Today marks the one-year anniversary of Duff Wilson’s egregiously slanted 5600-word New York Times magnum opus.
The article, billed as a major reassessment of the case, used as its spine the “straight-from-memory” Gottlieb report, which the sergeant subsequently admitted was produced months after the fact based on “contemporaneous” notes that were erased from his dry-eraser board. The Times has never acknowledged the flawed basis of its source material.
The article’s thesis: “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.” As the Attorney General made clear when he dismissed the case and declared the players innocent, Wilson’s conclusion was factually incorrect: there was no “body of evidence to support his decision to take the matter to a jury.”
One year later, the Times’ official version of the case file is that everyone “agreed” that racial slurs were used before 12.04am, or when Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty were at the party.
Its official version of the case file is that Kim Roberts told police that Crystal Mangum was “clearly sober”—a direct quote—when Mangum arrived at the party.
Its official version of the case file is that Kim Roberts told police on March 22 (the date of her statement contradicting all important aspects of Mangum’s story/stories) that Mangum’s allegation was a “crock.”
All three of the above are factually incorrect, unsupported by the discovery file that Duff Wilson purported to review. (Though the article claimed that Wilson had read the entire file, he also made the peculiar request of one defense attorney—the night before the article appeared—for a full copy of the discovery file, supposedly for the purpose of “re-reviewing” it.) All three of the above items have never been corrected by the Times. The paper, apparently, would prefer to leave intact an incorrect record rather than admit that it made factual errors.
Wilson’s article had one other important effect: it unintentionally if dramatically increased the influence of the blogs’ role in the case. In recent weeks, an op-ed by journalism professor Michael Skube touched off a debate about the value of blogs; Skube had “the uneasy sense that the blogosphere is a potpourri of opinion and little more. The opinions are occasionally informed, often tiresomely cranky and never in doubt. Skepticism, restraint, a willingness to suspect judgment and to put oneself in the background -- these would not seem to be a blogger’s trademarks . . . Something larger is needed: the patient sifting of fact, the acknowledgment that assertion is not evidence and, as the best writers understand, the depiction of real life . . . But what lodges in the memory, and sometimes knifes us in the heart, is the fidelity with which a writer observes and tells. The word has lost its luster, but we once called that reporting.” As several prominent bloggers have pointed out, Skube’s op-ed was appallingly researched, almost an embarrassment to journalism.
Good work, proclaimed Skube, “demanded time, thorough fact-checking and verification and, most of all, perseverance. It’s not something one does as a hobby.” Yet if nothing else can be said about the blogosphere’s reaction to the lacrosse case, the better blogs committed themselves to “time, thorough fact-checking and verification and, most of all, perseverance.”
The reaction to Wilson’s story proved the point. The article appeared on the Times website just after midnight, August 25. At 3.20am, Liestoppers posted a remarkably comprehensive critique—one that’s worth rereading. Unlike the Times article, the critique wasn’t rife with factual errors. And, unlike the Times article, the critique has stood the test of time.
The Liestoppers critique—and similar ones published at this blog and elsewhere in the following 48 hours—were possible only because a number of bloggers had committed themselves to “time, thorough fact-checking and verification and, most of all, perseverance” in approaching the case. Wilson’s seemingly Olympian, neutral tone concealed a bias that revealed itself more clearly the more the reader knew the facts of the case.
Perhaps Skube wouldn’t consider the Liestoppers August 25, 2006 post original reporting. I suspect most fair-minded readers would disagree.