Paula Zahn Now [is] an issues-driven program offering live newsmaker interviews and meaningful discussion and analysis from an exclusive roster of contributors.
To discuss the event, Zahn invited Joe Madison, an African-American radio talk show host from
As far as I could determine, none of the three had previously commented in public on the case, nor was there anything in their background to suggest particular expertise on the matter.
The group produced a several-minutes discussion that made the
What did Zahn and her cohort talk about?
What occurred? “These white guys hired a black woman. You are going to tell me that, in—out in Duke [sic], you couldn’t have found a white stripper, a white prostitute? They were there—race was a factor.” (I heard the talk show host say “pretty white stripper” during the live broadcast, but the adjective didn’t appear in the transcript.)
Did Zahn? Apparently not.
Had either been paying attention to the case since mid-April? Apparently not.
Zahn did, however, aggressively note that she would broadcast live from
“Constitutional attorney” Gross provided even more outrageous commentary than did
In Gross’ version of events, the players not only wanted black dancers—but they “hired a known prostitute for sex(!).” Apparently unaware of the latest batch of motions in the case or even Reade Seligmann’s public announcement of his minute-by-minute alibi in a May 1 motion, Gross asserted, “We haven’t heard from any of them as to what they did. We have only heard: I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me. I didn’t rape her.”
The “constitutional attorney” did express his concern that a “rush to judgment” had occurred—against the “one victim, who is all alone, who has got a lousy reputation.”
Compared to his fellow panelists, Perez seemed like a member of the Supreme Court bar. He admitted that many people seemed to think that Nifong based his actions on political motives, but downplayed the idea. “How could he take such a weak case, or a case that really wasn’t all together,” Perez mused, “and try to make political hay out of it?”
None of the panelists appeared aware that the case emerged several weeks before a hotly contested primary in which Nifong needed black votes. Zahn gave no evidence that she understood this issue either.
In a case where we’ve seen copious irresponsible media speculation, Zahn’s Friday program stood out. The CNN personality gave a forum to guests who clearly knew next to nothing about the case, and then allowed them to make misstatements of fact and outrageous comparisons while ignoring the unprecedented event of a DA’s forced recusal because of ethics allegations. Viewers might have expected this sort of “commentary” on March 29, when the Group of 88 started putting together its ad. But surely we can expect more now, as new facts have emerged.
Zahn had sparingly covered Duke matters for months, but she did feature several segments in the spring. At that time, she often welcomed the ready-to-slander Wendy Murphy, who complained in May about how people didn’t care “about the privacy rights of the Duke rape victim, who faced a subpoena by the defense team [that was] truly invasive. I guess we only care about privacy rights for criminals, huh?” The previous month, the former prosecutor (incorrectly) informed CNN viewers that Kim Roberts claimed the accuser “was stone-cold sober when they got there . . . I don’t think there’s any evidence that she was either drugged or under the influence of alcohol.” Zahn offered no correction.
CNN changes its format every six months or so, but in the network’s current approach, Zahn and Anderson Cooper (on two hours later) function as anchors, heavy on personal empathy and good looks, but light on overt editorializing, at least on controversial matters.
Yet, over and over again in the spring, Zahn sounded like a paid mouthpiece for Nifong’s office.
She regularly did whatever she could to frame discussions of the case in ways highly unfavorable to the players. For instance:
- On May 17, she spoke of “the
rape case raising new concerns about college athletes, drinking, and now hazing.” In fact, the hazing case involved the women’s soccer team at Northwestern; even Nifong has never suggested that the Duke events were hazing. Duke University
- On April 21, Zahn celebrated Kim Roberts’ mercurial public remarks, contending that “what she is saying appears to back up the charge of rape.”
- A few days before, she played up the class angle. Commenting on the arrests of Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty, Zahn informed viewers that the pair “came to Duke from upscale suburbs in
and elite private schools.” [sic] New York City
- In mid-May, Zahn gushed at the laughably pro-Nifong judge Ron Stephens, who lectured attendees on courtroom decorum but allowed a New Black Panthers member who threatened Reade Seligmann to remain in court. “Quite a display there in the courtroom,” Zahn enthused, “from that no nonsense judge.”
A fierce critic of the defense attorneys, Zahn seems to have viewed her role as standing up for the “defenseless” accuser. On April 12, she detected what “seems to be a concerted effort by friends of the defense to continue to trash this alleged victim.”
The evidence? Because “you don’t hear her described as a student or as a mom,” but as “the stripper.” Zahn did not protest when Madison or Gross referred to the accuser as a prostitute by December; that they smeared the players seemed to satisfy her.
When the defense asked for the accuser’s medical records in late April, she opined, “It’s more clear than ever that the defense in the Duke rape case is going to continue to attack the credibility of the accuser. That comes as no surprise to anyone.” In a leading question to the eager to oblige Pam Bondi, Zahn inquired, “Is this just sliming the victim again?” (Zahn did not say why the person who once was the “alleged victim” was now clearly a “victim.”) The CNN host couldn’t figure out what such mental health records “could have to do . . . with her credibility today.”
In fact, as we know now, the request was wholly legitimate—Judge Smith turned over much of what was requested, under seal, last month.
Zahn also repeated the Nifong post-March 29 mantra that DNA wasn’t really important to the case. On April 24, she observed, “I know you don’t need it, necessarily, to convict . . . anybody. You have got tons . . . of people sitting in jail right now convicted for rape that never had a DNA match.” Or, as Nifong might have said, “the good old-fashioned way” is the way to go. (Zahn repeated this assertion frequently in her early broadcasts.)
Zahn’s most troubling performance came on April 17, when she blandly dismissed Joe Cheshire’s assertion that no assault occurred. Dripping with incredulity, the host wondered how Cheshire could “explain the woman’s injuries, particularly some of the internal injuries.” Zahn neither then nor thereafter clarified to which “internal injuries” she was referring.
“I want to know,” she lectured
This is the person who’s going to moderate a forum on race in
This is the person who’s going to moderate a forum on race in