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Journalism’s Hoax on Duke

April 17, 2007

Newsrooms tend to follow a conventional story line on social issues. As the late commentator and editor Michael Kelly wrote, “most journalists learn to see the world through a set of standard templates into which they plug each day’s events.” The most obvious templates concern race — whites are oppressing blacks, gender — men are oppressing women, and class — the privileged are oppressing the poor.

Since all three of these templates were in play during the Duke race case, how surprising is it that this triple high tide resulted in some of the worst journalism of the decade?

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, the best of our press critics, wrote that almost everybody wrote that the Rutgers women’s basketball team had been unfairly maligned by Don Imus, but in the case of the Duke lacrosse players “very few have talked about how the media slimed them.”

Much of the reporting, perhaps most of it, committed early to the truth of the rape accusation and the guilt of the lacrosse players. News stories kept reminding us that a struggling black single mother and college student was confronting the arrogant racist power of privileged thugs. As reporters stuck close to the well-established story line, fact-free journalism flourished.
Stuart Taylor saw through the hoax in a devastating May 2006 column in the National Journal. It should have ended the orgy of conventional reporting in major papers, but templates are hard to overcome.

In August, the New York Times ran a stupefying 5,600-word analysis that sloughed off or ignored all the mounting evidence of prosecutorial fraud. A Brooklyn College professor, K.C. Johnson, who ran brilliant daily commentary on the case in his Durham-in-Wonderland Web site, recently listed the 10 worst articles on the case to appear in major papers over the last year. The Times’ 5,600-word mess was the grand prizewinner.

And some writers, unable to give up on conventional template coverage even now, are still attacking the lacrosse players. Terry Moran of ABC News, in a blog item for ABC’s Web site, “Don’t Feel Sorry for the Dukies,” said that although the three players were rightly vindicated, we shouldn’t feel sorry for them because they got special treatment, “both negative and positive” and besides, they had the financial resources to defend themselves.

He might have argued the other way, as one of the Duke players did: if an out-of-control prosecutor can put well-off and innocent whites through the legal ringer, how many poor blacks are getting similar treatment without publicity.

Mr. Moran wrote of the players, they are “well-heeled, well-connected, well-publicized young men whose conduct, while not illegal, was not entirely admirable either.” A marginal point: why is Mr. Moran pronouncing on this case at all — he’s supposed to be a reporter, not an opinion-monger.

Selena Roberts, in a March 25 sports column in the New York Times, seemed miffed by information that the charges against the lacrosse players would be dropped. Why were the men going to be cleared? Not because an injustice had been done, Ms. Roberts decided, but because a “consensus yearn for closure” had settled over both sides. “No one’s burning cars either way,” a Durham store clerk told Ms. Roberts.

A Duke professor explained that “There is a let it end sense to the long debate.” The boys weren’t innocent so much as everyone was just tired of the case. Ms. Roberts detected “an irrefutable culture of misogyny, racial animus and athletic entitlement that went unrestrained that night.”

But these charges are indeed refutable. The women’s lacrosse team backed the boys, saying that they were good men who treated women well. All recent black players on the men’s team denied any racial animus from white players.

Ms. Roberts was irked that defenders of the Duke players had sent her hostile e- mails. She assured readers that the father of the accuser still believes her story. She signed off by writing: “A dismissal doesn’t mean forget everything. Amnesia would be a poor defense to the next act of athletic privilege.”

Everything in her column was either irrelevant or wrongheaded. The gist of the column is that the case had come out wrong, with the privileged, white males beating the rap.

What’s the point of having the newsroom templates if the evidence doesn’t support them?

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