A refusal to apologize appears to be in the air this week in
Much like the Group of 88, Ashley has expressed bafflement as to why his paper’s transparently pro-Nifong coverage was cited by the defense as one of four factors in the change of venue motion. In an interview with Editor and Publisher, Ashley reinvented the past by fantastically claiming that not only did the H-S offer fair and balanced coverage from the start, but it actively upheld the defendants' presumption of innocence.
Ashley neglected to explain how articles like his post-60 Minutes "roundtable" (which contained only commenters sympathetic to the case going to trial) fit into this agenda. Nor is it clear how the H-S upheld a presumption of innocence in its post-election editorial asserting that 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.”
While the E&P article projected a tone of skepticism about Ashley's claims, it failed to point out any of the myriad examples of the H-S editor's embarrassing performance over the past several months.
According to Ashley, “we have tried to report the facts as they’ve been produced, the facts as they have been publicly available. And when the defense attorneys have produced evidence available to their clients, we have reported that.”
That’s news to the H-S’ dwindling circulation base (down nearly 10 percent since the case started, a fact oddly unmentioned by E&P): at several points in the case, Ashley and his reporters went out of their way not to report evidence casting doubt on Nifong’s actions. Months passed before the paper interviewed Jim Coleman about his prescient calls for Nifong to step aside in favor of a special prosecutor. To my knowledge, the paper has never mentioned General Order 4077, the
To E&P, the editor spoke of the difficulty of getting “breaking news” on the story. (The N&O’s Joe Neff has seemed to succeed here; perhaps he was just lucky.) “Are there bits here and there, given hindsight, we would have liked to have reported sooner? Yes,” Ashley mused. “I wished we had sources and had ferreted them out, but it wasn’t there.”
There’s little evidence that either Ashley or his reporters have worked very hard on such matters. In an October appearance at Duke, the editor suggested that the paper might do more with the viciously anti-Duke attitudes of some residents of the Trinity Park neighborhood and the troubling actions of the Durham Police Department. In the 10 weeks since he made his remarks, the H-S hasn’t carried even one story on either issue.
Tilting both news and editorial coverage in such a one-sided direction carries severe risks: if the paper’s side turns out to have no evidence and to have engaged in massive prosecutorial misconduct, it’s unlikely that the paper’s sources will provide much valuable information.
To my knowledge, the Herald-Sun “broke” three lacrosse case stories, each of which came from obvious prosecution leaks and seemed designed to rebut troubling developments for Mike Nifong.
Two of these “scoops” proved inaccurate.
The first inaccurate tale was John Stevenson’s borderline fraudulent recapitulation of the DNA “evidence,” which he (along with pro-prosecution NAACP “case monitor” Irving Joyner) presented in the summer as a major breakthrough for Nifong. In his article, Stevenson suggested that the true facts regarding DNA had been concealed—a correct supposition, as we know now. But, he claimed, the defense, not Nifong, had done the concealing. The story that changed the case, in short, was right there under Stevenson’s nose. And he managed to present it in a pro-Nifong fashion—no easy task.
Several weeks later, Stevenson (whose puff pieces regularly were reprinted on the Nifong campaign website) continued to do Nifong’s dirty work. On November 2, he cited an affidavit from Platinum Club owner Victor Olatoye disputing 60 Minutes’ account that the accuser was dancing, in a most limber fashion, only days after the alleged attack. A critical swing in public opinion for Nifong, it seemed. The next day, however, the H-S had to retract the story after Olatoye admitted he was wrong.
The “accurate” H-S scoop, meanwhile, came in a September story by Ray Gronberg designed to minimize damaging information from the N&O and the Duke Chronicle about Sgt. Mark Gottlieb’s record of disproportionately arresting Duke students for alcohol-related offenses. But the “scoop” unintentionally made things worse for Nifong: the Durham PD went on record admitting that Gottlieb was carrying out an official departmental policy.
Nor could the piece be characterized as an example of good journalism: Gronberg admitted in the article he had never looked at the case files of the students Gottlieb had arrested. He blamed the oversight on “
Ashley conceded the problem of not knowing about the Nifong-Meehan DNA conspiracy. But, he added, “We have reported the facts as they have become known and it has been an unfolding story we could only report as it unfolds.”
It is unclear how that philosophy would explain the single worst “news” article on the case in recent months. In early November, Stevenson suggested that a
E&P reporter Joe Strupp got a first-hand taste of H-S editorial policy in analyzing the editorial on Nifong’s recusal. The editorial, Strupp correctly noted, “made it appear as if [the recusal] was a courageous move by Nifong rather than a forced removal prompted by his own poor actions.” Moreover, the editorial “stopped short of openly criticizing Nifong, or pointing out that recent revelations indicate the lacrosse player’s guilt is much less-apparent than it was months ago. Instead, the paper urges readers to remember that the suspects could still face jail.”
Massive prosecutorial misconduct, including the possibility of a D.A. abusing his authority to frame innocent people, is not a theme that has interested H-S editorial writers over the past seven months. Strupp notes that Ashley himself doesn’t write H-S editorials. But the editor set the tone that all subsequent editorials have followed in a July column, where he cited the work of Andrew Cohen to suggest that the case needed to go to trial, regardless of Nifong’s misconduct or Reade Seligmann’s demonstrable innocence.
In the interview, Ashley came as close as he has at any point in the case to admitting a motive for his paper’s bias. The paper, paraphrased E&P, needs “to maintain its relationships in the city and continue to report after larger media outlets leave.” In other words: Duke students don’t subscribe to the H-S. But Nifong enablers do. If the paper had to avoid the truth so as not to alienate its customer base, so be it.
E&P yesterday published a letter responding to Ashley's claims:
I suppose I shouldn't have expected anything other than defense of the rightness of their ways, but as I was reading the words of the local paper's editor, it seemed that all of Nifong's supporters are trying to shield one another, and one of their arguing points is that some charges are still pending against the accused, and the DA still believes in the case. If Nifong actually does still believe in his case, at least we know that one reason for his past behavior was extreme stupidity. The same can be said for that birdbrained editor. It's incredible that someone this gullible and naive is in charge of newspaper stories. The credibility of that newspaper must be approximately zero by now. And I don't think those guys learned anything at all from their blunders. It sure doesn't sound like it. They seem every bit as dumb today as they've shown themselves to be for the past year.
Not exactly the philosophy that will win the H-S too many Pulitzers, I’m afraid.