The reason [the system] misfired is because people were afraid to speak truth to power. And I want to call out first the newspaper in
Durham, North Carolina, the Herald-Sun, who to this day has not written a single editorial critical of the way which Mike Nifong proceeded. If the Durham Herald-Sun had bothered to stand up and demand proper processes, the presumption of innocence and doing things the way our constitution provides, do you think Mike Nifong would have rolled forward? Durham
Instead they published editorials talking about how bad all the lacrosse players were and that the lacrosse players should have to prove their innocence, and that in addition to the crimes that night, there was a crime of a cover-up. And you’ll not see a word of apology from them . . . But if they had done what journalists were supposed to do and spoken truth to power, they could have slowed this train down.
Cooney’s words triggered a spontaneous burst of applause from people in the hall at Wednesday’s press conference. Rather than expose injustice, the Herald-Sun has spent the past 13 months doing everything it could to facilitate Mike Nifong’s efforts to railroad three innocent people.
In Sunday’s H-S, editor Bob Ashley took exception. Of course, some might suggest that right now, Ashley is hardly in a position to credibly claim even a minimal amount of journalistic competence. After all, yesterday his news division published an article falsely claiming that AG Roy Cooper told 60 Minutes that concerns over racial tensions led to the decision to proclaim the three falsely accused players innocent. Cooper, in fact, had said nothing of the sort. Thirteen hours after the item appeared on the H-S website, and after several blogs took the H-S to task, the offending paragraphs vanished, without acknowledgement that a correction occurred.
In his response to Cooney, Ashley defended both the editorial and the news performance of his newspaper. “We have repeatedly reminded readers of the presumption of innocence,” he proclaimed, “and have consistently urged the legal process to proceed, swiftly, to determine the truth in this case.”
The paper did, for instance, mention presumption of innocence in a March 28 editorial, its first on the case. It made the statement after asserting the following:
When police officers arrived at the house with a search warrant on March 16, none of the players would cooperate with the investigation [sic] . . . The allegations of rape bring the students’ arrogant frat-boy culture to a whole new, sickening level. ‘Get a conscience, not a lawyer,’ read [potbangers’] signs waved in front of the house on Sunday. We agree that the alleged crime isn’t the only outrage. It’s also outrageous that not a single person who was in the house felt compelled to step forward and tell the truth about what happened.
Of course, in reality 47 people had told the truth about what happened. But because the H-S had presumed guilt, Editor Ashley and his colleagues couldn’t accept that version of events.
The March 28 editorial was not the only occasion in which Ashley and his colleagues unusually defined “presumption of innocence.” In July, Ashley termed it “insanity” to suggest that Nifong’s procedural misconduct was the key aspect of the story. Soon thereafter, the editorial board assured readers, “We think that the 25-year veteran of the prosecutor’s office must have some evidence, or he would have dropped the case long ago.” Both editorials, of course, subsequently proved false.
And after the election, the editorial board fantastically endorsed bringing the case to trial regardless of Nifong’s misconduct on the grounds that “it would be better for the players to have an opportunity to prove their innocence at trial.” [emphasis added]
How these editorials reflected the presumption of innocence Ashley has not revealed. He pointed out that (after ethics charges were filed against Nifong) the paper had run two editorials containing stray comments expressing some doubts about the case. The boldest attack? “If [emphasis added] Nifong is found to have acted unethically, he should face serious consequences.” That criticism could apply to any district attorney in the country.
Turning to “our news coverage,” Ashley continued, “we have printed scores of stories on this case and related issues.” That assertion is the only accurate statement in his apologia.
Of course, the content of these “stories on this case” is what has raised concern. Take, for instance, John Stevenson’s borderline fraudulent recapitulation of the DNA “evidence,” in which he 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. Stevenson, in short, managed to present the story that changed the case in a pro-Nifong fashion.
Or, perhaps more outrageously, take the March 23 H-S article, in which the paper stated that Crystal Mangum’s father “still believes wholeheartedly his daughter was brutally raped and assaulted on the night of March 13, 2006—he recalls in vivid detail his daughter’s swollen eyes and cut arms.” Of course, police photos of Mangum taken two days after the party showed this statement to be a lie.
That H-S articles repeatedly appeared, verbatim, as puff pieces on the Nifong campaign website appears not to have concerned Editor Ashley. Nor does Ashley appear bothered by the paper’s troubling pattern, throughout 2006, of concealing or delaying for months reporting about items highly unfavorable to the state. (This could be called the Dr. Brian Meehan approach to journalism.) Indeed, for much of the fall campaign, the H-S “votebook” listed Nifong—a candidate who wound up with less than 50 percent of the vote—as running “unopposed.”
And what of the “related issues” that Ashley claims to have explored? In an October forum at Duke, he said that he wished his paper had “been more aggressive” in looking at the competence of the early police investigation and the anti-lacrosse “community sentiment.” Six months later, both of those “related issues” remain unexamined.
What “related issues” did the H-S consider more significant? In a January article, Ashley’s case stalwart, John Stevenson, did an exposé on how a partner at a
The embattled editor added that the paper’s news articles “have consistently reported facts presented by and opinions offered by every side in this complex debate.” Perhaps Ashley was referring to his October “roundtable” that discussed the first 60 Minutes broadcast. The article solicited “opinions” from four figures—two community activists and a Duke student who demanded the case go to trial, and a Duke student who took a neutral position. Or, perhaps, Ashley was thinking of a September article that quoted two local undergrads: an NCCU student saying “the accuser should be given a fair hearing in court,” an upside-down view of the American judicial system that seemed to have been typical at NCCU; and a “black” Duke student who alleged that the lacrosse players’ actions hurt Duke’s recruiting efforts among minorities.
“Every side,” indeed. Ashley was always careful to balance the pro-Nifong perspective with opinions from people critical . . . of the lacrosse players.
In Orwellian terms, Ashley concluded that his review “has consistently reassured us we have been fair and as thorough as possible.” When the person chiefly responsible for imbalanced coverage is the person who conducts the review, what else should people expect?