Among all publications, the New York Times stood out for its faulty coverage of the case. From the outrageous writings of sports columnists Selena (“lily-white”) Roberts and Harvey Araton to the transparently pro-Nifong slant of Duff Wilson, the paper of record went out of its way to keep the hoax alive.
Even in reporting Attorney General Roy Cooper’s dismissal of the charges on grounds of absolute innocence—an event essentially unprecedented in modern American law—The Times used a restrained tone. In the Wilson-only piece posted to the Times website Wednesday afternoon, the opening paragraph read as if describing a routine legal maneuver:
All remaining charges were dropped today against three former Duke University lacrosse players who had been accused of rape more than a year ago, North Carolina’s attorney general announced, concluding a three-month investigation of a racially charged case that polarized and outraged many in the state and nation.
The next day, when David Barstow joined as co-author, the piece at the very least bumped Cooper’s statement of absolute innocence—clearly the most newsworthy item of the AG’s statement—into the first paragraph, though the headline carefully avoided what Dave Evans has called the “i-word.”
In a fall article for New York, Kurt Andersen quoted a Times reporter,
“I’ve never been a source for anyone on any story ever written about the Times,” one reporter at the paper told me. So why on this one? “I’ve never felt so ill over Times coverage.” That’s ill at a paper that published Jayson Blair’s fabrications and Judy Miller on WMD. “It’s institutional,” said one of the several editors to whom I spoke. “You see it again and again, the way the Times lumbers into trouble.”
The Times’ flawed coverage in the case had direct effects on those involved. Here’s an excerpt from the Meadows/Thomas story in this week’s Newsweek.
Nifong got a boost from The New York Times in August. On the front page of the Friday paper, a long article featured a confidential report—a Durham policeman’s summary of his interview with the accuser. Though he didn’t take notes during the interview, he said she’d described someone with Finnerty’s distinctive tall, thin looks as her assailant. The newspaper treated the report unskeptically, even though notes taken during the interview by the other officer present indicate that none of her descriptions fit the player. “We were so blown away,” says Mary Ellen Finnerty, Collin’s mother. “We were just so furious.”
(On Friday, Wilson introduced himself to me at the Nifong hearing, and said that while he “couldn’t go into details,” the “body of evidence” justifying to which the article referred revolved around SANE nurse-in-training Tara Levicy’s report. Yet I had looked at the same 1850 pages of discovery file that Wilson claimed to have examined for his article, and there is nothing in those 1850 pages that supports Wilson’s thesis that there was “a body of evidence to support [Nifong’s] decision to take the matter to a jury.” And, indeed, Cooper’s announcement that “no credible evidence” ever existed to substantiate Crystal Mangum’s claims gives the lie to the claim in Wilson’s article.)
Nothing can ever redeem the Times’ embarrassing coverage of this case. But Peter Applebome’s column yesterday is certainly a positive step. Applebome penned one of the most important early publications on the case—a July piece that accurately portrayed Reade Seligmann as a good, indeed very good, person. The Applebome article was the first print media publication that challenged the (wildly inaccurate) conventional wisdom that all 46 white lacrosse players were arrogant, awful people.
Applebome returned to the case yesterday (TimesSelect only), asking,
How did college kids with no shortage of character witnesses become such a free-fire zone for the correct thinkers in academia, the news media and the socially conscious left? Like l’affaire Imus in reverse, why did denouncing them remain fair game long after it was clear that the charges against them could not be true, and that even most of the misbehavior originally alleged about the team party was distorted or false?
Essex Fells mayor Ed Abbot noted, “People had racial agendas, economic agendas, media-driven agendas, and who these boys were got totally lost. You feel like you’re in the middle of the forest screaming and no one can hear.”
Tricia Dowd, whose son, a lacrosse player, graduated from Duke last year, recounted her experience at the NCCU forum (yes, she actually went): “Maybe I’m naïve. I didn’t know there was so much hate in the world.”
And Nona Farahnik, who lived in the same dorm as Reade and Collin, lamented how “they became a perfect example of all the injustices in society, except in their case, justice went out the door. And the same people usually championing basic human rights were so intent on denying it to them.”
Applebome lamented that—unlike the situation with Don Imus, who was defended by no one for his remark about the Rutgers women’s basketball team and ultimately was fired—there will be no “apologies from those in academia (particularly at Duke), the news media, and civil rights and women’s rights organizations who were so intoxicated by the story of bad white boys that they missed the real outrage: how prosecutors can railroad innocent people, nearly all of them without the students’ resources or abilities to fight back.”
I doubt that we will see any apologies from the Times, either. This is, after all, an institution whose public editor, Byron Calame, has weighed in on the paper’s flawed coverage once and only once, on April 23, 2006. Calame’s conclusion? The paper’s reporting was first-rate—even Selena Roberts’ factually inaccurate claims of the players refusing to cooperate with police—but with a caution: “If the rape and kidnapping charges do not hold up, the story doesn’t end. The Times should be prepared to continue covering what is done about the racial-insult allegations, given the prominence of the team and the university.” It’s hard to fathom how anyone could seriously contend that, of all the issues likely to emerge from this case, Calame considered one or two players getting in a racially charged argument with Kim Roberts to constitute the item primed for long-term reporting.
Applebome’s column is a reminder of the line that paper could have taken, had it lived up to its ideals of defending justice and speaking truth to power rather than—as Calame’s recommended follow-up suggests—bowed to the dictates of political correctness.
[Correction, 12.21am: Byron Calame writes,
Dear Mr. Johnson:
For the record, my April 23, 2006, column stated that The Times's performance on the Duke case "deserves a decent grade." My dictionary says that means "adequate." It is a factual error for you to say that I concluded then that the paper's performance was "first-rate."
I hope that Calame will be as eager to correct the indisputable, and still uncorrected, factual items in the August 25 Duff Wilson story.]