Monday, September 18, 2006

Herald-Sun Hilarity

Newspaper readers in the Triangle have an interesting choice when reading about the Duke lacrosse case. The N&O’s initial coverage was, in retrospect, terrible: articles presumed that a crime occurred; a March 25 story presented at best an incomplete picture of the accuser and her past; and several op-ed columns were inflammatory. But in mid-April, the paper regained its equilibrium; and in recent months, N&O coverage has been first-rate–important investigative stories by Joseph Neff, fair-minded case-related and Duke-focused coverage by Benjamin Niolet and Anne Blythe, and increasingly passionate op-ed columns by Ruth Sheehan.

Despite criticism on this point, it’s unlikely that the paper will openly acknowledge its early errors, and right now it seems to me that it should be devoting more resources to breaking down the Durham Police’s “blue wall of silence.” But apart from a pallid editorial page–based solely on its own reporters' revelations, the N&O long ago should have joined the Charlotte Observer, Winston-Salem Journal, and Rocky Mount Telegram in demanding a special prosecutor–the paper has performed impressively since mid-April.

Then there’s the Durham Herald-Sun, which has combined plodding pro-Nifong editorials with “news” articles whose one-sided nature borders on journalistic fraud, topped off by a pattern of simply ignoring newsworthy items that can’t be framed in pro-Nifong terms. The Herald-Sun’s role in the lacrosse affair does offer one redeeming quality. With the exception of witty cartoons and poems from Liestoppers, this case has lacked levity. Herald-Sun coverage, however, is frequently so bad as to provide (unintentional) humor.

Take, for example, yesterday’s lead editorial praising Durham’s periodically absent police chief, Steve Chalmers, for firing two Durham officers involved in a Raleigh bar fight. “We applaud Chief Chalmers,” the Bob Ashley-led editorial page intoned, “for dealing with this issue forthrightly and in the open. It was important that he did so to retain the public’s confidence in the department.”

This sentiment was worthy of Orwell. Chalmers’ “openness” consisted of:
  1. reneging on an earlier commitment by City Manager Patrick Baker to make public the full results of the department’s Internal Affairs investigation into the incident;
  2. concluding that none of his officers drove under the influence of alcohol by citing their bar tabs (!);
  3. dismissing allegations that one or more of the officers had used a racial slur–without, apparently, ever talking to the African-American cook who made the allegations in the first place.
Liestoppers caught the strangest element of Chalmers' remarks.
"Chalmers said investigators are confident of their findings. 'It was an open-and-shut thing and the statements were consistent,' he said."

Consider that claim of Chief Chalmers in the context of a 55-day internal investigation that preceded his press conference. If 55 days is the duration of an open and shut case, it makes one wonder again about the 13 days of investigation that preceded DA Mike Nifong’s proclamations of guilt in the Duke Hoax. With this in mind, one can only conclude that in Bizarro PD Land it takes 55 days to conclude an investigation into an “open-and-shut thing” but less than two weeks to determine guilt in a complex hoax. Yep, Chief, our confidence is certainly growing.
Of course, the Herald-Sun didn’t ask why this “open-and-shut” inquiry took such an unusually long time to complete.

The Ashley editorial also heralded the effort of lacrosse case officer Mark Gottlieb, who was at the scene during the attack. What did Gottlieb do to earn such praise? Intervene to stop the fight? Help the alleged victim? No, revealed the Herald-Sun: the sergeant “called the [Durham] District 2 watch commander the same night to report the incident, although he did not witness it himself.”

How the Herald-Sun determined that Gottlieb didn’t witness the incident is unclear; if Gottlieb didn’t see the fight, how did he learn of it “the same night”? More to the point, in reporting a crime that occurred in Raleigh, why did Gottlieb eschew calling 911–the normal procedure when learning of a crime–and instead phone the watch commander of the Durham police district where he’s a supervisor? Presumably these items are discussed in the report Chalmers “forthrightly and in the open” won’t release.

Ashley’s defense of Gottlieb, however, might well have backfired. Last week, the editor swung into action after the N&O and the Duke Chronicle revealed the sergeant’s disturbing record of arresting 10 times as many Duke students as the three other District 2 supervisors combined; and his tendency to run roughshod over students’ constitutional rights when he made his statistically disproportionate number of arrests.

The Herald-Sun responded with an “article” claiming that Gottlieb was following the Durham Police Department’s official anti-Duke student policy. The paper described this policy as encouraging officers “to arrest students and take them to jail, rather than issue warnings and tickets, because experience showed lesser measures lacked deterrent value.” The article never explained how Gottlieb could have a 10:1 arrest ratio as compared to others at comparable ranks if he was merely implementing a departmental policy.

Demonstrating what passes for journalistic excellence at the Herald-Sun, reporter Ray Gronberg gave no indication of even having looked at the arrest case files–which are part of the public record. He instead claimed to have spoken to someone named “Bethany” in the office of Durham attorney Bob Ekstrand, who refused to do his work for him and give him the files–yet on Friday, I confirmed that no one named “Bethany” works for Ekstrand.

Despite attempting to whitewash Gottlieb’s actions, the article actually created problems for the Durham police–by revealing, for the first time, the official policy of unequal enforcement of the law based on group identity. (Imagine if, for instance, the Durham P.D. announced a policy of arresting Hispanics rather than issuing them tickets when discretion existed as to the punishment, because “experience showed lesser measures lacked deterrent value” with this particular group.) In short, the admission of group-based punishment supplies a rationale for Justice Department intervention.


