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 project 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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