Conservative watchdog groups have long claimed that NPR exhibits a left-leaning bias in presenting the news. NPR’s record in the lacrosse case did nothing to dispel this allegation. The network seized upon the case early, played up the race/class/gender angle, and then all but dropped coverage as Mike Nifong’s case collapsed—only to return with an extraordinarily biased comment about the defense attorneys’ post-dismissal press conference.
The first quote in the first story on the case (March 29) previewed the approach that NPR would take. The quote came from a then-Duke freshman, who put herself in the minds of the lacrosse players in this guilt-presuming passage:
You know, I’m sure a lot of them are thinking that, you know, their parents are going to take, be able to take care of this one, and, you know, obviously we’ll see where the legal process takes it. But, you know, it’s just that attitude that, you know, we’re privileged and, you know, we don’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else.I asked the student whether, in retrospect, she stood by her quote; she replied that she would no longer comment on the lacrosse case, since she was “appalled” at how the media had exploited events in Durham.
A few days later, on April 7, host Ed Gordon invited onto “News and Notes” the omnipresent Houston Baker and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a then-University of Chicago assistant professor whose website describes her as “professor, author, public intellectual, African-American.” The Baker/Harris-Lacewell broadcast typified NPR’s preference for either assembling entirely one-sided panels or constructing guest lists that tilted in a guilt-presuming fashion.
Just over a week removed from his public letter demanding the immediate expulsion of the entire lacrosse team, Baker pronounced himself “encouraged” by the Brodhead administration’s policies, which included the cancellation of the season, the firing of Mike Pressler, and the appointment of five committees to investigate lacrosse-related matters. Such initiatives, he gushed, could allow Duke “to become a national model of such self-scrutiny now.” He positioned the lacrosse players’ behavior as part of a 40-year pattern “of elite privileged white male violence against women, against neighborhoods.” And he vigorously defended Crystal Mangum, remarking, “I would say that one thing that I would not like to lose now and that is the focus on precisely the woman who was involved in this, the alleged victim, who is now being scrutinized, previous records and other things that may have occurred in her life, and that has absolutely nothing to do with this case. It’s the defense lawyer’s strategy.”
I thrice asked Baker whether, in retrospect, he stood by his comments; he declined to reply.
Harris-Lakewell chimed in that the incident showed that “that students are as much a threat to the community, not only through violence, but the university through the appropriation of land in black communities.” The broadcast not only rejected the presumption of innocence, but neither Baker nor Harris-Lakewell appeared to harbor any doubts that a crime occurred, based solely on information provided by Nifong.
Harris-Lacewell declined a request for comment.
On April 10, defense attorneys announced there were no matches in the DNA tests that Nifong had promised would exonerate the innocent. Those who expected this news might adjust NPR’s editorial line would be sorely disappointed. On April 11, the network constructed a three-person panel:
- Commentator Jeff Obafemi Carr: “Something—I don’t know what it was, but something did happen at this party. We’re not quite sure what it is, but it’s been obvious from the start that the lacrosse team was sticking by a well-designed and extremely well executed code of silence . . . Now, I don’t know what the next step could or should be. I shudder to think that a young woman could actually have been sexually assaulted in any way whatsoever and some person or persons could get away with it.” Obafemi Carr declined a request for comment.
- Penn professor Mary Frances Berry: “Especially in some of the upper echelons of athletics, there are a lot of instances where men beat up their girlfriends, and they commit acts of violence on women. And rape and sexual assault is not really—it bothers me that people say it’s a sex crime. It’s really an act of aggression and violence, and that’s what I think needs to be put on the table.” In an e-mail, Berry denied that her comments referenced the lacrosse players.
- “Republican strategist” Tara Setmayer: “Victims get raped—raked through the coals, and in a situation like this, with this victim, unfortunately, her character and her past behaviors were brought up.”
The indictments of Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty prompted another burst of broadcasts. Reporting from the scene, Adam Hochberg sounded like a virtual Nifong p.r. agent:
One thing that we know exists is a rape kit test that was performed at Duke University Hospital, in the hours after the alleged attack took place, and that test was performed by a nurse. It was looked at by a doctor, and it concluded that, indeed, this woman was sexually abused.Of course, “we” did not “know” this; in fact, Hochberg’s assertion was untrue.
Dr. Julie Manly had made no such claim (indeed, it would have been improper for her to have done so at that stage of the process). And the only “injury” that Manly detected (“diffuse edema of the vaginal walls”) was easily explicable from Mangum’s robust pre-party activities, and hardly in any case qualified as evidence that Mangum “was sexually abused.” The police and Nifong’s office certainly did not get this information from a private talk with Manly: no one from Durham law enforcement ever interviewed the doctor.
In an interview later that day, the ubiquitous Mary Frances Berry defended Mangum’s chosen profession, declaring, “There’s nothing illegal or immoral about being a stripper . . . People do all kinds of things to make money. Maybe she can make more money at that or not. I don’t think we should have any judgment about her or anyone else based on what employment they are involved in. So long as it’s legal. And that should not expose her, if this did happen, to non-consensual sex, because she is being a stripper. I’ve been to parties where some, they had a guy jump out of a cake, but we didn’t all assault him, because he was there to entertain us.”
But while there was nothing wrong with Mangum’s behavior, there was something wrong with that of the lacrosse players. “There’s always also,” contended Berry, “another big picture issue: what about other universities? All of this is going to make them look very hard at the behavior of students on their own campuses. Do they have frat houses or teams where they have strippers and things that go on there? And I think that they all will be taking a hard look.”
Coming from someone who had just implied that she had attended parties with male strippers, Berry’s passing moral judgment on the acknowledged behavior of the lacrosse players was quite remarkable.
Callie Crossley, described as a “social commentator,” joined Berry on the broadcast: “The larger context is, for me, is that something did happen.” (Well, of course, she was right—a false accusation of rape happened.) Crossley continued, “We have all kinds of stuff going on in that room, having to do with race and sex and class, and whether or not a physical assault happened, we are talking about sublimation of women, there’s a whole other stuff going on that I think are important issues for us to talk about with regard to this case. Whether or not it turns out that to be that there was in fact an actual rape.”
Crossley didn’t say whether she considered Berry’s attending parties at which “had a guy jump out of a cake” to be an example of the “sublimation of men.” Nor did she say whether the issues of race required the lacrosse players, having requested white strippers, to turn black strippers away at the door.
As was customary in early NPR broadcasts, no defense attorney appeared.
The early phrase of NPR’s coverage concluded on April 19 with an on-the-scene “report” from NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. After mentioning that Reade Seligmann’s attorney was “claiming that credit card, ATM, and cab receipts verify that he was not at the party,” Williams asserted that “everyone’s saying that there must be some physical evidence, and it’s a heavy relying on the exam at the hospital, of the woman.”
Of course, everyone wasn’t saying this—defense attorneys had denied the claim vigorously.
Williams continued: “In addition, you have some corroboration, apparently, coming from a second dancer—who says that the woman was not drunk, was quite stable when she went in to the party—but later was stumbling and incoherent when she left the party.”
Of course, Kim Roberts had described Mangum’s claim as a “crock,” and her official police statement contradicted Mangum’s April 6, 2006 account in virtually every respect. Williams finished off by saying that “there’s no DNA evidence as yet”—a suggestion that there would be DNA evidence to come. As with every NPR broadcast during this period, he did not mention the language of the March 23 NTO that the DNA tests would exonerate the innocent.
Williams would stay in the Triangle after this report, and produce two egregiously one-sided stories in subsequent days, as tomorrow’s post will discuss.
Hat tip: B.M.