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.
--New York Times, 25 August 2006
Roy Cooper’s April 12 press conference contained two messages for the New York Times. “I think,” the attorney general remarked, “a lot of people owe a lot of apologies to, to other people. I think that those people ought to consider doing that.” It would be hard to imagine that Times columnists Selena Roberts and Harvey Araton, reporter Duff Wilson, and the paper’s senior editors would not be included in the category of those who owe apologies to the falsely accused students.
Cooper had more to say: “We believe these three individuals are innocent of these charges . . . we have no credible evidence that an attack occurred in that house on that night.” With those words, the attorney general of North Carolina effectively asserted that the New York Times got a major story completely wrong: there was “no credible evidence that an attack occurred in that house on that night” on April 12, 2007, just as there was “no credible evidence that an attack occurred in that house on that night” based on the 1850 pages of discovery files that Duff Wilson purported to examine last August.
In yesterday’s Times, public editor Byron Calame reviewed the paper’s lacrosse coverage in an article that reminded a Liestoppers commenter “of the women’s sleepwear you see advertised in Victoria’s Secret catalogs. It covers everything, but you can see right through it. One wonders why he even bothered to write it.”
Calame’s scarcely credible thesis: “I found that the past year’s articles generally reported both sides, and that most flaws flowed from journalistic lapses rather than ideological bias.”
Who does Calame think he’s fooling? Imagine the following scenario: three African-American college students are charged with a crime for which almost no evidence exists. One has an air-tight, public, unimpeachable alibi. Their accuser is a white woman with a criminal record and major psychological problems. They are prosecuted by a race-baiting district attorney who violates myriad procedures while seizing upon the case amidst an election campaign in a racially divided county.
Does anyone believe that the Times would have covered the story outlined above with articles that bent over backwards to give the district attorney the benefit of the doubt, played down questions about his motivations, and regularly concluded with “shout-outs” regarding the accuser’s willingness to hang tough—coupled with sports columnists who compared the accused students to gangsters and drug dealers?
Calame, in short, appears unable or unwilling to consider how the Times’ failure in the lacrosse case—and having the thesis of a paper’s major article publicly dismissed as untrue surely constitutes a failure—was attributable to reporters and editors allowing their worldviews to distort the facts.
A summary of the specific material presented by Calame:
1.) Times editors are now rationalizing their performance through word games.
Times executive editor Bill Keller described the August 25 story in the following manner: “I think if you read the whole story you came away with a better understanding of what Nifong thought he had, but with continuing serious doubts about his case.” Matthew Purdy, the story’s editor, added that the “straight-from-memory” Gottlieb report formed the article’s spine because it “offered a fuller view of what Nifong had and perhaps what led him to believe he had a case.”
So the purpose of a 5,600-word, front-page story was to show “what Nifong thought he had”? If true, this claim raises grave doubts about the competence of Times journalists, since the article’s stated thesis was very different than what Keller and Purdy now describe. If false, this claim suggests a troubling willingness for Times editors to dissemble.
2.) Bolstering Nifong’s case.
One reason it is so hard to take seriously the explanations presented by Keller and Purdy is that Wilson’s article repeatedly slanted the evidence in ways highly favorable to Nifong—and in a manner that ultimately did not survive public scrutiny.
Two examples. (1) In his August 25 article, Wilson wrote, “The files show that aside from two brief early conversations with the police, she gave largely consistent accounts of being raped by three men in a bathroom.” In fact, as Joe Neff and others had reported, the accuser didn’t tell the same story twice, at any point in the process.
(2) In his August 25 article, Wilson marveled at the accuser’s performance in the April 4 lineup, in which “the full transcript shows some precise recollections, three weeks after a relatively brief encounter with a large group of white strangers.” In fact, as Joe Neff reported, most of those “precise recollections” were wrong.
Wilson and Neff had access to the same discovery file. How, then, could Wilson have gotten these basic facts so wrong, and slanted them so heavily in Nifong’s favor?
One clue, perhaps, dates to the evening of August 24. Just after his article went to press, Wilson e-mailed defense attorneys requesting a complete copy of the first 1,812 pages of the discovery file—that is, everything other than the Gottlieb report. He said he wanted to undertake a “more careful” and “re-reviewing” of the material. Yet his article stated that “the full files [were] reviewed by The New York Times.” Why would Wilson still have needed to obtain the discovery files after his major article, allegedly based on a thorough review of these same files, had gone to press?
