Since starting the blog, I’ve subscribed to Google News Alerts to make sure I don’t miss any articles on the case. The service passes along duplicate publications of the same article—for instance, a Joe Neff piece in the N&O would appear also in the McClatchy-owned Charlotte Observer.
The Google service showed how the case-related reporter published in the most newspapers was the AP’s Aaron Beard. Indeed, with the possible exception of Duff Wilson in the New York Times, more people read about developments in the lacrosse case from Beard than from any other print journalist.
Because Beard doesn’t write for a specific newspaper, it’s easy to overlook the quality of his work: most people commenting on the case (including me) have been more comfortable in identifying coverage by the newspaper in which it appeared—i.e., the Times, or the Chronicle, or the N&O, or the Herald-Sun.
Beard, however, managed to combine reporting excellence with an ability to break a variety of stories on the case. Items, for instance, that first appeared over the AP wire included:
- In April 2006, the revelation that Crystal Mangum had previously filed a (never-pursued) claim of a three-person gang rape, in Creedmoor, North Carolina.
- In June 2006, Duke’s decision to reinstate Ryan McFadyen—who had been suspended without due process after publication of his e-mail—for the fall 2006 semester.
- In October, Nifong, who had remained silent on the case since a July 28 press conference, spoke extensively about lacrosse matters with Beard.
After Nifong recused himself from the case, Beard continued to break significant Nifong-related items. The AP was the first to reveal:
- Nifong’s reaction to the Beth Brewer removal motion;
- Nifong’s formal response to the Bar’s ethics allegations; and
- Nifong’s non-apology “apology” after AG Cooper declared the players’ innocence.
Beard got a number of scoops on the other side as well. He obtained the first and only substantive interview with former Coach Mike Pressler when this year’s Duke lacrosse team reached the Final Four; and he also broke the news of Pressler’s financial settlement with Duke. Reade Seligmann’s decision to transfer to Brown and Collin Finnerty’s move to Loyola both appeared first under Beard’s byline.
Of course, this case has shown that being the first to report a scoop doesn’t necessarily correspond with quality journalism. Take, for instance, the reporter who first claimed to have gained access to the underlying data from Dr. Brian Meehan’s DNA reports. In an August article, the Herald-Sun’s John Stevenson broke the story that one side had withheld from the public critical items from the tests. The only problem? Stevenson asserted that the defense had not been candid. In fact, as we all know now, Nifong had withheld the information, which in part led to his disbarment.
Unlike Stevenson’s “scoops,” Beard’s coverage has stood the test of the time. Moreover, two of Beard’s stories were critical developments in the case. The first was the April 2006 revelation of Mangum’s previous claim of a three-person gang rape, which went public ten days after Nifong secured indictments against Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty.
Since at that point Mangum’s myriad, mutually contradictory stories were not yet in the public domain, Beard’s item provided the first clear sign that Mangum might be a wholly non-credible witness. However small the chances were that a 30-minute three-person gang rape could have left behind no DNA (the publicly available facts at the time Beard's article appeared), the chances were even smaller that the same accuser could have experienced a second three-person gang rape earlier in her life.
Perhaps even more important, the revelation caught Nifong unaware—providing another concrete demonstration of the shoddiness of the investigation. Though the ex-D.A. released a statement the following day denying that the allegation would affect his trial strategy, it was troubling to see that, in a case of this magnitude, Nifong’s office hadn’t even checked to determine whether Mangum had made a previous rape claim.
Indeed, Nifong sent Linwood Wilson to the Creedmoor press conference that followed the publication of Beard’s article. The ex-investigator was tasked with obtaining the basic facts of the claim. Depositions from the Nifong ethics hearing suggested that of the law enforcement officials involved in the case, incredibly, only one (Ben Himan) considered Mangum’s previous unsubstantiated claim to have a bearing on her credibility.
Beard’s October scoop was, in many ways, equally vital to the outcome of the case. For months, Nifong had remained silent (perhaps recognizing, at last, that he had no case). Then, suddenly, he unburdened himself to Beard, asserting,
I think that I have a responsibility to prosecute this case. I think that really nothing about my view of the case and my view of how the case ultimately needs to be handled has been affected by any of the things that have occurred . . .
[In the spring,] I think it was pretty clear that I (misunderstood) the likely consequence of appearing on camera. Certainly what I was trying to do was to reassure the community, to encourage people with information to come forward. And that was clearly not the effect . . .
My personal feeling is the first step to addressing those divisions [in Durham] is addressing this case. That is not the kind of thing that you can really assign to somebody else and say, “You go do this for me. The future of Durham’s in the balance and I don't really want to get my hands dirty. You do it.”
The first two of these comments suggested a person detached from reality; the third revealed someone who had no sense of the appropriate role of a prosecutor in the American criminal justice system. It’s hard to believe that two constituencies vital to December developments—the State Bar and North Carolina’s other district attorneys—didn’t look at Nifong’s statements with horror.
Beard’s journalism from start to finish should provide a reminder that while this case brought to light some examples of extremely poor coverage in the print media, the performance of several reporters shone.