Regular readers of this blog know that, in general, I have given quite high marks to the News&Observer’s articles on the lacrosse case, at least its coverage since mid-April. (The paper’s pallid editorial page, on the other hand, deserves little praise.) The N&O’s three great strengths, at least since mid-April:
- The investigative journalism of Joseph Neff, in my opinion the only newspaper reporter in the country whose stories have exposed events that will earn a place in history for prosecutorial misconduct;
- The daily coverage of Benjamin Niolet, who has been fair-minded in reporting the case and dogged in his unwillingness to show favoritism to either side;
- The op-ed work of Ruth Sheehan, who to my knowledge is one of only two op-ed writers in the country (David Brooks of the New York Times is the other) who demonstrated the open-mindedness to revise early opinions expressed on the case as more facts about Mike Nifong’s procedurally dubious behavior came to light.
Compare the N&O’s efforts to those of the other four newspapers who have devoted considerable column space to the case. Consider the competition:
- The New York Times appears intent on combining the extreme political correctness of its crusade to bring women to Augusta National with the uncritical acceptance of dubious government documents demonstrated by Judith Miller in the run-up to the Iraq war, even if they have to leave errors uncorrected to do so.
- The Charlotte Observer has largely ignored the ramifications of events in
, even though, if successful, Nifong’s procedural misconduct could set dangerous statewide precedents. Durham
- The Washington Post has weighed in with periodic outrageous columns from the likes of Andrew Cohen or Lynne Duke.
- And the Durham Herald-Sun is the journalistic equivalent of a seven-year-old: when facts emerge that contradict their heavy-handed pro-Nifong stance, Herald-Sun editors and reporters simply place their hands over their ears and pretend not to hear.
Indeed, I would submit that the N&O has published more quality articles on the lacrosse case than the combined total produced by every other newspaper in the country. Yesterday’s effort by Neff is the most important item on this list.
This record makes all the more puzzling N&O editors’ stalwart defense of the paper’s March 25 article about the accuser, which recently triggered a firestorm of criticism at the editors’ blog. The article’s findings haven’t stood the test of time, as a point-by-point dissection from Liestoppers reveals. Moreover, many of its flaws would have been avoided if the reporter had conducted some basic background research on the accuser before writing her story.
Penned by Samiha Khanna and overseen by deputy managing editor Linda Williams, the article presented what could charitably be termed an incomplete view of the accuser’s previous involvement with exotic dancing. It claimed that the players were “barking racial slurs” during the dance, causing both the accuser and Kim Roberts to cry, a version contradicted by not only the captains’ statements but, more important, by Roberts’ March 22 statement to police. It asserted that the accuser overcame her hesitation to tell police what happened only after her father came to see her in the hospital, a version of events unsupported by any police report from the time and, indeed, contradicted by the father himself in a later N&O article.
That the story proved to be wrong in its critical details doesn’t necessarily make it bad journalism. The recent controversy began when Williams admitted that in her interview with Khanna, the accuser also “offered an opinion about the other woman’s actions that night.” The N&O declined to print this material, according to Williams, because it was “clearly an opinion, offered without any substantiation. Omitting from published news articles unsubstantiated opinions is a standard, normal part of the journalistic process.” Instead, the paper chose to “limit” the story “to the information in the police report.”
As we know now, the accuser had, repeatedly, claimed to police that Roberts robbed her; she also appears to have asserted, at one point, that Roberts assisted in the rape. So Williams’ justification for her decision seems contradicted by her own standards. The N&O had no greater rationale for printing the accuser’s “unsubstantiated opinions” about what the lacrosse players allegedly did to her than her “unsubstantiated opinions” about what Kim Roberts allegedly did to her; police reports contained both “unsubstantiated opinions.”
Excluding this information, as many commenters at the N&O blog pointed out, meant that the paper heightened the racial aspect of the case—suggesting that the accuser was alleging misconduct only by white males, when in fact she was alleging misconduct (or different types) by white males and a black female. Several N&O commenters (see particularly Newport’s 10-6, 2.29 comment) also provided links to articles from late March and April, including a first-person testimonial by an N&O “correspondent,” which offered “unsubstantiated opinions” against the lacrosse players.
What we know now also exposes some fairly significant journalistic shortcomings in reporting the story. For instance:
- The accuser has a criminal record, involving a 2002 incident when she stole a taxi and engaged in a high-speed chase with a police officer after a tryout to be an exotic dancer. This item was in the public record: obtaining it would have allowed Khanna to avoid her incorrect assertion that the accuser was just starting out as an exotic dancer. So why did Khanna not perform a routine background check on the accuser?
- The accuser has previously filed serious claims against others (gang rape, attempted murder, perhaps other charges with the Durham Police), which she then never pursued. This information certainly would affect how an impartial journalist would view the accuser’s credibility—especially in a story where the N&O made the controversial decision to grant anonymity to an interviewee. So why did Khanna not do the journalistic legwork necessary to track down this public-record information, which the AP would reveal a couple of weeks later?
- Williams correctly points out that as of March 25, the N&O didn’t know the identity of the second dancer, so had no way of reaching her. (That police sources failed to provide this information might have provided a hint that the accuser’s story didn’t match up with that of Roberts.) In any case, Khanna certainly could have asked the accuser for the contact information of other people with whom she worked, to get a better sense of her day-to-day life in the weeks before the incident. It seems to me that such a decision would have constituted due diligence before giving a five-column, above-the-fold headline to an anonymous figure. Does anyone seriously believe that Khanna’s image of the accuser corresponds with that presented in Jarriel Johnson’s statement?
The errors associated with Khanna’s story cannot be undone; I suppose we should be grateful that she no longer appears to be a featured reporter on this case. But I see no reason for the N&O to continue to withhold from public view what the accuser claimed about Roberts.
Since I started this blog, my posts have occasionally contained factual errors (misidentifying the source of
The N&O should do the same thing here. Linda Williams made the wrong call when she authorized withholding the accuser’s uncorroborated allegations against Roberts but printed those she made against the lacrosse players. Samiha Khanna should have inquired into the accuser’s background before trusting her word enough to grant her the cloak of anonymity. It serves no purpose—least of all that of good journalism—to defend the decisions of either at this stage.