Monday, October 09, 2006

The N&O's March 25 Dilemma

Regular readers of this blog know that, in general, I have given quite high marks to the News&Observer’s articles on the lacrosse case, at least its coverage since mid-April. (The paper’s pallid editorial page, on the other hand, deserves little praise.) The N&O’s three great strengths, at least since mid-April:

  • The investigative journalism of Joseph Neff, in my opinion the only newspaper reporter in the country whose stories have exposed events that will earn a place in history for prosecutorial misconduct;
  • The daily coverage of Benjamin Niolet, who has been fair-minded in reporting the case and dogged in his unwillingness to show favoritism to either side;
  • The op-ed work of Ruth Sheehan, who to my knowledge is one of only two op-ed writers in the country (David Brooks of the New York Times is the other) who demonstrated the open-mindedness to revise early opinions expressed on the case as more facts about Mike Nifong’s procedurally dubious behavior came to light.

Compare the N&O’s efforts to those of the other four newspapers who have devoted considerable column space to the case. Consider the competition:

  • The New York Times appears intent on combining the extreme political correctness of its crusade to bring women to Augusta National with the uncritical acceptance of dubious government documents demonstrated by Judith Miller in the run-up to the Iraq war, even if they have to leave errors uncorrected to do so.
  • The Charlotte Observer has largely ignored the ramifications of events in Durham, even though, if successful, Nifong’s procedural misconduct could set dangerous statewide precedents.
  • The Washington Post has weighed in with periodic outrageous columns from the likes of Andrew Cohen or Lynne Duke.
  • And the Durham Herald-Sun is the journalistic equivalent of a seven-year-old: when facts emerge that contradict their heavy-handed pro-Nifong stance, Herald-Sun editors and reporters simply place their hands over their ears and pretend not to hear.

Indeed, I would submit that the N&O has published more quality articles on the lacrosse case than the combined total produced by every other newspaper in the country. Yesterdays effort by Neff is the most important item on this list.

This record makes all the more puzzling N&O editors’ stalwart defense of the paper’s March 25 article about the accuser, which recently triggered a firestorm of criticism at the editors’ blog. The article’s findings haven’t stood the test of time, as a point-by-point dissection from Liestoppers reveals. Moreover, many of its flaws would have been avoided if the reporter had conducted some basic background research on the accuser before writing her story.

Penned by Samiha Khanna and overseen by deputy managing editor Linda Williams, the article presented what could charitably be termed an incomplete view of the accuser’s previous involvement with exotic dancing. It claimed that the players were “barking racial slurs” during the dance, causing both the accuser and Kim Roberts to cry, a version contradicted by not only the captains’ statements but, more important, by Roberts’ March 22 statement to police. It asserted that the accuser overcame her hesitation to tell police what happened only after her father came to see her in the hospital, a version of events unsupported by any police report from the time and, indeed, contradicted by the father himself in a later N&O article.

That the story proved to be wrong in its critical details doesn’t necessarily make it bad journalism. The recent controversy began when Williams admitted that in her interview with Khanna, the accuser also “offered an opinion about the other woman’s actions that night.” The N&O declined to print this material, according to Williams, because it was “clearly an opinion, offered without any substantiation. Omitting from published news articles unsubstantiated opinions is a standard, normal part of the journalistic process.” Instead, the paper chose to “limit” the story “to the information in the police report.”

As we know now, the accuser had, repeatedly, claimed to police that Roberts robbed her; she also appears to have asserted, at one point, that Roberts assisted in the rape. So Williams’ justification for her decision seems contradicted by her own standards. The N&O had no greater rationale for printing the accuser’s “unsubstantiated opinions” about what the lacrosse players allegedly did to her than her “unsubstantiated opinions” about what Kim Roberts allegedly did to her; police reports contained both “unsubstantiated opinions.”

Excluding this information, as many commenters at the N&O blog pointed out, meant that the paper heightened the racial aspect of the case—suggesting that the accuser was alleging misconduct only by white males, when in fact she was alleging misconduct (or different types) by white males and a black female. Several N&O commenters (see particularly Newport’s 10-6, 2.29 comment) also provided links to articles from late March and April, including a first-person testimonial by an N&O “correspondent,” which offered “unsubstantiated opinions” against the lacrosse players.

