Editors of the two newspapers with the worst coverage of the case took different approaches in dealing with the AJR’s comprehensive review of how the media handled events in Durham. For Bob Ashley, delusion was the preferred strategy, as the Herald-Sun editor suggested that his paper had done a good job. For Bill Keller, a perceived middle line was the choice.
The Times editor didn’t even try to defend sports columnists Selena Roberts or Harvey Araton. Without specifically naming the duo, Keller told AJR’s Rachel Smolkin,
I did think, and I told the columnists, that there was a tendency in a couple of places to moralize before the evidence was all in, and not to give adequate weight to the presumption of innocence . . . As a generalization, I’m not dismissive of the people who think that what appeared in the sports columns kind of contributed to a sense that the Times declared these guys guilty. I think that’s a false impression, but I can understand where people got it.
Keller, on the other hand, was less willing to cast blame in evaluating his paper’s news division. Criticism of its performance, he claimed, has “in some instances been unfair to the point of hysteria.” (Keller provided no specific examples of this “hysteria.”) Problems, he asserted, were caused by the Times not initially “focusing a lot of investigative energy on the story.” (In fact, the Times ran nearly two dozen stories before the first two indictments, suggesting the paper was focusing heavily on events in Durham.)
The implication: the critics overstated their case; the Times columnists who rushed to judgment might have been wrong but won’t suffer any consequences for their misjudgments; and the Times eventually got the story right.
Yet Keller raised serious doubts about the good faith of his analysis by making misleading or outright inaccurate statements in the AJR interview. For instance, according to Smolkin, he suggested that “reporters’ jobs were complicated initially because the defense wasn’t talking.”
In fact, the initial Times reporter on the case, Joe Drape, was given extraordinary access to defense sources in late March and early April. Even at this stage, before indictments, some defense lawyers were open to sharing material with the Times—as they were open to sharing material with Mike Nifong.
Once Drape was replaced by Duff Wilson as the Times’ lead Duke case reporter, however, the paper seemed to lose interest in fairly reporting both sides of the story. That was the Times’ editorial judgment—a judgment, in retrospect, that appears badly flawed. But it was off base for Keller to blame his paper’s failures on the defense attorneys’ alleged unwillingness to speak with the Times.
Keller also was misleading at best and inaccurate at worst when discussing Duff Wilson’s 5600-word, front-page August 25 magnum opus.
The article, he asserted, “wasn’t a perfect piece, but it was a detailed and subtle piece that left you with no illusions about the strength of Nifong’s case.”
- The Attorney General’s report said that Nifong had no case—that there was no credible evidence on which to base a prosecution.
- The Times said, “By disclosing pieces of evidence favorable to the defendants, the defense has created an image of a case heading for the rocks. But an examination of the entire 1,850 pages of evidence gathered by the prosecution in the four months after the accusation yields a more ambiguous picture. It shows that while there are big weaknesses in Mr. Nifong’s case, there is also a body of evidence to support his decision to take the matter to a jury,” since “in several important areas, the full files, reviewed by The New York Times, contain evidence stronger than that highlighted by the defense.”
Wilson’s story left readers with the “illusion” that Nifong had “a body of evidence to support his decision to take the matter to a jury”—when the Attorney General of North Carolina, who also conducted “an examination of the entire 1,850 pages of evidence gathered by the prosecution in the four months after the accusation,” asserted exactly the opposite.
Keller also creatively reinterpreted how the article used Mark Gottlieb’s “straight-from-memory” report. The notes, he mused, “were interesting not because they proved the crime was committed, which they did not, but because they showed you for the first time what the prosecutor claimed he had, what was the basis for filing his charges.”
On the surface, this rationalization sounds plausible. On closer examination, however, it continues the Times’ duplicitous performance in the case. First, as my colleague Stuart Taylor pointed out, the article featured the notes as its “centerpiece,” and was written in such a way to suggest that the Gottlieb memorandum was plausible.
More problematic, Keller’s assertion that the Gottlieb memorandum “showed you for the first time what the prosecutor claimed he had, what was the basis for filing his charges” is out-and-out untrue. Nifong repeatedly stated that two items formed “the basis for filing his charges”: Crystal Mangum’s version of events from the rigged April 4, 2006 lineup; and the report of SANE Nurse-in-training Tara Levicy.
But don’t take Nifong’s word for it: the Gottlieb memorandum couldn’t have formed “the basis for filing his charges” for an obvious reason—it didn’t exist when charges were filed. Indeed, as Gottlieb admitted in his Bar deposition, the memorandum’s critical elements (the “straight-from-memory” recollection of the March 16, 2006 interview, for example) were written in early July, or nearly three months after charges first were filed.
How, Keller was asked, should the media handle the case now? Providing “more, better reporting.”
Sounds reasonable. Perhaps, then, the Times could share with readers—and with the Attorney General—the basis for the following reporting, from the August 25 article: “The dancers stopped. An argument ensued. Using a racial epithet, someone yelled that they had asked for white dancers, not black ones. That much is agreed. It was 12:04 a.m. March 14.” [emphasis added]
In fact, the only people related to the case who agreed with this version of events were Mike Nifong and (sometimes) Crystal Mangum. The captains, Kim Roberts, and Jason Bissey all said the racially charged exchange occurred outside the house, around 12.45am—long after Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty had left the party.
The Times has, to date, refused to correct this item (along with at least two other items from the August 25 story). Nor has the paper ever produced evidence for its assertion.
Given that record—and given his own inaccurate portrayal of the Gottlieb report—how can Keller lecture anyone on the need to provide “more, better reporting”?