The New York Times’ failure in covering the lacrosse case occurred on many levels. At the most basic level, of course, the paper’s handling of events could be blamed on the flawed and biased reporting of Duff Wilson, along with the fact-free “commentary” of Selena Roberts and Harvey Araton. At a second level, the paper’s record demonstrated a massive failure by the editors—from then-sports editor Tom Jolly upwards, to Bill Keller: once Wilson’s flaws had been exposed for the world to see, editors had no obligation to keep him on the story.
At a third level, however, the story represented a failure of the Times’ public editor, a position established in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal to represent the readers and to champion journalistic integrity from within the paper. Then-public editor Byron Calame penned two columns on the lacrosse case. The first, which appeared in spring 2006, minimized even the factual inaccuracies that had marred Roberts’ early columns. The second, which came after the exonerations in spring 2007, denied any ideological bias to the Times coverage, and declined even to speculate on why the Times had gotten the story so wrong for so long. It was left to the AJR and the Chronicle to analyze the Times’ wreckage.
Yet even Calame’s poor performance can’t hold a candle to the most recent public editor’s column from Arthur Brisbane. The subject: how the paper should cover rape allegations. In formulating his suggested approach, Brisbane consulted with three people, each of whom was described as some form of victims’ advocate. One was Claudia Bayliff, project attorney for the National Judicial Education Program. A second was Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo Law School.
The third was . . . Wendy Murphy.
That’s right. The public editor believes that reporters at the nation’s paper of record should take guidance on how to appropriately cover sexual assault cases from a figure who informed a national TV audience that she had “never, ever met a false rape claim”; and had, in her public statements about the highest profile sexual assault case of recent years:
- asserted, without any evidence, that “there’s a very good chance there was a payoff” to false accuser Crystal Mangum and the second dancer, Kim Roberts;
- implied, falsely, that the unreleased 1000+ pages of the discovery file, which contained Mangum’s psychological records and was sealed upon orders of the judge, might have contained “witness statements from the defendants’ friends—statements saying that a rape occurred just as [Mangum] described”;
- fantasized, falsely, about the existence of “broomstick DNA” in the case;
- reasoned that, contrary to North Carolina’s open-file discovery law, ex-DA Mike Nifong had a right to withhold evidence from the defense (one of the offenses for which he was eventually disbarred;
- deemed Mangum’s ever-changing version of events as “minor inconsistencies”;
- claimed, falsely, that President Brodhead had publicly asserted that “many” non-lacrosse players attended the party;
- “bet,” on national TV, that one of the falsely accused players was “molested as a child”;
- made no fewer than 18 false statements in the first nine months of the case alone.
A while back, Salon’s Alex Pareene used Murphy’s career to suggest that “there are, in the mass media, absolutely no consequences for blatant, constant lying.” Public Editor Brisbane’s column, however, reveals something even more shameful: that the public editor of the nation’s most influential newspaper could consider such a figure suitable to provide guidance to journalists.