Friday, November 10, 2006

Editor Ashley's Path to Scottsboro

At a pre-election media forum held on Duke’s campus, editor Bob Ashley said that “the Herald Sun should have been quicker to aggressively examine the competency of the investigation.”

This statement falsely implied that what Liestoppers has derisively referred to as the “Snooze Room” has actually investigated the matter. In fact, the only two articles that could pass as Herald-Sun “investigative” pieces on police competence went out of their way to defend police actions.

  • The first, penned by legal affairs second-stringer Ray Gronberg, attempted to rebut N&O and Duke Chronicle stories about what could charitably be termed Sgt. Mark Gottlieb’s pattern of overzealousness in dealing with Duke students’ constitutional rights. Gronberg, however, focused not on “aggressively examining” the DPD’s “competence” but instead on uncritically passing along a claim that the DPD has an official policy of meting out disproportionate punishment to Duke students as a class. The article was most notable for its revelation of a shadowy figure named “Bethany” (no last name offered in the article) in the office of Durham attorney Bob Ekstrand. No one named “Bethany” works for Ekstrand, but “Snooze Room” investigative pieces rarely let the facts trespass upon the story that Ashley wants told.
  • The second “investigative” article of police practices, authored by Herald-Sun stalwart John Stevenson, “broke” the news that a local strip club owner claimed that the accuser hadn’t performed there since late February. Unfortunately, the owner’s testimony was contradicted by the written statement filed months before by the person generally described as the accuser’s “driver”—a statement that Stevenson, focused on his “scoop,” neglected to mention. The next day, the owner retracted his affidavit.

Such writing, of course, reflects Ashley’s “eyes wide shut” approach to journalism, in which the job of a local newspaper is to ensure that facts critical of the local elite never reach readers.

The editor offered up more of the same in his editorial on the D.A.’s election in yesterday’s paper. “It appears,” Ashley intoned, “that many more voters than we suspected, and perhaps more than Nifong suspected, have taken issue with the way he has handled the case.”

Ashley’s admission that he had failed to realize he was out of step with a majority in his community was telling. Perhaps some of the 51 percent whose votes expressed no confidence in Nifong’s handling of the case were among those who in the last six months have abandoned the Herald-Sun. The paper has experienced the largest drop in circulation figures of any major North Carolina daily in the time period. (It plunged more than 7 percent in weekday circulation and just under 10 percent in Sunday circulation.) These former Herald-Sun readers voted with their pocketbooks in swearing off Ashley’s one-sided heavy-handedness, and on Tuesday they registered their message at the polls.

Having taken into account the sentiments of a majority of his community (and potential readership), how did Ashley respond to the results? Just like his mentor, Mike Nifong: full speed ahead. “The best course for all concerned is to continue down the current path to trial and, we hope, to justice,” lectured the editor.

Which “current path” should we “continue down”?

  • The path where the Durham County’s “minister of justice” suggested that the fact “that people in the community are divided or up in arms over the existence of that case” was “in and of itself” a justification for trying a case?
  • The path where the District Attorney publicly labeled the lacrosse players “hooligans,” and claimed to have read the SANE nurse’s report before the report was even printed?
  • The path where the person supervising the investigation—Nifong, as of March 24—sought indictments without re-interviewing Kim Roberts, even though Roberts’ statement to police directly contradicted the accuser’s claim that Roberts was a witness to the start of the alleged attack?
  • The path where the “minister of justice” ordered police to violate their own procedures to ensure he obtained indictments before the primary election?
  • The path where the District Attorney acted to ensure that Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty would have no opportunity for a probable cause hearing, while refusing to meet with Seligmann’s attorney to discuss exculpatory evidence?
  • The path where Nifong, upon seeing a young man wearing a lacrosse T-shirt, refused to speak with him and then joked, “I might have prejudged him.”
  • The path where the “minister of justice” mused, “One would wonder why one needs an attorney if one was not charged and had not done anything wrong”?

Editor Ashley’s path, it seems, would lead straight back to the Scottsboro of the 1930s.

In what might be his most preposterous assertion of the entire case (and, given his record, that’s saying something), Ashley asked readers to believe that he now has the interests of the accused players at heart. Since “an upcoming trial . . . is sure to draw major media attention, it would be better for the players to have an opportunity to prove their innocence at trial.”

Much like Duke president Richard Brodhead, Ashley appears unaware that the purpose of a trial in the United States is not for the accused “to prove their innocence.” Then again, from everything we’ve seen over the past seven months, in a city where Mike Nifong is the “minister of justice,” normal rules of due process fail to apply.

