Two reporters dominated NPR’s coverage after the first two indictments: Juan Williams and Adam Hochberg.
For Morning Edition on April 26, 2006, Williams interviewed three students at NCCU, where, he said, “this story is what everyone’s talking about in class and around campus. The accuser [Crystal Mangum] goes to school here.”
Williams did not seem to consider it odd that neither he nor, it seems, any other reporter could ever find a student who had taken a class with Mangum, or a professor who had ever taught Mangum.
The three NCCU students provided Williams with a litany of extremist statements—which he featured without criticism or balance in his report.
In a comment eerily reminiscent of the one made a few days before by student government leader Chan Hall, senior Shauniste Duvance remarked that “people want to support her because, you know, she’s a black female and they want to see justice done . . . Nobody knows for a fact if she’s telling the truth or if she’s lying, but either way, people are like, we want to support her regardless of if she’s telling the truth or not.”
Junior Jerelly Dawson that “it’s kind of like a black against white thing, and then, just taking our own side. Like, kind of, you protect your family members, you’re not, don’t want to see what’s happening on the other side. You just want to keep that family kind of tight.”
Senior Anissa Holmes expressed the point in a different way: “The difference between NCCU versus Duke is white versus black. And wealthy versus, I don’t want to say poor, because, you know.”
Imagine how an NPR reporter would have responded to white Duke students publicly promising to stand by Reade Seligmann “regardless of if he’s telling the truth or not,” because “it’s kind of like a black against white thing.”
NPR returned to the case a week later, after the Coleman Committee report was released. The report made it perfectly clear that members of the team drank much too much. But, by May 1, 2006, this item had been repeatedly established, in print by the N&O, and over and over again on the cable news networks. The new revelations in the report centered on how a team portrayed as a bunch of racist, misogynist hooligans by much of the national media (including, of course, NPR) in fact consisted of good students who had strong support from women at Duke, no documented record of sexist or racist behavior, and a good record of community service.
Adam Hochberg, however, mentioned none of these items. His summary of the Coleman Committee’s findings: “Even before Duke lacrosse players held their raucous spring break party, the team had a disciplinary record that faculty leaders call deplorable. A month-long university investigation of the team found a pattern of misconduct dating back several years, involving property damage, theft, and other offenses, both on and around Duke’s Durham, North Carolina, campus.”
He did manage to concede that the report “gave something of a vote of confidence to Duke’s troubled lacrosse program.” In fact, the committee was unequivocal that the program should be restored.
Hochberg covered Dave Evans’ indictment by again terming the party as “raucous.” In a peculiar editorial judgment, his report also gave less airtime to Evans’ statement on the courthouse steps—a turning-point event in public perceptions of the case—than to the race-baiting remarks of Victoria Peterson.
In his piece, Hochberg introduced Peterson as “an activist in Durham’s black community,” neglecting to point out Peterson’s background as a homophobe, her public claim that Duke Hospital had tampered with the DNA evidence, her decision to welcome the New Black Panthers to Durham, or her publicly advocating burning down the lacrosse house. Would most NPR listeners have considered such behavior covered by the description “an activist in Durham’s black community”?
Meanwhile, throughout April into May, NPR all but ignored Kirk Osborn’s bombshell motion revealing Seligmann’s airtight alibi. It ignored the release of the lineup transcript showing that Nifong had ordered the police to violate their own procedures and confine the lineup to suspects. Defense motions showing that Mangum had changed her story many times likewise received no play.
But NPR did devote considerable attention to Kim Roberts, who sat down for a one-on-one interview with Juan Williams in a June 14, 2006 broadcast. Parts of the transcript read as if Williams, not Roberts, was actually recalling events from the party:
WILLIAMS: And you have called the escort service . . .
WILLIAMS: . . . say, “We’re here, everything’s cool.”
ROBERTS: Everything’s good, you know. We feel safe.
WILLIAMS: Okay, so, from the back of the house, the two of you go inside.
WILLIAMS: And are subjected to, like, racial stuff or lewd suggestions.
WILLIAMS: Then you go out; you decide, I’m uncomfortable.
WILLIAMS: And leave.
The broadcast also highlighted Roberts’ temporary tilt toward Nifong: “I can never say that a rape did or did not occur; that’s for the courts to decide. I didn’t see it happen, you know. But what I can say is that there was opportunity and that it could have happened. You have to entertain the fact that it’s possible it didn’t, but it’s possible it did.”
At the end of the interview, Williams did mention that defense attorneys had filed a motion in which Roberts had termed the allegation a “crock.” But he didn’t ask Roberts about that remark. Nor did he ask her about—or even mention—the discrepancies between what Roberts told him in the interview and the versions of events presented in her official statement to police. Kirk Osborn had made the statement public well before Williams interviewed Roberts, so the NPR reporter could not credibly claim not to have seen it.
Between March 29 and May 15, the network ran 20 reports or interviews, almost all of which framed the case through the lens of race, class, and gender. Then, from July 12 through December 22—as Nifong’s case crumbled for all the world to see—NPR ignored events in Durham. On December 23, the day after Nifong dropped the rape charges, Scott Simon allowed that the accused players might well be innocent. But, he quickly added, they certainly were “boars and oafs.” He offered no grounds to substantiate his attack on Evans, Finnerty, and Seligmann.
It was not until December 28, 2006—the day the State Bar filed ethics charges against Nifong—that NPR interviewed anyone critical of Nifong’s behavior, when my colleague Stuart Taylor sat down with Melissa Block. People who received their news solely from NPR must have been mystified by the turn of events.
Even as the case wound down, the slant remained in place. On March 1, the network brought together three people to discuss the almost comically biased CCI report. The invited panel? CCI vice-chair Larry Moneta; CCI student member Trisha Bailey, and Group of 88 favorite Janet Reitman of Rolling Stone. Critics of the CCI—whether Student Government president Elliot Wolf, or Chronicle columnists Kristin Butler or Stephen Miller, or signatories to the Economics Department public letter—were not welcome. NPR listeners would never have known that a majority of the campus appeared to greet the report unfavorably.
Hochberg fittingly concluded NPR’s coverage of the case in his report on the post-exoneration press conference (which he described as “long” and “sometimes bitter”). Stated he, “Defense lawyers said the players are not proud of throwing the party, which included not only the strippers, but underage drinking, threats of violence, and an exchange of racial slurs.”
The comment was doubly inaccurate. Not only were no threats of violence that whole night, but Hochberg’s wording implied that the defense lawyers themselves had admitted that there were threats of violence at the party.
Asked for evidence to substantiate Hochberg’s claim, Andi Sporkin, NPR’s Vice President for Communications, replied, “Your use of the isolated soundbite does not include its context in the larger NPR News piece - which was, in fact, about the clearing of these false charges . . . NPR stands by Adam's report.”
There has been no public review by NPR of its coverage of the lacrosse case. Though the network has an ombudsman, the post has been vacant since last fall.
Hat tip: B.S.