Wednesday, September 05, 2012
A Comment on the Herald-Sun
Careful (or even not-so-careful) readers of the Herald-Sun cannot help but notice its recent pattern of inserting unexplained editorial judgments into “news” articles that reference either Durham-in-Wonderland or Until Proven Innocent. (Curiously, the articles in question do not mention the title of either the book or the blog.) In a way, this development represents a welcome change from the paper’s approach during 2006, when its “news” articles concealed an almost comical pro-Nifong spin behind a pretense of faux objectivity.
The most recent instance came in a Ray Gronberg article that described Bob Ekstrand’s resisting Duke’s efforts to compel testimony from him regarding exchanges he had with non-lacrosse players, including President Brodhead, Tallman Trask, Stuart Taylor, and me. (Ekstrand represents three of the former players suing the university.) In his article, Gronberg—without citing even one piece of evidence—describes Until Proven Innocent (again, without referencing its title) as “a 2007 book sympathetic to the players.” It’s quite true that both the book and the blog exposed ways in which Duke, Nifong, the Durham PD, and certain media sources (including the Herald-Sun, in behavior for which the paper’s editor very belatedly issued a half-hearted apology) mishandled the case, but Gronberg’s article doesn’t suggest that any relevant statement made in the book or blog about the lacrosse case that was incorrect. As even the H-S is fully aware, critical commentary about one side’s behavior does not necessarily constitute a “sympathetic” portrayal of the other side.
Gronberg then insinuates—but carefully does not specifically allege—collusion. In writing about how the book and blog portrayed Sgt. Mark Gottlieb, the H-S reporter notes that “Ekstrand’s most prominent contribution to the case is a theory—embraced by Johnson, Taylor, and all three of the legal teams now pursuing lawsuits against Duke and the city—that the police sergeant [Gottlieb, whom Gronberg doesn’t name] who supervised the investigation of Mangum’s claims was a rogue cop pursuing a vendetta against Duke students.” [Emphasis added]
Leaving aside the dubious claim that this “theory” constituted “Ekstrand’s most prominent contribution to the case,” I gladly would have told Gronberg had he asked me (for the record, he did not do so, nor did he contact Stuart) that I found all the evidence I needed to conclude that Gottlieb was a rogue cop in summer 2006, solely by reading the Gottlieb “notes”—the straight-from-memory report typed months after the fact by the ex-DPD officer. The document, which Gronberg doesn’t mention in his “news” article, conveniently plugged many of the holes then existing in Nifong’s case, often by contradicting contemporaneous written notes from other police officers.
And I reached the conclusion that Gottlieb was targeting Duke students by reading of his behavior in the newspaper. In September 2006, the N&O exposed the existence of and the Chronicle fleshed out the effects of the separate-but-equal arrangement in which the Duke administration and the DPD agreed that Duke students would be treated more severely than any other Durham residents for similar allegations of alcohol-related crimes. Gronberg doesn’t mention the N&O’s or the Chronicle’s reporting as my sources, even though I cited both; doing so, of course, might have reminded H-S readers of how late the paper came to this major story from its own backyard, or even of Gronberg’s own ineffective efforts to discredit the reporting of his rivals.
Both the book and the blog devoted considerable space to exposing the Herald-Sun’s shoddy reporting on the lacrosse case. As UPI noted, “When the police and Nifong demonized the lacrosse players and canonized the ‘victim,’ the media were happy to provide unskeptical coverage, as the Herald-Sun did in its March 25 front-pager quoting Cpl. Addison. And when an opportunity presented itself for journalists to do their own demonizing and canonizing, they seized it with relish. Among local papers, the Herald-Sun, the only Durham-based newspaper of significant circulation (about 45,000 in spring 2006, but falling fast) was incomparably biased in the more than 300 articles and 20 unsigned editorials it churned out in 2006, savaging the lacrosse players and downplaying or omitting altogether the ever-growing evidence of innocence.” The blog provided specific occasions of this behavior, while singling out for criticism the consistent bias of the Herald-Sun’s editor, Bob Ashley.
Ashley, by the way, returned to the H-S as editor a few months ago, after he had left the paper in January 2011.
A cynical person might suggest a relationship between the Herald-Sun’s lacing its “news” articles with unsubstantiated editorial judgments and the criticism both the book and the blog made of its (and its editor’s) substandard performance during the lacrosse case. Alas, the H-S’s new editorializing style doesn’t extend to referencing this criticism, which might give readers the context necessary to understand the publication’s current approach.
To reflect on the merits of the Herald-Sun’s record regarding the lacrosse case, it might be worth quoting from the Chronicle’s post-exoneration analysis. After struggling to find media observers who had even bothered to read the paper, Chronicle reporter Adam Eaglin interviewed with Bill Green, a former Washington Post ombudsman who then lived in Durham. Green’s analysis: “The Herald-Sun has consistently failed to presume the innocence of these three people. They leapt to judgment early and stayed with that thinking.”
Two final notes: (1) The Gronberg article did contain one potentially intriguing nugget. After falsely insinuating that Stuart and I might have concluded from exchanges with then-defense attorneys that Gottlieb was a rogue cop with a vendetta for Duke students, Gronberg reported, “Police commanders have disputed that.”
Since Gronberg doesn’t cite the police commanders to whom he’s referring, it’s not clear if he based that sentence on his analysis of Durham’s legal filings (which were never quite that definitive) or from background conversations with unnamed police commanders. If the latter, this revelation would be important indeed, since it would constitute Durham’s admission that a police officer who: (a) blindly followed orders to set up a photo array in violation of DPD policies; (b) produced a highly suspicious typewritten report months after the fact that wasn’t based on his contemporaneous written notes; and (c) behaved (at best) dubiously toward non-lacrosse students wasn’t, in fact, “going rogue” (the explanation most favorable to Durham) but instead was behaving as Durham thought a DPD officer should under these circumstances. Will Durham embrace this admission in court?
(2) Stuart passes along this comment:
I agree completely with everything in KC’s post. I would add that the only sense in which we were “sympathetic” to the lacrosse players is that we were very glad to cite the overwhelming evidence that they were completely innocent of the monstrous crimes of which they were so widely presumed guilty; that they were a very decent group of young men; and that their accusers—including many in the media and at Duke as well as Durham law enforcement officials—behaved disgracefully. We also included in our book all relevant evidence of which we knew that reflected unfavorably on any of the lacrosse players.