What explains the Herald-Sun's novel approach to journalism? Ideology doesn’t appear to be a motive. The Ashley editorial page doesn’t subscribe to an extreme feminist viewpoint–it didn’t concern itself, for example, about Nifong’s high dismissal rate in other rape cases. Nor does the paper seem all that concerned with racism as a whole–after all, Ashley had no problem with Chalmers dismissing allegations of a racial slur without even talking to the acknowledged victim. Nor does the Herald-Sun regularly advocate the Nifongesque blanket dismissal of civil liberties it has championed in this case–indeed, it often expresses support for civil liberties. In an August 21 editorial, for instance, Ashley asserted,
We think that warrantless wiretaps give the president too much power, especially when he already has the FISA court, a fast and legal way to wiretap terrorism suspects. The founders would see the latest chapter in the long-running feud as a tip in the balance toward the presidency that needs to be righted.
If Herald-Sun editorial or news policy lacks ideological consistency, economic motives seem to loom very large in its decisionmaking process. I suspect that few, if any, Duke students subscribe to the Herald-Sun–while the paper’s dwindling subscription base presumably includes at least some of Durham’s African-Americans and perhaps even some of the Group of 88. Working to keep Nifong’s trial hopes alive, even at the expense of its journalistic integrity, allows the Herald-Sun to appease some of its subscribers while alienating few people who actually buy the paper. No wonder a lengthy article by the local alternative weekly discovered that "some reporters have described the [paper's workplace] atmosphere as toxic," a place where "resentment lingers like an odor that won't come out of the carpet."

In the lacrosse case, Ashley has failed at performing the basic journalistic task of speaking truth to power–and in an affair where the representatives of "power" desperately need rebuke. But he’s not a very good propagandist, either. His paper’s columns and articles are either comically heavy-handed (as in the editorial praising Chalmers’ alleged openness) or unintentionally helpful to critics of Nifong and Gottlieb. No wonder the Herald-Sun’s circulation figures continue to plunge. Hilarity on the news and editorial pages, whether intended or not, isn’t a good selling point.


Anonymous said...

Who is Ashley's boss?

Anonymous said...

That defense of Gottlieb in the editorial was indeed comical. He was praised for reporting the crime to his District 2 station? Did the crime occur there? LOL.

The Herald Sun or Pravda as I call it (hat tip: Johnsville), is so bad that it is not even worth reading. You can be assured that nothing fair will come out of it. If a Herald Sun article appears it can usually only mean the dissemination of some misleading prosecution leak. I think there is little doubt that the Herald Sun reporters maintain a close relationship with some in the DA's office and DPD. I can't think of one decent investigative article that the Herald Sun has penned.

At this point, the Herald Sun should be viewed as nothing more than the official state newspaper of the Durham city government.

Anonymous said...

I'll tell you one thing, KC, you are on a roll. Your latest posts have all been must reads. I figure you are going to put all your posts together after this Hoax is all over and write a best seller. I will be your first customer.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, KC, that last post was from me.

Anonymous said...

Is it worth contacting Ashley's boss about the newspaper's performance?

Anonymous said...

You know, KC, what is even more comical about that defense of Gottlieb, is that here is a 43 year old man, a sworn police officer, out drinking (maybe driving) and getting himself involved with a group beating of a poor Cook. Hardly the stuff one would write home to mother about. Yet, this same Herald Sun editor Ashley and the news coverage at his paper has no problem tarring the whole Duke lacrosse team for their "wild" party. A lesser standard for a 43 year old sworn police officer than a bunch of 18-22 year old kids? That's the mentality of the haters that we are fighting against.

Anonymous said...


I have had email correspondence both with one of the reporters involved in the Duke story and with a former H-S editor. First, the former editor confirms your last point, that being that a large part of the subcription base is African-American.

Second, in my lengthy email correspondence with one of the reporters, it seems that in May and June, this reporter pretty much had come to the conclusion (expressed indirectly) that Nifong's charges were a hoax. I also helped to set up some interviews for him with a well-known prosecutor who is a long-time friend of mine.

Things seemed to change with the publication of the misleading non-story about David Evans' DNA being found on a towel in the house on Buchanan Street. Since then, I have not read anything of his, and he told me in emails that he believed that the whole thing now needs to go to trial, which seems to be the party line of the H-S.

The only thing I can figure is that local blacks put the heat on Ashley, who then decided to turn the official position of the H-S as being agnostic toward the charges and utterly respectful toward Nifong (or Liefong, as I call him) and the Durham police.

This is only speculation, but as a former journalist, I can tell you that activists of any stripe are not against putting pressure on the local paper. Furthermore, when that pressure involves things like boycotts and subscription and advertisement revenue losses, editors and publishers will listen.

Now, I say this not in sympathy. Newspaper editorial pages constantly are harping on people caving into pressure from the outside and demand "profiles in courage" from people who are under the gun. Unfortunately, we do not see a "profile in courage" at the H-S, but we do see profiles in cowardice and outright dishonesty.

William L. Anderson

Anonymous said...

I sent the Department of Justice a letter about the actions of Nifong and now I think I will send them another one asking for an investigation in to the Durham PD.

It seems that all of those dirty cops are going to stick together and nothing or no one wants to stop it, down there

Anonymous said...

Where are Brohead and Steel in all this? Do they not have a duty to be leaders for Duke? I know LOL.

Watch the ship sink with the rats aboard

Anonymous said...

Paxton, a Kentucky company, apparently owns the Durham newspaper. Does anyone know the address and names of the top executives?