Friday, April 21, 2006

We Report, We Decide

I may regret writing this column, but I’ve been so wrapped up in this topic it’ll be cathartic. I’m going to keep Peter Gabriel going on the iPod as a safety measure; it’s awfully difficult to rant and rave with In Your Eyes stuck in your head. By the way, this’ll be a long one, so you may want to highlight the text and print it out to avoid getting a computer monitor-induced headache.

What’s had me so fired up? The Duke Lacrosse Scandal that’s managed to somehow make the birth of Tom and Katie’s Scientologic Love Child second page material. Some things I want to throw out before going one character further:
-I believe a forcible rape and assault took place, and that the accuser is a victim. I believe that there are few crimes that could possibly be as reprehensible.
-I believe the Duke Lax squad earned its reported reputation as hard partiers that had difficulty staying within the lines.
-I could not possibly say with confidence that members of the team did or did not sexually assault the victim.

Those three statements out of the way, what has worked me into a lather is the unprofessionalism of the Raleigh News & Observer in its coverage of this incident. Let me provide a timeline, which can obviously be no more than what I have followed through various media outlets:
  1. The event in question took place (March 13th beginning close to midnight) with a medical examination providing strong evidence that a rape had occurred.

  2. The N&O reports that the Lax team was ordered to submit to DNA testing following a police search of the house (Mar. 24)

  3. The N&O runs a 1,000 word interview article with the unidentified accuser, listing the address, general location and a picture of the Lacrosse team house, touching off local protests and vigils there (Mar. 25)

  4. Ruth Sheehan (a previous victim of rape) of the N&O pens an editorial calling for the team to be shut down, openly certain that the players committed or were complicit in the alledged rape, that the players were racist, and that Durham police “shouldn't have to wait for 46 DNA samples to be returned.” (Mar. 27)

  5. The N&O reports that 15 of the players had prior arrests (all petty misdemeanors) (Mar. 28)

  6. Duke forfeits a home game. (Mar. 28)

  7. Duke suspends the lacrosse season pending the outcome of the investigation (Mar. 29)

  8. Defense lawyers accuse the prosecution of trying to convict the team members in public without charges and predict that DNA evidence will clear the players (Mar. 30)

  9. Police disclose that two 911 calls connected to the case were made in the early AM of Mar. 13: a 12:55 am call from a woman alleging racial harassment as she and a friend walked by the Lacrosse House and a second from the accuser at approximately 1:25 AM. It is later revealed that the accuser’s companion made the initial call and that the accuser did not make the second; a security guard made the call because she was intoxicated at a grocery store and refused to leave. (Mar. 31)

  10. DA Mike Nifong states that if the DNA evidence did not result in matches it would not exonerate the players and is admonished by defense attorneys for speaking about the case in the press without disclosing evidence. (Apr. 01)

  11. Ted Vaden of the N&O writes an opinion piece questioning the fairness of the N&O’s coverage of the scandal. (Apr. 02)

  12. Ruth Sheehan writes a second editorial on the subject, accusing the Lacrosse house of being an out-of-control frat house and Duke University of turning a blind eye to it. She calls for the resignation of the team coach. (Apr. 03)

  13. N&O devotes a Ruth Sheehan blog to the scandal, largely biased in nature (as blogs are by nature) and featuring numerous picked reader responses. (Apr. 03)

  14. Duke opens a committee to probe student behavior (Apr. 05)

  15. N&O details a prior arrest of Collin H. Finnerty, the first time a team member is cited by name and pictured (Apr. 06)

  16. Reporting his full name and picturing him, N&O prints out the complete email that Ryan McFadyen wrote approximately two hours after the incident on Mar. 13. The typo-laden email spoke of having dancers come to the house again but that he would kill them. The report also names team member Daniel Flannery. After the report it became known that the email was one of many between team members but was the only one released to the media. (Apr. 06)

  17. Duke announces the resignation of the lacrosse coach and the official cancelation of the lacrosse season.

  18. Defense lawyers bring forth the team’s side of the incident for the first time, alledging “two dancers arrived at the house about 30 minutes apart and did not perform adequately. "They actually danced for three minutes and decided they were going to leave. They took a tremendous amount of money and just left.” (Apr. 07)

  19. It is revealed that the accuser had multiple prior convictions (DWI, stealing a car, resisting arrest, and assaulting a government official). (Apr. 07)

  20. The N&O runs a second article detailing prior arrests involving Duke players, this article examining incidents as early as 1999. The article asserts that while the individual offenses are minor, they are indicative of a “swaggering sense of entitlement and privilege.” (Apr. 09)

  21. Defense attorneys release time-stamped photos revealing the accuser to be intoxicated to the point of being unable to stand at the party where she was hired to dance. The pictures also show pre-exisiting injuries that the prosecution alleges occurred during the rape. The pictures reveal that the exotic dancers performed for less than 5 minutes. The defense declines to provide the N&O with copies. (Apr. 10)

  22. DNA evidence results fail to connect any of the Duke team members. (Apr. 11)

  23. The N&O runs two articles that question whether a lack of DNA evidence exonerates the Duke lacrosse players. (Apr. 11)

  24. The N&O runs a third article casting doubt over the import of the lack of DNA evidence, though its citations mostly center on cases in which DNA samples could not be found on the victim, which is not the situation in this case. (Apr. 12)

  25. At a tense and vocal public forum at North Carolina Central University, Mike Nifong declares that he will press on with the case and that the accuser had recently identified one of her assailants. Defense attorneys hotly question the timing of the identification, in particular that media outlets had been naming and picturing numerous players in the month since the incident. (Apr. 12)