What we know now also exposes some fairly significant journalistic shortcomings in reporting the story. For instance:

  • The accuser has a criminal record, involving a 2002 incident when she stole a taxi and engaged in a high-speed chase with a police officer after a tryout to be an exotic dancer. This item was in the public record: obtaining it would have allowed Khanna to avoid her incorrect assertion that the accuser was just starting out as an exotic dancer. So why did Khanna not perform a routine background check on the accuser?
  • The accuser has previously filed serious claims against others (gang rape, attempted murder, perhaps other charges with the Durham Police), which she then never pursued. This information certainly would affect how an impartial journalist would view the accuser’s credibility—especially in a story where the N&O made the controversial decision to grant anonymity to an interviewee. So why did Khanna not do the journalistic legwork necessary to track down this public-record information, which the AP would reveal a couple of weeks later?
  • Williams correctly points out that as of March 25, the N&O didn’t know the identity of the second dancer, so had no way of reaching her. (That police sources failed to provide this information might have provided a hint that the accuser’s story didn’t match up with that of Roberts.) In any case, Khanna certainly could have asked the accuser for the contact information of other people with whom she worked, to get a better sense of her day-to-day life in the weeks before the incident. It seems to me that such a decision would have constituted due diligence before giving a five-column, above-the-fold headline to an anonymous figure. Does anyone seriously believe that Khanna’s image of the accuser corresponds with that presented in Jarriel Johnson’s statement?

The errors associated with Khanna’s story cannot be undone; I suppose we should be grateful that she no longer appears to be a featured reporter on this case. But I see no reason for the N&O to continue to withhold from public view what the accuser claimed about Roberts.

Since I started this blog, my posts have occasionally contained factual errors (misidentifying the source of North Carolina’s rape shield protections; incorrectly suggesting that Nifong released, rather than merely approved the release of, the McFadyen email). The mistakes were brought to my attention; I corrected them on the blog with an apology; and I went on.

The N&O should do the same thing here. Linda Williams made the wrong call when she authorized withholding the accuser’s uncorroborated allegations against Roberts but printed those she made against the lacrosse players. Samiha Khanna should have inquired into the accuser’s background before trusting her word enough to grant her the cloak of anonymity. It serves no purpose—least of all that of good journalism—to defend the decisions of either at this stage.


Anonymous said...

From the excellent Johnsville News blog:

The News & Observer seems to have developed a bipolar disorder. On the one hand, there is Joe Neff who has been chipping away at Nifong's case for months and on the other hand you had the News & Observer acting as an enabler of the hoax back in March and early April when they were assuming the alleged victim was a "victim." Hopefully, they stay on their meds and keep working in the fields on the hoax reservation.

Anonymous said...

Rape, Justice, and the 'Times'

"I've never felt so ill," says one reporter about the paper's coverage of the Duke lacrosse-team case. Luckily, a blogger's on the story, too.

By Kurt Andersen

Anonymous said...

The News and Observer was lucky enough to get an interview with the AV very early on in this process. The N&O was told by the AV that Kim Roberts helped the LAX guys rape her and also stole her money. Ho Ho: maybe, maybe not.
For some very strange reason, the N&O did not think this was news-worthy on March 25, 2006.
Best selling books are going to be written about this case.
The train is leaving the station. And how much longer does the criminal gang around M. Nifong think they have to change sides before they are written into history as one of the willfully stupid enablers of this hoax?

Anonymous said...

Penned by Samiha Khanna and overseen by deputy managing editor Linda Williams, says it all. Feminist writers bringing all their agendas to the table and slanting their "reporting" to fit their bias. This case is more sexist than racial.

Anonymous said...

There is always something disarming about someone who admits a mistake. It is a sign of growth and a cleansing act that is fundamental to establishing trust. It's amazing how quickly admitted mistakes are forgiven.

Anonymous said...

Look at the attendees!

Durham, NC -- Two panels composed of national and local journalists and Duke faculty will examine media coverage of the Duke lacrosse case as well as national security issues following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Both discussions, which are open to the public, will be held on the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 20, in Room 05 of the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy on Duke’s West Campus. Parking is available in the parking garage next to the Bryan Center.

Panelists for the discussion, “Why rape allegations against men’s lacrosse players became a national story on race, class and crime” include New York Times reporter and “Our Towns” columnist Peter Applebome (Duke Class of ’71); Herald-Sun editor Bob Ashley (’70); ESPN sports analyst and attorney Jay Bilas (’86, J.D. ’92); Duke law professor and chair of Duke’s lacrosse review committee James E. Coleman Jr.; Chronicle editorial page managing editor and 2005-06 editor-in-chief Seyward Darby; News & Observer managing editor John Drescher (A.M. ’88); former Newsweek senior editor Jerry Footlick, author of “Truth and Consequences: How Colleges and Universities Meet Public Crises”; and Newsweek senior writer Susannah Meadows (’95).

Frank Stasio, host for “The State of Things” on WUNC Radio, will moderate the discussion, which begins at 1:30 p.m.