3.) Burying the lede.
Calame’s article contains a stunning admission from Wilson: “Mr. Wilson said he had been told that the sergeant [Gottlieb] relied ‘largely’ on Officer Himan’s handwritten notes when the two of them met the accuser on March 16 of last year to ask her to describe her attackers.”
The only “news” in the public editor’s column, therefore, Calame buried in his 14th paragraph: Duff Wilson had an explanation of the Gottlieb report’s origins that should have raised enormous questions as to how the sergeant came up with descriptions wholly different from Himan’s—and yet the Times elected not to report this fact in the August 25 article.
"Just after the article went to press, Wilson e-mailed defense attorneys asking for a full copy of the discovery file other than the Gottlieb memo, for the purpose of "re-reviewing" this material--even though his article claimed that he had comprehensively reviewed these documents over an exteded period of time.")"Just after the article went to press, Wilson e-mailed defense attorneys asking for a full copy of the discovery file other than the Gottlieb memo, for the purpose of "re-reviewing" this material--even though his article claimed that he had comprehensively reviewed these documents over an exteded period of time.")
4) Factual errors.
Calame avoids mentioning that Wilson’s article contained four factual errors—each of which made Nifong’s case appear stronger than it actually was. To date, the Times has left three of these errors entirely uncorrected, and the fourth corrected in a misleading fashion.
The most serious of these errors involved the following passage: “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.”
In fact, the statements of Kim Roberts, the three captains, and neighbor Jason Bissey did not agree with this statement—all said that a racial exchange occurred outside the house, around 12.45am, long after Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty had left the premises. The only two people who had made such a claim before Wilson affirmed it? Mike Nifong and Crystal Mangum. And Calame suggests that it was the critics who fostered “a perception of the paper as leaning toward Mr. Nifong”?
5) Calame’s selective standards.
In yesterday’s column, Calame maintained, “As public editor, I have sought to avoid evaluating opinion articles because I haven’t found a universally acceptable yardstick for measuring what is good opinion and what is bad. So my review excluded Times columnists—including the sports commentators critical of Duke—who may have held forth on the case.”
In his April 23, 2006 column on the Duke case, however, Calame adhered to a quite different standard. In that article, he stated that while he had a “nit” to “pick” with her March 31, 2006 column, “Selena Roberts, a Times sports columnist, had ample reason for her recent concern about a ‘code of silence.’” In fact, we know now that Roberts’ claim was wrong. The three captains voluntarily gave statements to police, along with DNA and their e-mail passwords; they also offered to take lie detector tests. Moreover, as Joe Neff has reported (a pattern should be evident here, in which the N&O consistently scooped the Times on this story), in the days before Roberts’ column, Nifong spurned repeated requests from different defense attorneys to meet with him. The “code of silence,” in short, was caused by Nifong’s behavior.
Since Calame had no problem defending sports columnists in 2006, why does he now consider them out of bounds for his critique? Could it be that even he can’t defend Roberts’ most recent effort?
Based on their statements to Calame, neither Purdy nor Keller seems troubled by the paper’s performance. Yes, they suggest, perhaps the thesis of the August 25 story was a bit overstated, but they cite a June article by Wilson as indicative of the good reporting he did. Yet the June 12 piece did little more than summarize faults in Nifong’s case already made public by Joe Neff and the N&O, though the Times went out of its way to insinuate (inaccurately, as things turned out) that hidden evidence would bolster Nifong’s case. (“The defense has released evidence selectively,” wrote Wilson, “presumably showing only those parts that strengthen its public position.”) Original Times reporting—the front-page stories of late March and early April, Wilson’s August 25 article, slanted pieces in the fall—all tilted heavily toward Nifong.
Last fall, Calame’s predecessor as public editor, Dan Okrent, said, “The only thing we can look forward to now is what the Times will say to the accused once the charges are dropped, or once acquittals are delivered.”
Now we know. Calame’s column gives no indication that Times reporters, editors, or even the public editor believe that there was something wrong—seriously wrong—with the Times’ coverage of the case. Such a conclusion, of course, allows them to avoid exploring how the paper allowed its employees’ biases on issues relating to race, class, and gender to distort its search for the truth.