[Update, 7.40am: A commenter correctly points out that while Ashley has his own column, all editorials at the Herald-Sun are nominally the responsibility of the editorial page editor. It would appear, however, that either Ashley has handled the lacrosse case editorials himself, as I suspect; or the paper's editorial page editor has elected to produce lacrosse-case editorials that are almost identical, in tone, substance, and argument, to Ashley's first major commentary on the case, a July column described here.]

22 comments:

TombZ said...

What other clues does Ashley need to realize he's Captain on the journalistic equivalent to the Titanic?

(Sorry to continue in a mixed metaphor here, but, well...)

In another day some time ago, Ashley would have been up there with Elmer Fudd. As Bugs Bunny said many times, foreshadowing Ashley:

"What a Maroon."

TombZ said...

And, yes, I know he went to Duke.

Talk about your white, liberal guilt. Geez.

Oh, and ...

First! (for once.)

Anonymous said...

And second, too, "tombz." :)

It appears that trials in the US are also the forum for hearing allegations and letting a jury decide who it prefers to believe, rather than anyone determining probable cause or that there is evidence a law has been broken BEFORE a trial occurs.

Nifong believes that the court is where "everyone has a right to have their allegations heard."

So, yes, trials are now, at least in North Carolina, where the accused has the burden to prove his or her innocence.

Twaddlefree

Anonymous said...

Twaddlefree,

Probable cause is a really low standard. From wilkipedia:

The Supreme Court decision Illinois v. Gates (1983) lowered the threshold of probable cause by ruling that a "substantial chance" or "fair probability" of criminal activity could establish probable cause. A better-than-even chance is not required.

Even now, Nifong has an alleged victim who said she was raped, had swelling and physical symptoms consistent with her story, and fingered three guys as her attackers.

There might be mountains of evidence that call the accuser's story into doubt, but standing alone Nifong's evidence is probably sufficient to establish probable cause.

The biggest check on cases going to trial isn't the grand jury or probable cause hearings, it's the prosecutor's discretion. If the prosecutor doesn't think the defendant is guilty, they'll usually drop the case. What makes this different are Nifong's political motives.

But with all that said, the burden is still on Nifong to prove guilt. I think the players will vindicate themselves publically though. It'll be interesting to hear what the jury has to say afterwards.

Anonymous said...

That's what bugs me so much as well. People seem to be forgetting that the justice system's number one goal should be to avoid punishing innocent people. And this does not just include punishing people with a guilty verdict and prison sentence. A trial comes at significant human, financial, time, and emotional cost to defendents. This is why prosecutors in other parts of the US are not allowed to prosecute when there is clear evidence of innocence. Even if the defendents are declared innocent in the end, a trial will have put them through hell and their lives will forever be tainted by it. Heck, prosecutors are not allowed to prosecute without some minimal standard of guilt because otherwise, our authorities would be able to use the act of trial to punish anyone they want with impunity. The we better hook some magnets up to the founding fathers ASAP because they're rolling with fury in their graves at the moment.

The hypocrisy and complete blindness to the principles that guide our justice system, and to logical examination of evidence period, in Durham just confuse the heck out of me. KC should read the Duke Basketball Report's lacrosse board and see how Duke alumni are divided along the Durham/Non-Durham line over there. Durham-Dukies, while critical of Nifong, are making up all sorts of ridiculous excuses defending how the people of Durham could have supported Nifong.

So it seems like there is something in the water down in Durham.

KC Johnson said...

I've been reading the DBR election result thread. Agree completely--some of the rationalizations for Durham's vote are just astonishing.

Anonymous said...

Excellent points, though I did want to clarify something.

Ashley does not write the daily editorials. The editorial page editor takes care of that.

As far as I know, Ashley does not have any input on those pieces, though he does write a column that runs om Sundays.

-- Someone who knows

Anonymous said...

It was Ashley who responded to me when I questioned an editorial.... originally he indicated that he'd have to talk to the other editorial contributors about the 'opinion' voiced. However, when I later challenged their 'opinion' as a flat out misstatement, his response certainly didn't indicate that he was discussing the content with anyone else. I've learned that editorials can contain lies that, when challenged, are called opinions - the situation I specifically reference was an editorial that completely misrepresented (but didn't use "quotes") what someone said.

Anonymous said...

KC: Now that we know the FA has told someone in the Platinum Club that she was going to get "alot of money from these rich white boys" and we know that Kim Roberts on National TV has said that the FA told her to put marks on her body that is what she wanted. Isn't that extortion? If you look at the zip codes for the 3 indicted young men they have the wealthiest zip codes of the team. All it takes is a Google search. She and her boyfriend had plenty of time to look up the lacrosse players information on line and cross reference that with who had the most money they could get. We all know she is an actress. She knew exactly who she was going to pick, the boys who she thought she could get the most from. It was premeditated extortion. Her computer search engine would be able to tell alot.

Anonymous said...

