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Brawley Case of the South

April 17, 2007

If anyone ever starts a museum of horrible explanations, the one-liner by Newsweek’s Evan Thomas about his magazine’s dubious reporting on the Duke non-rape case – “The narrative was right but the facts were wrong” – is destined to become a popular exhibit, right up there with “we had to destroy the village to save it.”

What Mr. Thomas seems to mean is that the newsroom view of the lacrosse players as privileged, sexist, and arrogant white male jocks was the correct angle on the story. It wasn’t.

According to Duke’s female lacrosse team and other women on campus, the male players are solid citizens who treat women well. Many players volunteer to tutor poor children in Durham. Some players are privileged, but most come from ordinary middle-class homes. There is no evidence of a racist team culture.

One objectionable racial comment was reported that night, in response to a racial taunt from one of the strippers. It occurred after the party and the player involved was not one of those indicted. The mainstream press, most conspicuously the New York Times, botched the story by imposing a race-gender-class narrative line. The facts were wrong, as Mr. Thomas said, but the narrative line was wrong too.

Bias complaints against the mainstream press usually involve the stubborn use of a preferred story line when facts are shaky or nonexistent.

The New Republic’s current trouble may be in this category.

The magazine’s three “Baghdad Diarist” columns by an anonymous American soldier, later identified as Private Scott Thomas Beauchamp, presented a sour view of American troops. It included an anecdote about Mr. Beauchamp and a comrade humiliating an Iraqi woman whose face had been “melted” by an IED. The editors set forth the narrative line – the “morally and emotionally distorting effects of war” are unbalancing some American troops.

Maybe so, but the Weekly Standard reports that Mr. Beauchamp signed a sworn statement admitting that his columns were exaggerations and falsehoods. Did the New Republic run these articles because it respected and trusted the writer, or because the writer reflected the magazine’s disgust with the war

The New Republic has been here before. The notorious and fake Stephen Glass articles, like the Beauchamp columns, featured story lines that the editors found congenial, including Mr. Glass’s account of a group of brutally stupid young conservatives cavorting at a conference.

Reluctance to change a popular story line helps account for the strange press coverage of Cindy Sheehan. That line pitted moral mom versus stone-hearted president. When Ms. Sheehan’s outbursts grew stranger, the press stayed with the soft line about a mother’s grief and simply omitted her increasingly bizarre comments that American troops were “being sent to kill innocent people” in Iraq and that President Bush was “a filth spewer” and “an evil maniac” guilty of “blatant genocide.”

The insurgents who killed her son Casey, on the other hand, were “freedom fighters.” Few of these little verbal grenades made it into the mainstream press. Sometimes a narrative line is so powerful it can resist even a massive array of facts. When Rigoberta Menchu’s account of class and ethnic warfare in Guatemala was revealed to be largely false, many professors and critics said this didn’t matter much because her book contained emotional truth. If it’s good for the Left and since it won her a Nobel Prize, who cares if she made it up?

Ms. Menchu’s black-and-white depiction of villainous landowners and virtuous oppressed peasants was too simple – the landowners often cooperated with the peasants. The great land struggle she described between her father and the wealthy landowners was actually between her father and his in-laws. Her allegedly poor and oppressed father had title to 6,800 acres of land. Liberal sociologist David Stoll interviewed 120 people in Ms. Menchu’s hometown and revealed an astonishing amount of mendacity. But her book “I Rigoberta Menchu” is still revered and studied on campuses across the country. The narrative line is useful.

After the Tawana Brawley hoax was exposed, the Nation magazine ran an article saying that “in cultural perspective, if not in fact, it doesn’t matter whether the crime occurred or not,” since the pattern of whites abusing blacks is true. Whatever.

The “fake but accurate” argument pops up now and then in the wake of campus rape hoaxes. After a falsely accused male student was cleared, one feminist said, “I wouldn’t have spared him the experience,” meaning that the case was a useful teaching instrument about male behavior. Whether the rape had actually occurred was of lesser interest.

The “almost doesn’t matter” argument surfaced in the Duke case too. At the mostly black North Carolina Central University, student Chan Hall spoke for many when he said the lacrosse players should be prosecuted for rape “whether it happened or not,” to provide “justice for things that happened in the past.”

The Brooklyn College professor, K.C. Johnson, who has blogged for months on the Duke case at his Durham-in-Wonderland site, pointed out that no prominent officials in Durham bothered to distance themselves from such comments. He wrote that among academics and reporters “because black people in the South have been wrongly convicted in the past, it is wrong to worry if whites, or Asians, or Hispanics are railroaded for political reasons today.”

Several journalists have tried an “emotional truth” defense when caught concocting stories. Patricia Smith, for instance, fired from her job as a Boston Globe columnist after repeatedly writing about imaginary people and faking interviews, said in her heart she felt her stories were true. Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism said, “You get the sense reading her apology that she has the mentality of an artist who’s talking about truth with a capital T, but journalism is fundamentally about nonfiction.”

We now live in a docudrama world in which techniques of fiction and nonfiction are starting to blur. Many reporters think objectivity is a myth.

They see journalism as inherently a subjective exercise in which the feelings and the will of the journalist function to reveal the truth of what has occurred. Two results are the emotional commitment to powerful but untrue story lines, and a further loss of credibility for the press.

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