Quite appropriately, the aftermath of Attorney General Cooper’s declaration of the three players’ innocence has focused critical attention on the two newspapers that did the most to uphold Mike Nifong’s efforts: the New York Times and the Herald-Sun. But a third paper also embarrassed itself in how it approached the case. Original reporting in the Washington Post was good though rare. The paper’s opinion pieces, on the other hand, all approached the case through a race/class/gender worldview so extreme as to almost represent a caricature.
First, the good news: Post reporter Anne Hull did two thoughtful, lengthy pieces on social aspects of the case that avoided the clichés common in New York Times coverage. The first, published on May 7, provided a sympathetic portrait of NCCU—but also unequivocally presented the evidence of innocence that had emerged by that time. The second, published on June 10, looked at how several D.C.-area Duke lacrosse parents were coping with the crisis. As in her May 7 article,
The Post editorial board published a powerful December 31 editorial demanding that Mike Nifong drop all charges. “It’s been clear for months that Mr. Nifong’s case—to the extent he has a case—is riddled with flaws that raise serious questions about his motives and ethics.” The editors also commented how Nifong “badly misconceives his job as a prosecutor, which is not simply to robotically prosecute claims or seek a conviction at all costs but to make an independent analysis of whether justice would be served by continuing with the case.”
Yet the tone of the Post’s approach to the case came from its opinion pieces. In late June, Ruth Marcus penned an opinion piece admitting that she initially assumed the players were guilty, and making it clear she didn’t think much of the team members. But she was open-minded, and troubled, about the facts of the case: “The paucity of physical evidence; the accuser’s prior unsubstantiated rape charge; her changing stories that night; sloppy and unreliable identification procedures—any of these alone, and certainly all of them together, make it hard to understand why the prosecution is going forward and impossible to imagine that it could win a conviction.” Moreover, she noted, “The confluence of Nifong's political interests and the prosecution is itself another reason for discomfort.”
The Marcus column stood alone among the paper’s coverage. Five other Post columnists published about the case, and all five said essentially the same thing: the accused players were horrible people, probably racists, and were receiving special treatment because they were privileged.
Eugene Robinson started the parade on April 25, 2006. “It’s quite possible,” noted he, “we’ll never have a truly satisfactory answer as top what “really happened that night between a house full of rowdy lacrosse players.” (Party photos hardly showed a “rowdy” group.) Why? Because rape was hard to prove, “especially cases of alleged rape in which the accused can afford top-shelf legal counsel.” So Robinson urged people to focus on the “historical context” (i.e., the metanarrative) “of all the black women who were violated by drunken white men in the American South over the centuries. The master-slave relationship, the tradition of droit du seigneur, the use of sexual possession as an instrument of domination.” No rush to judgment there. A “true hero” of the case, stated Robinson, might be Richard Brodhead—because “he seems to understand the need to deal not only with the specific allegations but with the context and the questions as well.” Of course, Robinson seemed not to understand that successfully dealing with “the context and the questions” depended in part on knowing what actually happened.
Then there was Lynne Duke, who brought her judgment to bear on May 24. Duke employed a writing style more appropriate for a Harlequin novel than the op-ed pages of the Post. Her opening sentence: “She was black, they were white, and race and sex were in the air.” Parroting Robinson’s argument, the columnist then fantastically revealed “the brutal truth”: “It is that the Duke case is in some ways reminiscent of a black woman’s vulnerability to a white man during the days of slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow, when sex was used as a tool of racial domination.”
In July, Marc Fisher stepped up to the plate. His thesis mocked Collin Finnerty’s character witnesses by appealing to class prejudice. His conclusion on the case as a whole? “Even if no rape occurred in the Duke case, even if that ugly incident was no more than a raucous party at which a bunch of drunken kids verbally abused a hired performer, it sounds like it was entirely within character for these kids.”
Andrew Cohen provided the worst legal analysis of any figure outside of Wendy Murphy and Georgia Goslee. Like Fisher, he focused on the class angle: in article after article, he suggested that the accused players were receiving special treatment because they could afford good lawyers:
- In May, he savaged the defense attorneys while lionizing Nifong, who “has generally resisted the temptation to ride the whirlwind of media coverage and duel it out with defense attorneys via the media . . . His only vindication will be at trial, but that must seem these days like a long time coming for him and his star witness.”
- A June posting claimed that the defendants’ “race and money” had caused the media to raise questions about Mike Nifong’s conduct. Cohen clucked, “We haven’t seen all of the evidence, haven’t examined all of the testimony; haven’t had the privilege of seeing the case unfold at trial the way it is supposed to.”
- In July, after a post that also improperly described Rule 3.6 of the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct, Cohen had to run a correction after falsely suggesting that defense lawyers had violated a gag order.
- In August, Cohen boldly stated that “I agree with the reporters’ conclusion” in the Times article that despite the weaknesses in Nifong’s case, “there is also a body of evidence to support his decision to take the matter to a jury.” (That argument, of course, was proved wholly wrong.)
- And even when charges were dropped, Cohen dismissed critics of Nifong, and instead suggested that the accused players’ wealth helped them get the truth out, an option that they would not have had if they were poor. Yet he seemed unable or unwilling to understand that if Crystal Mangum had accused poor, local African-Americans of rape, Nifong would have had no reason to make the case in the first place.
Bill Anderson described the paper’s “party line” as follows: “Yes, they were innocent of the charges, but they had a party where strippers were paid to dance, and there was drinking, and the air was filled with racial slurs.”
The Post’s most recent opinion piece, from yet another columnist, John Feinstein, took the exact same approach to the story that every other Post columnist did.
- Feinstein ridiculed critics of Nifong as “the defenders of the right and the white.” (I guess people like Jim Coleman and Jeralyn Merritt don’t count.)
- The suspension of the team’s season was justified to send “a message that accusations of rape would not be taken lightly” (even though Brodhead didn’t give this as a reason).
- The three accused players “were still part of a group of kids that was out of control and never have they shown any remorse for anything other than the fact that they were facing rape charges. No one from the lacrosse team has ever said, “okay, maybe we went too far with our partying at times.’” (Actually, the captains apologized publicly and privately on multiple occasions for holding the party—but why let the facts get in the way of a good argument?)
- “Remember one team member was also accused of a gay-bashing crime in
and another sent out a hateful, threatening e-mail in the wake of the arrests.” (It would be hard to “remember” the first incident, since it never occurred; as to the second, no one has described the McFadyen e-mail as “threatening” for months, and, as a commenter points out, Feinstein appears unaware of either the context or the time in which the e-mail was sent.) Washington