This case has revealed contempt for athletes—bordering on prejudice, as Nicholas Kristof observed in a June column—among some quarters of the media and Duke’s arts and sciences faculty. Given this response, it might have been expected that sports publications would have provided some balance. Yet the two major spots websites—espn.com and cnnsi.com—instead have featured some of the worst coverage of the case.
As two excellent posts at Liestoppers pointed out, Bomani Jones’ recent espn.com column reveled in its prejudice. It dripped with contempt for the lacrosse players and revealed a mind (like so many in
Given Jones’ branding the entire lacrosse team as racists because one player uttered a racial slur as part of a racially charged argument, Joan Foster wonders why the espn.com author elected to ignore the findings of the Coleman Committee report on the question of the team’s racial attitudes. (After a comprehensive inquiry, the committee discovered no evidence of racist or sexist on-campus behavior.) Moreover, if we are to adopt Jones’ standards, Foster notes, should “the entire English Dept at Duke be called ‘racist’ in turn for their then-colleague Houston Baker’s racist remarks in a letter last spring?”
In his defense, Jones assured readers that “any opinion I offer on anything is from an objective position . . . That’s the job. And nothing is more important to my job performance than integrity . . . Never, for a second, question whether I’m fair. I’m passionate and imperfect, but I’m not a fool. Neither are my editors. They never would have sent me to the game if they didn’t think I’d do the job right.”
Liestoppers uncovered some previous examples of Jones’ objectivity—comments such as “I’m skeptical about white women crying rape against black men,” and, “Without question, I’d say that Duke is a white supremacist institution.” It’s good to know how loosely Jones appears to define “objective” and “integrity.”
But since Jones orders readers to take him at his word, let’s do so: he states that his editors sent him to write about the game fully aware of his prejudicial attitudes. And assigning a figure like Jones to write about the lacrosse case is only par for the course among sports coverage.
In fact, cnnsi.com is the dot.com equivalent of Nancy Grace’s Headline News Network on the air or the New York Times or Herald-Sun in print. Its most recent article featured a quote from one—and only one—outside legal source: Irving Joyner, saying that “the odds are good that it will go to trial . . . I think they will go forward.” A fair-minded reader would come away from the article believing that no one doubted that enough evidence existed to move forward with the case.
While espn.com has featured the weak but neutral Roger Cossack as its case legal analyst, cnnsi.com has employed the outrageously biased Lester Munson. “Using his legal training and expertise,” claims his website, “Munson [speaking of himself in the third person] is able to gather and to analyze material not often found in routine sports coverage. He is able to put criminal charges and civil litigation in the sports industry into a context that gives new insights into each case and into American pop culture.”
Munson’s first case-related comments came on April 18. Despite the court filing from Mike Nifong’s office that DNA would exonerate the innocent, Munson immediately downplayed DNA’s role. “There are hundreds of convicted rapists in prison,” he contended, “even though there was no sign of their DNA in the examinations of their victims . . . Lawyers for the accused players can talk endlessly about DNA, but the absence of DNA is not conclusive by itself.” He implied that the team had a history of “previous predatory conduct,” and expressed little doubt that a crime occurred: “There is always an element of brutality in what occurs. In the Duke situation, it may be the number of athletes joining in the attack. In the Tyson case, the attack was brutal.”
The next day, Munson gave an interview under the headline of “Duke lax players are staring down a tough trial.” Downplaying Reade Seligmann’s alibi evidence, he asserted incredibly, “The police and the prosecutor will scrutinize this evidence in exquisite detail, and if they find something is askew, that something doesn't fit in the alibi evidence, they will not hesitate to charge Seligmann with yet another crime. That would be obstruction of justice.” Could Seligmann in fact have been innocent? Very unlikely, proclaimed the legal “expert”: “You don’t see many alibis in criminal cases—it's a very rare thing. Ordinarily, 99 times out of 100, the police have the right guy, and you'll find that most people arrested were involved in something. Getting the wrong guy is very unusual.” Munson offered no evidence to support his extraordinary assertion.
