Revisiting the Duke Case 10 Years Later

A few weeks ago, a student asked me if I remembered what happened in the Duke University lacrosse rape case. He was an athlete himself and had heard of an upcoming ESPN documentary on that sad event.

That question served as the motivation behind my second pr0ject of the semester — a look at all that went wrong 10 years ago and how a journalism of accountability (similar to what we have been reading about) might have prevented that miscarriage of justice.

If you don’t remember, the Duke case had all the elements of a percolating media volcano — white kids, presumably wealthy white kids, at an elite university taking advantage of a poor uneducated African-American dancer hired to work at a team party. The players were arrested and cries of disgust resonated from all corners of the media landscape.

The problem was, none of it was true, especially not the rape.

I’m not trying to piggyback on my project here, but one thing that did occur to me later was, wouldn’t this have been a perfect case for a watchdog to be watching the media. Because it seems to me this is a perfect example of what happens when news organizations surrender their watchdog responsibilities in exchange for a story too salacious to pass up.

Without getting too far off point — I do recommend the ESPN documentary “Fantastic Lies” if you like to refresh your memories — the media so badly failed the public here that it’s a wonder people trust us at all anymore. Hardly any investigative work was done until one paper, the Raleigh News and Observer, months later realized the facts may not square with the accuser’s story. Of  course, by then the indicted players were Public Enemies No. 1, 2 and 3, tossed off the team and told never to return to the Duke campus. What happened to the presumption of innocence?

Well,  it seemed that disappeared the moment the media fixed its wagon to the charismatic district attorney prosecuting the case. The problem was, Michael Nifong was as corrupt as he was charming: He made the whole case up and was later jailed and disbarred for it.

The watchdog role sometimes means we in the media have to look at ourselves too. What responsibilities do we bear when we don’t do the required due diligence; when we buy into a story not because it’s factually accurate but because it fits an ideal narrative?

In the case of the Duke lacrosse players, the potential consequences were quite real — 15 years to life real. But what did that matter to CNN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and others who were so quick to buy into the prosecutor’s manufactured reality?

As I said in my project, I hope we learned something from this case. I remain unconvinced that we have.

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The “illegal immigrant” debate and more

Words mean things, at least that’s what I  tell my students. And my daughters, and my co-workers. How we choose to say what we say, says plenty about our priorities and values.

So last week we read almost parenthetically how several years ago The Associated Press made a dramatic change to its stylebook, redefining for all the news services  that follow it the nature of immigration in America. No longer would the AP use the term “illegal immigrant,” preferring instead some hybrid of “person living in the country without proper documentation” or “legal permission.”

Quite a politically correct mouthful, yes? Well, no, not really.

I can’t describe the chaos that ensued as newsrooms across the country scrambled to find a suitable language alternative, including the calamity at Newsday, where we in NYC confront this issue almost as much as they do on the southern border.

I get the AP’s point and, in fact, remember defending it at the time. By definition, people cannot be “illegal,” only actions, so why refer to people as such? Yet to me it remains one of the mysteries of the English language that we have not come up with better words to define “those who live here in violation of the law.”

The quotes above are intentional since that is the  phrase Newsday settled on to describe this group and their circumstances. It makes for clunky writing, but if we are to remain consistent in our commitment to journalistic equity, it’s probably the best description. And kudos for not just accepting use of the equally overused “undocumented,” since that conjurs up images of totalitarianism no American ought to feel comfortable with. (And it might not be accurate in all cases anyway.)

As a watchdog for all media, the AP has done a wonderful job of ridding its stylebook of labels such as “schizophrenic” “mentally ill,” “cancer-stricken” and the like, preferring the more authentic “person afllicted with schizophrenia” etc.

In this sweeping gesture, the AP pushed media forward. Let’s hope we as media leaders can push society along as well.

On Trump, the Times and off-the-record conversations

It seems to me The New York Times did the impossible this week: It made Donald Trump appear sympathetic.

In a meeting with members of the Times’ editorial  board and a representative from the news desk, the Donald offered his vision of a Trump presidency. That vision appeared strikingly more reasonable on the subject of illegal immigration than we citizens had been led to believe.

Or did it? We don’t really know because the conversation was considered “off the record.” It made its way into the public domain (and Thursday’s GOP debate) because it was leaked, presumably by the Times. One can only imagine why, but whatever the reason it hardly seems appropriate behavior for America’s newspaper of record.

This class explores the relationship between the media and the society it serves. Fundamental to the free flow of information is the notion that once in a while news organizations allow interview subjects latitude in discussing matters too premature, volatile or sensitive for publication. In the case of a political candidate, even a candidate for president, these “off-the-record” dialogues can offer insight into policy positions and more leading to an endorsement, or not.

“Off the record” is a central element of journalistic tradition, with the idea being that these insights remain private unless and until the source decides it is appropriate to release them. To my knowledge, Trump did no such thing yet innuendo from the meeting was front and center Thursday night, interrupting for a moment debate over the size of Trump’s body parts and Marco Rubio’s future as a dogcatcher in Florida.

Indeed, the role of the journalist in a presidential campaign became a political football Thursday as Rubio and Ted Cruz challenged Trump to release tapes of the Times meeting. This followed by a day Trump’s ignorant assertion that he and his minions will “open up the libel laws” so they can sue news organizations for so-called hatchet jobs.

That shows you where Trump’s head is: Ever hear of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court or New York Times vs. Sullivan?

The Times explained that because Trump had OK’d a blended interview, that is, a mix of on- and off-the-record conversations, the meeting was fair game for news coverage. But if that’s the standard,  then promises be damned, why wasn’t his backing off that silly wall plan front page, above-the-fold news? If you’re going to violate a journalistic confidence,  at least go all in for the sake of an informed electorate.

It further explained that the presence of its executive editor / newsroom leader made it a meeting unique from other potential endorsement sessions. Cavalierly, the Times suggested it would not conduct a leak investigation.

It’s hard to imagine the Times endorsing Trump. But it has a moral obligation to hear him out, and good that it did. But Trump has a right also to expect the Times to adhere to the established practices of the industry regardless of who is in the meeting and for what reason. What are we teaching the next generation of journalists when we professionals play fast and loose with best practices?

There is much to love about the Gray Lady — it’s abhorrence of gossip journalism, its multimedia business model and more. I root for it to succeed every day. But I am inclined to think the Times blew it here and its explanations sound more like alibis.