The Paula Zahn race panel from a few weeks back continues to spark controversy. First,
Both Dines and Zook were especially displeased with the third member of their panel, Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, who asserted that the accuser had lied and chastised prominent black leaders, such as Jesse Jackson, for seeming to buy into her story. To Zook, Peterson refused to recognize that “the accuser was, and still is, a complicated and conflicted human being. As are we all.”
What qualifications did Zook bring to the Zahn telecast? She holds a Ph.D., from
Zook has claimed that she spent more time with the accuser’s family than any other reporter, and I have no reason to doubt her assertion. Her early reporting had at least two scoops.
First, she revealed that the accuser’s mother met with plaintiffs’ lawyer Willie Gary, in preparation for an eventual civil suit. “I think he would make a good lawyer. A very good lawyer.”
Second, Zook broke the story that in 2005, the accuser spent a week in a mental hospital, allegedly for a “nervous breakdown.” Zook accompanied this information with a blast against the case’s “vicious turn as defense lawyers . . . filed a motion seeking the young woman’s past medical and mental-health records.” Since Judge Osborn Smith would give the defense access to most of those records, “vicious” might not be the most appropriate adjective to describe the defense motion.
Zook’s reporting also (unintentionally) painted a picture of an accuser whose behavior was—to put it charitably—bizarre. The accuser’s aunt stated, “She needs some help. That girl needs some professional help.” Zook described the scene:
Racing back and forth to undisclosed locations with her two small children in tow, the young woman has not spoken to anyone from the press and will only call her parents. Sometimes, said the aunt, she doesn’t even talk to her mother and father when she calls, but simply blurts out, “I’m okay, Mama,” before quickly hanging up . . .
Although the parents say their daughter drives by the family home on occasion—as she did early Thursday afternoon when this reporter was present—she does not stop. “She looked me straight in the face,” her mother told Essence. “But she saw you were here, so she kept on going.”
It never appears to have occurred to Zook that such behavior is in no way normal, under any circumstances, and would suggest that the accuser is probably not the world's most credible witness.
A number of points made in Zook’s three Essence articles, plus a fourth penned by Bridgette Lacy, have failed to stand the test of time, though neither Zook nor Essence has acknowledged the errors.
For instance, a Lacy article quoted the father claiming the accuser’s “face was swollen.” Unless the accuser was beaten between
In one of her articles, Zook asserted that “both the alleged victim and her parents have received a number of anonymous death threats over the telephone and on flyers that were strewn across their front yard in recent weeks.” But, she admitted, she had never seen any of these alleged flyers—nor, she further conceded, had the father, though he claimed they included the letters "KKK."
The accuser's father explained why: “I really didn’t even get a chance to see them because the police came by so fast and put them in bags.” How the police found out about the flyers so quickly Zook didn’t say—nor, it appears, did she ever bother to ask the police this question. Given the Herald-Sun’s willingness to all but invent news favorable to Nifong, it seems rather hard to believe that this development, if true, would have escaped notice of the H-S' crack staff.
Zook also was the reporter who floated the claim that the accuser had “started screaming at the sight of White men in the streets.” Given that, at the time, the accuser was dancing in a most limber fashion before a presumably mixed-race crowd, it’s hard to accept this story as credible, either.
The father also told Zook what for many would be a routine item but in this case raised questions: “She takes her children to school and picks them up. She works. She goes to school herself.” How did the accuser take her children to school, and pick them up, given that her drivers’ license was revoked? Zook never said, perhaps because her reporting never mentioned the accuser’s 2002 arrest.
Despite her own less-than-stellar record on the case, Zook slammed the mainstream media in a recent essay and radio interview. The interview made clear its basic thesis: host Peter Hart opened by saying, “There are many facets to this case, of course one we’ll set aside are the missteps made by the Durham D.A. Mike Nifong.” Such an approach would, I suppose, make achieving the desired storyline a bit easier.
For instance, Zook blasted the media for never revealing that “in addition to working as an exotic dancer, the 28-year-old woman had held a variety of other jobs . . . she had sold cars at a local dealership, worked in an automobile assembly plant, and lifted and bathed elderly patients in a nursing home.” By failing to look “more closely,” Zook explained, most journalists missed out on her insights about the accuser. Who is this person, who Zook admits she has never met? “The blurred image that emerged for me was both lovely and tragic. It was the face, simply, of a human being.” (I’m not sure anyone has denied that the accuser is a “human being”; indeed, it would be difficult for her to make a police complaint otherwise.)
More to the point, Zook faulted the media’s approach to the case. A journalist’s job, she suggested, is to accept uncritically assertions by prosecutors, remain silent (except, apparently, to pen puff pieces about accusers), and await a jury’s verdict. Reporters, according to Zook, should “report the jury’s finding. Report the conclusion of the trial. Stop trying to report conclusions before due process.” Indeed, if “the trial hasn’t happened yet, let’s just stop and let justice make its way, let the trial take place, let the jury do their jobs.”
Investigative reporting? Holding the police or politicians accountable for their actions? Evidently no self-respecting journalist would engage in such activity.
Zook agrees with most observers that “there’s a very good chance that [the trial] won’t happen ever.” Many might point to the lack of facts to justify a trial; or the prosecutor committing massive misconduct. Not Zook. We won’t see a trial, she reasons, “because of the media speculation.” If only the N&O and 60 Minutes had remained silent, and allowed Nifong to lurch forward, North Carolina justice would be a better place.
It would be interesting to see just what approach to journalism they teach in the “History of Consciousness” program. Zook’s framework doesn’t seem to reflect the traditional view of a free press that challenges those in power.