I recently did a post at Minding the Campus examining how the media responded to the Times’ Patrick Witt article—a piece of “journalism” that’s looking worse by the day, and which the Times public editor has now repudiated.
The most extraordinary (and counterintuitive) critique came from Poynter’s Kelly McBride—who faulted the Times, which had bent over backwards to frame the case against Witt as negatively as possible, for not doing enough to ensure that Witt’s accuser’s story was represented. To bolster her line of argument, McBride turned to adjunct law professor Wendy Murphy, who had distinguished herself in the lacrosse case for her willingness to fabricate, fabricate again, and fabricate some more.
Poynter describes its mission as promoting “excellence and integrity in the practice of craft.” The organization claims that “we teach . . . ethical decision-making,” with teaching “focused on the highest standards of journalistic value.” How could this type of organization turn to a serial fabricator such as Murphy?
In an e-mail, I provided McBride with a list of many (but not all) of Murphy’s public, factual inaccuracies (as well as her various unsubstantiated opinions and denigrations of due process). McBride replied that she saw no problem at all in her use of Murphy as either a source or a seminar instructor. She even seemed willing to rationalize Murphy’s difficulties with the truth, describing the list in the following manner: “Some of those statements are her opinions. Some of them are statements she made based on her expertise in the subject area. Some of them are taken out of context.” I invited McBride to identify any of the factual errors as items “taken out of context”; she did not reply.
No one would expect McBride to be an expert on Murphy’s record in the lacrosse case (although the media’s failures, and Murphy’s role in them, was explored at great length in the American Journalism Review, which presumably is on every Poynter faculty member’s regular reading list). But it seems as if Murphy’s serial fabrications mattered not to McBride, who affirmed that even after hearing of them, she’d eagerly invite Murphy back to teach at Poynter.
McBride’s response confirms observations from Alex Pareene, who described Murphy’s career as showing that “there are, in the mass media, absolutely no consequences for blatant, constant lying,” and Radley Balko, who came away from his own experience of Murphy inventing facts to ask, “At some point you have to wonder, is it even possible to be too shameless for cable news?” It seems that as long as Murphy still gets quoted by the media and retains the backing of like-minded figures within the “victims’ rights” movement, two alleged Murphy qualifications mentioned by McBride, she’ll receive Poynter’s seal of approval—factual inaccuracies and wildly intemperate, unsubstantiated opinions be damned. Would Poynter be as cavalier if women or minority groups had been the targets of Murphy’s bile?
Between April 5, 2006 and December 31, 2006, Murphy made no fewer than 18 factually inaccurate statements in her TV commentary about the lacrosse case. She made at least eight more factually inaccurate statements about the case in December 21, 2006 and January 9, 2007 “talking points” forwarded by “victims’ rights” groups, plus at least one factual error in a late 2006 USA Today op-ed. Twenty-seven outright errors of fact on a single case is quite a tally. And that list, of course, doesn’t include Murphy’s misleading statements that were phrased in the form of questions or speculation, or her use of unsubstantiated rumors.
Facts are facts, and McBride’s insinuation that “context” could somehow transform Murphy’s factual errors into “facts” is absurd. But context does matter in interpreting factual errors. That Murphy’s factual errors weren’t random but almost always tilted against the lacrosse players suggests she wasn’t simply amazingly sloppy (a problem that in and of itself would seem to disqualify someone as a Poynter source or seminar instructor). Instead, Murphy’s fabrications bolstered her preconceived views, suggesting deliberateness to her fabrications.
In this respect, and despite McBride’s implication, the broader context of Murphy’s remarks was even more damning than the myriad factual inaccuracies taken alone. Beyond factually inaccurate descriptions of North Carolina legal procedures or some defense motions, each time in such a way to reinforce the ultimately-disbarred Mike Nifong’s position, Murphy’s serial fabrications tended to fall into one of three general categories:
(1) The April 4, 2006 photo array, which provided the only specific evidence used to indict the three falsely accused players and which Nifong had ordered the DPD to confine to members of the lacrosse team, did not violate DPD procedures, because many lacrosse players didn’t attend the party, and therefore these non-attendees could be deemed fillers. Confirmation for this “fact” came from a neutral source on the criminal case, Duke president Richard Brodhead.
Here was the Poynter source/seminar instructor on May 2, 2006: “According to Durham president, the president of the university, he said March 22 in a press release, many players weren’t there that night. Well, what does that tell us? It tells us the defense motion [on the lineup] is a bunch of nonsense, because if many players weren’t there, it’s a darned good chance if this was a hoax that she could have gotten it wrong.” Murphy returned to the theme in a December 21 e-mail: “The line-ups were not unlawful. According to the president of Duke, ‘many’ players were not at the party—and many NON-players WERE.” [Emphasis added in both instances; capitalization in original.]
Murphy’s description of Durham’s lineup procedures was wrong: Nifong had publicly identified as suspects all 46 white lacrosse players, the only people included in the April 4 photo array, and the Durham Police Department procedures required photos of five non-suspects for each photo of a suspect. Wouldn’t a lawyer understand the definition of a non-suspect?
In the event, the most extraordinary element of these two statements came in Murphy’s invention of a Brodhead statement regarding the party’s composition. John Burness, Duke’s then-P.R. head, confirmed that Brodhead made no statement, of any kind, about the case on March 22, 2006; and that Brodhead never claimed, one way or the other, to possess knowledge on who did or did not attend the party. Murphy simply made up a statement to corroborate her preconceived viewpoint.
