This case has dramatically changed how I view the New York Times. A glance through the footnotes of any of my books shows how I have relied on the Times as the paper of (historical) record. But it’s hard to retain that view after witnessing the paper’s performance in this case, when it has accompanied over-the-top columns with biased “articles,” and even refused to print corrections when it misstated facts.
In this week’s public editor’s column, Byron Calame (who has been silent for months on the paper’s Duke coverage) rejects general claims of political or ideological bias against the Times. “Reporters and editors in the newsrooms of major newspapers,” he concludes, “are not motivated by a devotion to any political party or cause. It just isn’t in their DNA.” Instead, Calame identifies six other factors as guiding journalists:
- making a difference, which one reporter defined as “holding those with power accountable as to how they use it.”
- solving mysteries, in which reporters, wrote Calame, seek to “get to the bottom of a confusing or complicated situation and find patterns that help explain it to readers.”
- impressing sources.
- getting on the front page.
- competitiveness, especially for “intellectual scoops,” which one editor described as being the first to connect loose strands in a story “in a meaningful and convincing way, that’s something.”
- winning prizes, with knowledge that “the criteria for many journalism contests . . . favor stories that cause change or make waves.”
The Times’ faulty coverage of the lacrosse case has directly contradicted two of Calame’s items.
1.) The Times has gone out of its way to avoid holding Mike Nifong accountable. Even as the paper has printed dozens of stories on the case, the editorial page has made no mention of Nifong’s procedural misconduct. Articles, meanwhile, have minimized the issue to the greatest extent possible. In his 5,604-word magnum opus, published in late August, Duff Wilson ignored the arguments and even the existence of Nifong’s most intellectually gifted critic, James Coleman. (In June, the Duke Law professor had publicly urged appointment of a special prosecutor, since “up to now, virtually everything that Nifong has done has undermined public confidence in the case.”)
Times readers learned about Coleman only after an October interview in 60 Minutes, when he explained how massively Nifong had violated the photo lineup procedures that Coleman himself, as a member of
- “The files, of course, cannot settle any arguments about the case.”
- “The reference to five rapists has not been explained.”
- “Investigators say that does not explain why the woman seemed so profoundly intoxicated.”
- “The difference in the police accounts could not be explained.”
- “More DNA results have been made public in the case, but their relevance is unclear.”
- “The Times could not trace the other two, who have common names.”
- “Mr. Nifong has never explained his refusal to meet with the lawyers or review their evidence.”
Araton concluded by noting, “There are still many more questions than answers. Today, if I could ask just one, it would be directed at the Duke basketball women. What do they think of those sweatbands [sympathizing with the players that Nifong was targeting] the women’s lacrosse team was planning to wear?”
To answer the question, Araton merely had to ask the women’s basketball players. But he declined to do so. His remarkable passivity (laziness?) would seem to disprove Calame’s suggestion that Times writers really want to “get to the bottom of a confusing or complicated situation and find patterns that help explain it to readers.”
Two other items mentioned by Calame (impressing sources, getting on the front page) have negatively affected the Times’ Duke coverage, as Stuart Taylor pointed out. Calame’s fifth factor (competitiveness in getting the story out) appears to have played little role for the Times in this case. At least I hope that’s so, since the N&O has consistently scooped the Times.
What about the sixth factor—winning prizes? Bad behavior by college athletes certainly has formed a theme of the 2006 Times sports section.
Some of this work has been impressive, notably a string of articles on diploma mills—institutions designed to allow talented prospective college athletes to receive high school diplomas with little or no academic achievement. Some has been predictable: since January 1, Selena Roberts has penned no fewer than seven columns (apart from her Duke writings) on the topic. And some was almost laughable, chiefly an article that appeared the same day as the 60 Minutes broadcast, which contended that “months after the off-campus party at the heart of the unresolved rape case involving the Duke University lacrosse team, colleges across the country have profoundly changed how they respond to even the most minor indiscretions by athletes.”
Calame’s thesis might help explain why the Times initially chose to flood coverage of the case—Sports editors, no doubt, saw events in
The prize angle perhaps offers insight why the Times has made the otherwise inexplicable decision to retain Duff Wilson as the paper’s lead reporter, even as the story has veered more into legal, political, and even academic issues rather than sports.
The Times, obviously, is going to win no prizes for its Duke case coverage. And in the end, Calame’s thesis falls short. Jack Shafer, Slate editor at large and author of Slate’s “press box” column, doubted that a search for prizes alone could explain the Times’ handling of the story. He wrote:
I think newspapers create series—“How Race Is Lived in
America” or “The Vanishing Middle Class”—with prizes in mind, but I don’t think they put a story from on page one to win a prize. North Carolina
I think the story had the precise resonate frequency needed to make a
Manhattannewspaper adopt a crusader stance on the issue of Privilege vs. Non-Privilege, but not in where it would make us uncomfortable. New York
Calame might want to believe that
Calame might want to believe thatdevotion to a cause “just isn’t in their DNA” at the Times. Before making such a blanket assertion, however, he should take a hard look at why the paper has gone so badly astray on the Duke case. Sometimes, it would seem, devotion to a cause does explain a newspaper’s actions, especially when the paper has exhibited the kind of stubborn refusal to re-examine its initial conduct that we’ve seen in recent months from the Times.