To 8:47,
But the only evidence they have is a statement by a couple of individuals who work at the Platinum Club. It's just an accusation from some people who work at this disreputable club...who would believe that?That's not enough to indict anyone is it? You can't screw up the life of this woman based on an accusation, can you?? This is America...we don't do those kinds of things, right???

Anonymous said...

Seahawk, Kempermanx and Tatercon are you still out there? Hope you can continue with your good work.

Anonymous said...

To 9:04 anon:

That's exactly what's happening to the Lax players...


"You can't screw up the life of this woman based on an accusation, can you?? This is America...we don't do those kinds of things, right???
"

LearnedHand said...

It is a sorry state of affairs in the "city of medicine" but i still believe that things happen for a reason...case in point: look at the "awakenings" happening with the students at Duke! despite this ridiculous kangaroo court of an election and judicial process - this keeps me believing - READ THIS ARTICLE!

Anonymous said...

To 9:04: I think you are being sarcastic. That is exactly the only evidence the DA has, is the word of the FA who has major credibility problems, a drug problem, no respect for the law and can't tell the difference between right and wrong. The DA only has the word of the FA picking a "pin the tail on the donkey" type of unconstitutional lineup that took 4 different times with the coaching of the DA and Gottlieb to just pick anyone. When she choose Matt they knew he wasn't at the party so they ignored that choice. Why do you think they broke the players constitutional rights again by questioning them at their dorm rooms without attorneys present. Surprise everyone: some politicians and elected officials are corrupt and politically motivated. For god sakes the ADA Couch sexually harrasses women in the DA's office right under the nose of Nifong and gets away with it. He had a Myspace website wearin nothing but a red towel with the line, "Come and get some". I'm sorry but for an adult to have a website up on Myspace where teenagers go, he is a pedaphile. But then again this is Durham in Wonderand or more like Durham in Hell.

Anonymous said...

TO 11:28,
Yes, I was being smart-ass. But I was also trying to make a point that there actually exists more evidence to indict the accuser for filing a false police report, extortion, lying to police, etc., than actually exists to indict the lax players.

I have three boys about the same ages of the three Duke boys. One has graduated but the other two are college athletes. So this kind of justice frustrates and scares the hell out of me--just amazing how easily young college boys' lives can be destroyed simply by one utterance by a drunk, drugged, prostitute. In fact, the accuser originally never claimed rape--allegedly, a nurse asked her if she was raped...she only had to say "yes". Great evidence to screw up some lives.

Anonymous said...

I simply can not understand with all the evidence pointing to a corrupt DA and police department, a falses accuser who has changed her story numerous times, she has a drug problem and showed up at the party intoxicated, 57 witnesses who say an attack never occured, electronic exculpatory evidence, time stamped photos, all 3 accused passed lie detector tests, etc. the list goes on and on. Why is this case still going on? If anyone can just point a finger at you and accuse you of a crime because they have an agenda or want something from you.... that is a chilling thought, that the government allows it and sits back and watches the most corrupt public official this century...truly chilling.

Anonymous said...

Can the FA be forced to take a lie detector test?

Anonymous said...

After the voting in Durham, I would like to make a statement to all of those black people who voted for Nifong and seem to despise those Dukies. Let's spend all of our money in Chapel Hill or Raleigh. Let's not spend all of our time doing volunteer hours, tutoring their children for free,etc and just see how they like that. Maybe they would see those Dukies weren't so bad after all. Of course, President Broadhead would never go for that. It would be politically uncorrect.

Anonymous said...

learnedhand - thanks for posting that article, it was a great one.

Anonymous said...

I would certainly not spend any money in Durham. Not while Nifong is D.A.

"Let it be anathema."

Anonymous said...

Can't that reporter who interviewed the false accuser and withheld certian information from that interview be supeonaed. She should be considered a witness as she seems to be the only one who has spoken to the accuser soon after the party. This reporter withheld statements made about Kim and her part in the scam. She only reported a onesided story. It will be interesting if she can be called as a witness and if she has to testify under oath. Even though it has been requested she tell the entire interview, she has not had to give up that information, obstruction of justice....she could go to jail for that.

Anonymous said...

The Herald-Sux's lacrosse case coverage has been lamentably lame, but it's certainly not the main reason for the paper's drop in circulation.

Paxton Media grossly overpaid when it bought The H-S in January 2005, reportedly paying over $120M for a paper valued at roughly $75M. In turn, Paxton gutted the staff, firing many longtime editors, reporters and artists, and replaced their work with canned, syndicated crap.

Also, there's hardly enough staff left there to put out a paper, let alone a good paper that covers the bases.

Durham readers - realizing they were being asked to pay the same price for less newspaper - opted either to stop taking a paper altogether, or to switch to The News & Observer.