Despite criticism on this point, it’s unlikely that the paper will openly acknowledge its early errors, and right now it seems to me that it should be devoting more resources to breaking down the Durham Police’s “blue wall of silence.” But apart from a pallid editorial page–based solely on its own reporters' revelations, the N&O long ago should have joined the Charlotte Observer, Winston-Salem Journal, and Rocky Mount Telegram in demanding a special prosecutor–the paper has performed impressively since mid-April.
Then there’s the Durham Herald-Sun, which has combined plodding pro-Nifong editorials with “news” articles whose one-sided nature borders on journalistic fraud, topped off by a pattern of simply ignoring newsworthy items that can’t be framed in pro-Nifong terms. The Herald-Sun’s role in the lacrosse affair does offer one redeeming quality. With the exception of witty cartoons and poems from Liestoppers, this case has lacked levity. Herald-Sun coverage, however, is frequently so bad as to provide (unintentional) humor.
Take, for example, yesterday’s lead editorial praising Durham’s periodically absent police chief, Steve Chalmers, for firing two Durham officers involved in a Raleigh bar fight. “We applaud Chief Chalmers,” the Bob Ashley-led editorial page intoned, “for dealing with this issue forthrightly and in the open. It was important that he did so to retain the public’s confidence in the department.”
This sentiment was worthy of Orwell. Chalmers’ “openness” consisted of:
- reneging on an earlier commitment by City Manager Patrick Baker to make public the full results of the department’s Internal Affairs investigation into the incident;
- concluding that none of his officers drove under the influence of alcohol by citing their bar tabs (!);
- dismissing allegations that one or more of the officers had used a racial slur–without, apparently, ever talking to the African-American cook who made the allegations in the first place.
"Chalmers said investigators are confident of their findings. 'It was an open-and-shut thing and the statements were consistent,' he said."
Consider that claim of Chief Chalmers in the context of a 55-day internal investigation that preceded his press conference. If 55 days is the duration of an open and shut case, it makes one wonder again about the 13 days of investigation that preceded DA Mike Nifong’s proclamations of guilt in the Duke Hoax. With this in mind, one can only conclude that in Bizarro PD Land it takes 55 days to conclude an investigation into an “open-and-shut thing” but less than two weeks to determine guilt in a complex hoax. Yep, Chief, our confidence is certainly growing.
The Ashley editorial also heralded the effort of lacrosse case officer Mark Gottlieb, who was at the scene during the attack. What did Gottlieb do to earn such praise? Intervene to stop the fight? Help the alleged victim? No, revealed the Herald-Sun: the sergeant “called the [Durham] District 2 watch commander the same night to report the incident, although he did not witness it himself.”
How the Herald-Sun determined that Gottlieb didn’t witness the incident is unclear; if Gottlieb didn’t see the fight, how did he learn of it “the same night”? More to the point, in reporting a crime that occurred in Raleigh, why did Gottlieb eschew calling 911–the normal procedure when learning of a crime–and instead phone the watch commander of the Durham police district where he’s a supervisor? Presumably these items are discussed in the report Chalmers “forthrightly and in the open” won’t release.
Ashley’s defense of Gottlieb, however, might well have backfired. Last week, the editor swung into action after the N&O and the Duke Chronicle revealed the sergeant’s disturbing record of arresting 10 times as many Duke students as the three other District 2 supervisors combined; and his tendency to run roughshod over students’ constitutional rights when he made his statistically disproportionate number of arrests.
The Herald-Sun responded with an “article” claiming that Gottlieb was following the Durham Police Department’s official anti-Duke student policy. The paper described this policy as encouraging officers “to arrest students and take them to jail, rather than issue warnings and tickets, because experience showed lesser measures lacked deterrent value.” The article never explained how Gottlieb could have a 10:1 arrest ratio as compared to others at comparable ranks if he was merely implementing a departmental policy.
Demonstrating what passes for journalistic excellence at the Herald-Sun, reporter Ray Gronberg gave no indication of even having looked at the arrest case files–which are part of the public record. He instead claimed to have spoken to someone named “Bethany” in the office of Durham attorney Bob Ekstrand, who refused to do his work for him and give him the files–yet on Friday, I confirmed that no one named “Bethany” works for Ekstrand.
Despite attempting to whitewash Gottlieb’s actions, the article actually created problems for the Durham police–by revealing, for the first time, the official policy of unequal enforcement of the law based on group identity. (Imagine if, for instance, the Durham P.D. announced a policy of arresting Hispanics rather than issuing them tickets when discretion existed as to the punishment, because “experience showed lesser measures lacked deterrent value” with this particular group.) In short, the admission of group-based punishment supplies a rationale for Justice Department intervention.
What explains the Herald-Sun's novel approach to journalism? Ideology doesn’t appear to be a motive. The Ashley editorial page doesn’t subscribe to an extreme feminist viewpoint–it didn’t concern itself, for example, about Nifong’s high dismissal rate in other rape cases. Nor does the paper seem all that concerned with racism as a whole–after all, Ashley had no problem with Chalmers dismissing allegations of a racial slur without even talking to the acknowledged victim. Nor does the Herald-Sun regularly advocate the Nifongesque blanket dismissal of civil liberties it has championed in this case–indeed, it often expresses support for civil liberties. In an August 21 editorial, for instance, Ashley asserted,
We think that warrantless wiretaps give the president too much power, especially when he already has the FISA court, a fast and legal way to wiretap terrorism suspects. The founders would see the latest chapter in the long-running feud as a tip in the balance toward the presidency that needs to be righted.If Herald-Sun editorial or news policy lacks ideological consistency, economic motives seem to loom very large in its decisionmaking process. I suspect that few, if any, Duke students subscribe to the Herald-Sun–while the paper’s dwindling subscription base presumably includes at least some of Durham’s African-Americans and perhaps even some of the Group of 88. Working to keep Nifong’s trial hopes alive, even at the expense of its journalistic integrity, allows the Herald-Sun to appease some of its subscribers while alienating few people who actually buy the paper. No wonder a lengthy article by the local alternative weekly discovered that "some reporters have described the [paper's workplace] atmosphere as toxic," a place where "resentment lingers like an odor that won't come out of the carpet."
In the lacrosse case, Ashley has failed at performing the basic journalistic task of speaking truth to power–and in an affair where the representatives of "power" desperately need rebuke. But he’s not a very good propagandist, either. His paper’s columns and articles are either comically heavy-handed (as in the editorial praising Chalmers’ alleged openness) or unintentionally helpful to critics of Nifong and Gottlieb. No wonder the Herald-Sun’s circulation figures continue to plunge. Hilarity on the news and editorial pages, whether intended or not, isn’t a good selling point.