollars in damage, the media is patting itself on the back for helping extinguish the firestorm it helped start.

Jim Cooney, one of Reade Seligmann’s attorneys, made this point at the defense’s press conference last Wednesday in Raleigh. He said media timidity and an unwillingness to question anything Nifong did or said was a chief cause of this tragedy.

If the Durham Herald-Sun had bothered to stand up and demand proper processes, the presumption of innocence, and doing things the way our constitution provides, do you think Mike Nifong would have rolled forward? … If they had done what journalists are supposed to do and spoken truth to power, they could have slowed this train down.

Though he singled out Durham’s hometown paper, The Herald-Sun, by name, The N&O, a much more influential newspaper and one circulated widely in Durham, is not without blame on this same point. Nor is the national media.

The N&O’s excellent reporting on the case in the past few months may have exempted it from Cooney’s pointed rebuke, but no media-rehabilitation effort can eradicate the irresponsible reporting, column writing and editorializing produced in the weeks immediately following the party at 610 N. Buchanan Boulevard.

Jon Ham is vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of its newspaper Carolina Journal.