Reporters found numbers of Duke students and faculty members eager to offer their opinion that many lacrosse players were little better than swaggering sexist louts. The story was shaping up as a morality tale about arrogant rich boys abusing a young black woman working her way through school. Duke cancelled the rest of the team's season. But when the accuser's story turned out to have as many holes as an ancient athletic sock, Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong refused to drop the prosecution. Eventually, it was Nifong, not the lacrosse players, who was put on trial.
But, the editorial nonetheless criticizes the lawsuit, on the grounds that the "the players and their families [do not] seem eligible for food stamps."
It might be, as the Star-News implies, that federal law should be changed to allow only those whose families are eligible for food stamps to file civil suits. Such a change, however, would eliminate one of the key effects of civil litigation--deterring against future misconduct. As Jim Coleman explained in September, in discussing the three falsely accused players' civil suit against Durham, “When the city acts in ways that are so totally outrageous and could have been prevented, I think the damages ought to be sufficient to deter that kind of behavior in the future and also to send a message to other cities and prosecutors across the state."
The same line of critique, of course, could apply to Duke, especially since no indication exists that the University has enacted any reforms suggesting that it learned lessons from the case.
Cutting through the legalese, what the players -- none of whom were charged in the dismissed sex assault case -- are saying, especially as it applies to Duke, is that instead of supporting them, the university sat back while they were under general harassment . . .
Not named is any news organization. And I realize that there may be no sound legal grounds to include a newspaper or a TV or radio station or an Internet site as a defendant in such a suit, but -- and I'll likely be considered a heretic in the church of the Fourth Estate for saying so -- that's too bad.
If indeed the players and their families suffered emotionally, if a player's reputation remains forever tarnished as "that guy who was on the Duke lacrosse team when," then a fair amount of blame falls on the media.
And not for merely reporting the story. That's what we do. And sometimes, simply reporting on a case fairly and down the middle causes emotional distress to the innocent and creates unflattering impressions that last a long time. Still, it is our obligation to do the reporting.
But this case was different. There was something akin to a Salem-like hysteria going on in the early days of the Duke lacrosse case with newspaper columnists and broadcast and Internet pundits taking bits and pieces, such as some players' early reluctance to talk with investigators, and building a case of obvious guilt. The judgment was as vitriolic as it was premature.
To be fair, those types of observations, when they appeared in print, came largely from opinion writers and not in news stories. But the public sometimes doesn't discern among the types of information with which it's bombarded, and the resentment and tension in
Durhamand on the Duke campus fed on the in-print and on-air rushes to judgment.
Finally, on the N&O op-ed page was none other than Group of 88 stalwart Karla Holloway. In a bizarre critique of media coverage of this year's presidential race, Holloway claims, "America reads race as a minority identity, with whiteness being the unstated norm. In the ongoing presidential race, the political pundits chatter easily about the Latino vote, or the black vote, which seems just fine until the illogic of that calculus rears its discomfiting head. If some of us are black or Latino or Asian, then (gasp!) others of us are white . . . Newscasters have suddenly found themselves having to acknowledge that not all the male or female voters are black or Latino or Asian -- identities that have heretofore been easily spoken. There is another side of the equation. But even with analysts like Matthews speaking that identity in acknowledging 'white men,' this concentration on race does a disservice to all voters."
One wonders if Holloway has been following American politics at any point in the last three decades. She appears unaware that political analysts cited the "Reagan Democrats"--white ethnic voters--as critical to the 1980 election. Or "angry white men" as the driving force behind the 1994 Republican Revolution.
Anyone who has watched even a few minutes of election-night TV coverage over the last three decades can doubtless recall exit polls discussing white (as well as black and Hispanic) voters.
Having deemed as novel a situation that is, in fact, not new, Holloway urges people to avoid "easily sliding into racial rhetoric," to "admit their discomfort with racial designations," to adopt a "diminished interest in producing race as the singular difference that matters." Coming from a person whose approach to the lacrosse case appeared almost entirely race-based, and who said that she would again sign the Group of 88 statement in a "heartbeat," this advice reeks of hypocrisy.
But how, according to Holloway, should America adopt a "diminished interest in producing race as the singular difference that matters"? Through "diversity" hiring in the media: "It would be a good result if, at the very least, our nightly news would include a diverse field of commentators past this moment when a potential first black president is the subject of the season."