(2) Considerable evidence actually bolstered the prosecution’s version of events, although defense attorneys or the media concealed some of this evidence.
Murphy looked to bolster false accuser Crystal Mangum’s credibility to pointing out that “Brett and Matt happen to be the real names of two of the captains who lived in that home.” (At least in some of her myriad stories, Mangum had claimed that her attackers were named Adam, Matt, and Brett.) But Murphy’s statement was factually inaccurate: the first names of the captains who lived at the house were Matt, Dave, and Dan, and their names had been widely reported.
In a May 2, 2006 interview, Murphy pointed to hidden evidence (that, in fact, didn’t exist and that the police and Nifong had never claimed existed). Dismissing test results that indicated no DNA matches to any of the lacrosse players, Murphy asserted that “the broomstick DNA has not yet been revealed.” The only problem: there was no “broomstick DNA,” since even the mentally imbalanced Mangum had never claimed an assault by broomstick.
Turning her concealment argument to the lawyers, Murphy suggested that the defense attorneys had “withheld” 1000 pages of documents (sometimes she said the figure was 1200). In fact, Judge Osborn Smith had ordered the pages to be sealed, because they contained Mangum’s psychological records. That ruling had been made in open court, and was widely reported; defense attorneys releasing the records would have placed them in contempt.
When all else failed, Murphy accused the lacrosse players and their attorneys of criminal obstruction, as in her assertion that “all the photographs showing how really fine [Mangum] was when she left scene [photos frequently cited in various defense motions] were doctored, where the date stamp was actually fraudulent.” [Emphasis added in both instances.] Even the utterly corrupt Mike Nifong never challenged the photos’ veracity, and the subsequent AG’s investigation confirmed the photos’ accuracy by cross-checking various other forms of electronic data.
(3) The lacrosse players behaved as if they were guilty; or had profiles that would lead a fair-minded observer to believe they might be guilty.
In one of her first appearances on the case, on April 19, 2006, Murphy reported some basic, and seemingly troublesome, “facts”: “All of them [the lacrosse players] took the Fifth. All of them refused to cooperate. All of them refused to give a DNA sample, until the court produced an order compelling them to do so.”
Each of these three statements was a lie. No player ever invoked the Fifth Amendment, at any point in the case. The three captains who lived in the house where the party occurred cooperated (foolishly, in retrospect) wholly with police, including voluntarily giving DNA samples and offering to take lie-detector tests. A few days before this parade of falsehoods, the Poynter source/seminar instructor had invented a statement by an unidentified neighbor asserting that members of the 2006 lacrosse team had committed “other sexual offenses.” No such statement existed, and no members of the team had committed “other sexual offenses.”
The pattern of Murphy making up “facts” to portray the lacrosse players as behaving suspiciously continued throughout the case. One of the people picked by Mangum, Reade Seligmann, had an unimpeachable electronic alibi (he had called a cab with his cell phone, and then was shown on a time-stamped ATM video more than a mile away from the captains’ house) for the time of the alleged attack. This was a major problem for Nifong, but not for Murphy; in a December 21, 2006 e-mail, she simply altered “facts” to make Seligmann look guilty. She wrote, “In fact, the guy Seligman [sic] who claims his cell phone calls ‘prove’ his innocence actually lends support to the theory that he was the first guy to assault her—which is what she claims—and that it was oral—because he could have assaulted her for the first few minutes—then thought to himself ‘I’ve got to get out of here’—which explains why he frantically and repeatedly called a cab. who frantically calls a cab to see if they’re coming—in a space of five minutes—especially considering that the guy went to an ATM and a pizza place when he left—no real emergency there. Isn’t it convenient that he just happens to be one of the guys she accused?”
This statement had no relationship with the truth. Though Mangum never told the same story twice, she never claimed that one of her attackers left during the attack, nor that any of her attackers had used a telephone, nor did she ever make any clear claim that Seligmann could be identified as “the first guy to assault her.” Seligmann, whose cell-phone records were posted on the web for Murphy to see, didn’t “frantically and repeatedly call a cab”; he called the cab once, and the cab came a few minutes later. And before Murphy’s statement, no one had ever claimed that Seligmann went to “a pizza place when he left.”
Perhaps the most outrageous thing that Murphy said during the lacrosse case was not, because of the way she framed her remark, a demonstrably untrue statement. On May 3, 2006, in an appearance on “CNN Live,” the Poynter source/seminar instructor mused, “I bet one or more of the players was, you know, molested or something as a child.”
An unsubstantiated insinuation, on national TV, that a college student was sexually molested? That’s a disgusting statement—indicative of a coarse mind and a bullying temperament, not “dynamic and thought-provoking,” which is how McBride describes Murphy. Yet McBride, by her own admission, wasn’t surprised to see the Poynter source/seminar instructor make such an assertion. If insinuating child abuse against people* about whom she knew nothing isn’t enough for disqualify Murphy in McBride’s eyes, what would constitute going too far? And how, possibly, could a figure who made such a remark provide instruction “focused on the highest standards of journalistic value” that would promote “excellence and integrity in the practice of craft”?
In recent months, the departure of Jim Romenesko somewhat tarnished Poynter’s reputation, as has the organization’s uneven (or worse, as SI’s Richard Deitsch might suggest) performance as ESPN ombudsman. But I always had believed that Poynter was committed to journalistic integrity, and never considered that it might be an organization that would use a serial fabricator as both a source and a seminar instructor for guiding journalists’ behavior.
It appears that I was wrong in these beliefs. And unlike Wendy Murphy, I’m willing to admit when I make a mistake.
*--modified for clarity