  26. Ruth Sheehan writes a piece centered on Tawana Brawley and the damage that can come from a false rape claim. (Apr. 13)

  27. Police records surface describing the accuser as “passed out drunk” and “not in distress” when found the night of the incident. (Apr. 14)

  28. Ted Vaden writes an article for the N&O defending coverage of the scandal, while admitting that he found much of it questionable. (Apr. 16)

  29. Jesse Jackson offers the victim a full college scholarship. (Apr. 16)

  30. The N&O prints a 2,000 word write up on the accuser, including a section detailing her troubled past. (Apr. 16)

  31. Durham mayor Bill Bell, and the presidents of NC Central and Duke universities make a public plea to the community to allow the investigation to be kept within the police and the court systems. (Apr. 17)

  32. A grand jury indicts two members of the lacrosse team. (Apr. 17)

  33. The N&O runs a second article on Finnerty’s prior arrest in the wake of his indictment. (Apr. 18)

  34. The N&O runs a statement provided by DA Mike Nifong, indicating that he is seeking a third arrest. (Apr. 18)

  35. The N&O runs three background pieces on Finnerty and Seligmann, largely concerned with their home wealth, including tax records of home value, and asserting a background of privilege. (Apr. 19)

  36. It is reported that a second round of DNA tests was requested by DA Mike Nifong. (Apr. 19)

  37. Duke suspends the indicted students. (Apr. 19)

  38. Cell phone, ATM, and entry card records combine with a cab driver’s testimony to strongly support Seligmann’s claim that he was not present at the lacrosse house at the alleged time of the assualt. (Apr. 20)

One heck of a read, I know. Before I proceed, I’d like to repeat what I put down before:
-I believe a forcible rape and assault took place, and that the accuser is a victim. I believe that there are few crimes that could possibly be as reprehensible.
-I believe the Duke Lax squad earned its reported reputation as hard partiers that had difficulty staying within the lines.
-I could not possibly say with confidence that members of the team did or did not sexually assault the victim.

So, with all of that out of the way, let me formalize what got me so upset (hey Batfans, have you figured out the Riddler’s clues yet?). It is my perception that the News & Observer staff, Samiha Khanna and Ruth Sheehan in particular, convicted the entire Lacrosse team almost as soon as the story broke and proceeded to call for their heads through their offices. They dug up dirt at a level not seen since the Kobe Bryant trial and John Kerry’s presidential bid, and the N&O toed the line of yellow journalism as if they graduated with degrees from the Rupert Murdoch School of Modern Media. Article after article painting one picture of the team and using a completely different palette for the accuser. Researching like Team Matlock on the players but sticking to sob story interviews with the victim, giving the boys priors front page headlines while burying her past convictions in a back page paragraph.

Ruth Sheehan apparently watched too much Charles Barkley and adopted the “you can’t handle my truth” persona to wage her holy war against the college kids she instantly convicted, but wouldn’t offer up a retraction as mounting evidence seemed to exonerate much of the team. How much did her own personal experiences as a rape victim affect her evaluation of the events? The N&O allowed itself to become Mike Nifong’s mouthpiece, rather than be a neutral observer. By quickly publishing details about where the students could be found, their pictures, and their names, the N&O has left itself open to suspicions that they knowingly invited locals to harass the players (none of whom had been indicted). Just honestly ask yourself: out of the above rundown, which items were you previously aware of? Which were news to you? This isn’t just the News&Observer, it’s all the major media outlets.

The News & Observer professes that it was simply being thorough in its reporting. I feel they set themselves up as the judge of a public court. How many of those players who had nothing to do with what might have happened in that house have seen their personal lives wrecked by this coverage? How many are facing unwarranted persecution? How many won’t graduate from Duke when the dust settles? You might say that they put themselves in a bad situation, a la Kobe, but did they really? They hired strippers for a party, which isn’t illegal.

Everyone forms an opinion. Everyone has made up their mind about Barry Bonds, OJ Simpson, Ken Lay, and Brangelina, one way or the other. In this case, I fully believe the victim was raped, though I believe there could be an alternative story that’s not being examined. What if she was assaulted and intoxicated prior to arriving at the house, she and her fellow dancer quit performing for whatever reason shortly after beginning, were chased out of the house by drunk and belligerent preppies, and chose to lie about the attack after being examined at the hospital? Remember, the accuser did not call 911, nor was she examined after coming forward. She was examined because police were called in to find her “passed-out drunk.” After the examination, the police probably asked her who committed the assault, not the other way around. I’m not saying that’s what happened. I don’t know. If it hits the news tomorrow that damning evidence against a yet-unnamed lacrosse player has been found, I wouldn’t be stunned. My point is it’s one thing to speculate with buddies. It’s grossly irresponsible and dangerous for a media outlet to report on stories such as this through colored glasses. Whether or not these guys are innocent, I would be happy to see Khanna reprimanded for her obviously loose personal standards of journalistic integrity and Ruth Sheehan fired for her attempts to rally all of Carolina’s torches and pitchforks. The editorial staff should publically apologize if not resign.

To finish off, I understand that everyone’s biased to some degree. I can put up with Jon Stewart’s jadedness, even if he is choking the life out of what was once the funniest show on television. No one should ever fully buy into local coverage of their favorite sports teams, unless they’re just that fond of Kool-Aid. But it absolutely galls me when a newspaper feels that it has the right to condemn 46 college students without needing anything more than a first impression.

1 Comments:

Blogger Marjorie said...

I agree with your perspective- the reporters have convicted the lacrosse players and polluted the entire community's perspective making it more difficult for a fair evaluation

12:33 PM, April 26, 2006

 

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