Munson also offered a Wendy Murphy-like theory as to why Nifong had initially only indicted two players. “The question we must ask,” he not-so-sagely observed, “is whether this third player is in the process of negotiating with the prosecutor and is seeking immunity from prosecution or is seeking leniency for his testimony against the other players.” And asked on how the DNA test results would affect the case, Munson was unequivocal: “Its absence is not important. There are hundreds of men in penitentiaries across the
In June, Munson made what could be termed an obligatory appearance for all Nifong enablers, offering his insights on the Nancy Grace show. Remarking that he had “studied this at some length,” he assured Grace’s viewers that “the state has probably a better case than most observers are describing . . . Mr. Nifong is a seasoned, experienced prosecutor. He is not stupid . . . I think that Nifong is probably managing the discovery in such a way that there may be some surprises for these defense lawyers further down the road.” Munson seemed unaware that the state of North Carolina has an open discovery statute.
Nifong’s dropping the rape charges did not make Munson any more reasonable. The decision to dismiss the charges, he theorized, “is not a big surprise.” (It was a surprise to just about everyone else.) Munson noted that “there is little doubt that something unsavory happened at the party on March 13,” and—amazingly—looked for “the accused players to attempt to settle everything with a guilty plea on lesser charges.”
[Update, 11.27am: I e-mailed Munson to ask if he still held to his April, June, and December views; he replied as follows:
I remain convinced that something bad happened in the lacrosse captains' house on that night. The women left in a hurry. The women are working girls and they felt a sence of menace that caused them to bolt. The broomsticks may have been a factor. The police reports include an inventory of what was left behind, e.g., their money. Was there a rape? Maybe not. Probably not based on what we now know. When I report a rape case I look at the brevity of the encounter, the brutality of the sex, the injury to the victim, the outcry witnesses, and previous predatory behavior of the accused. This formula allows me to avoid the useless statement of "he said she said." Using my calculus, the evidence of a rape is minimal. Is there enough to get the case to a jury? Is there enough even to continue with the case now in the hands of the attorney general?
I am baffled by the conduct of Mike Nifong. When we began reporting on the case, we were told that he was a perfectly respectable and experienced prosecutor. That appears to be incorrect. The suppression of the exculpatory evidence is probably a crime. As a lawyer and as a journalist, I am appalled at what he did . . .
Why would another son of impressive wealth go out of his way in Georgetown to beat a gay man for no reason?
You ask for a reference on the fact that most people who are arrested are guilty and plead guilty. I believe that is common knowledge. The number of criminal cases tried to verdict in the criminal justice "system" is miniscule. If there were not plea bargains, the "system would collapse. If you need a reference, I would suggest "Courtroom 302" by Steve Bogira, a wonderful and detailed account of a year in the life of a courtroom in a busy criminal court.
It is heartening to see that Munson has now condemned Mike Nifong, which he did not do in December. The "something bad happened" argument [what, exactly?] appears to be his last defense. I know of no evidence about "broomsticks," and also the women did not leave in a hurry--they didn't leave for almost 50 minutes after the broomstick comment.
I know of no evidence that anyone associated with the case went "out of his way in Georgetown to beat a gay man." The Bogira book is an interesting read; I had asked Munson, though, for a reference to his claim that 99 percent of the people charged are guilty of something.]
There is one sports site that has provided extraordinary coverage of the case: Duke Basketball Report. Early on, DBR provided a forum for legal experts to comment on Nifong’s handling of the case: these posts represented the first public case comments by Friends of Duke’s Jason Trumpbour, recently identified as Mike Nifong’s Public Enemy #1.
In the months thereafter, DBR has run scores of columns and summaries on the case, ranging well beyond athletics to include examinations of prosecutorial misconduct, vestiges of McCarthyism, and the role of the bar. Its forceful endorsement of the Recall Nifong-Vote Cheek line looks prescient as Nifong now appears to be on its way out.
In a case where so many in the media got the story wrong, DBR not only understood the significance of Nifong’s misconduct but also provided a model of how a sports-centered site should have covered this case.
Hat tip: E.H.