The Public Editor Tackles His Paper's Shoddy Duke Lacrosse Coverage
When three white Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of raping a black stripper were finally declared innocent by the attorney general of North Carolina earlier this month, Times critics focused on the paper's lousy coverage of the case, includingTimes Watch(citing research by law writer Stuart Taylor Jr.)and most prominently Fox News anchor Brit Hume on his April 12 "Special Report."
Finally this Sunday, the Times Public Editor Barney Calame (whose term as the paper's in-house critic and "readers' representative" is expiring soon) gentlytackled the paper's shoddy coverage of the Duke case.
Even as the case fell apart and other liberal media outlets backed away, the Times issued a notorious 5,000-word portrait of the case on August 25, 2006, in which reporter Duff Wilson concluded that there was enough evidence against the players for local prosecutor Michael Nifong the case to trial.
As usual, company man Calame lets the Times off easier than it deserves, but his mild, overly faithful criticism doestease out afew nuggets of insight.
"The official declaration of the innocence of three former Duke University lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a stripper triggered a flood of critical e-mails to the public editor. Many readers focused their ire on The Times's massive Aug. 25 'portrait' of the case, or on the paper's outspoken sports columnists. Others called on me to agree that a liberal bias favoring the dancer, who was African-American, had corrupted The Times's coverage, or to urge the paper to apologize to the three young white men."
Calame defended the paper's overall coverage, saying it "generally reported both sides." But he also found that Times critics had a point.
"The August article presented a summary paragraph - the 'nut graf,' in newsroom parlance - whose final sentence amounted to The Times's certifying the district attorney's case as worthy of a trial.
"'By disclosing pieces of evidence favorable to the defendants,' the paragraph stated, 'the defense has created an image of a case heading for the rocks. But an examination of the entire 1,850 pages of evidence gathered by the prosecution in the four months after the accusation yields a more ambiguous picture. It shows that while there are big weaknesses in Mr. Nifong's case, there is also a body of evidence to support his decision to take the matter to a jury.'
"This overstated summary was a major flaw in the article that has overshadowed other worthwhile aspects of the story, such as the list, high up, of weaknesses in the prosecution case. Reading the article last August had left me concerned that Times journalists were not sufficiently skeptical in relying so heavily on the Gottlieb notes."
Calame went to the top for the following pathetic explanation:
"Bill Keller, the executive editor, wrote to me in an e-mail about the weighing process that shaped the August article: 'In hindsight, which is a hard thing to put aside, I'd have kept more to the tone of the June 12 piece. At the time we were trying to give sufficient prominence to what Duff had extracted with some difficulty - the evidence Nifong claimed justified his pursuit of this case - because that was actual new information.' He went on:
"'At the same time we did not want to underplay the major holes in the case (which we itemized in considerable detail) and we did not want to treat our new material unskeptically, because there were serious questions about how reliable that evidence was - including a thinly veiled suggestion by the defense that it might have been fabricated. I think if you read the whole story you came away with a better understanding of what Nifong thought he had, but with continuing serious doubts about his case."
Calame gently slid the knife in: "Mr. Keller's reference to 'sufficient prominence' for material 'extracted with some difficulty,' I would suggest, reflected the journalistic temptation to accord special weight to one's exclusive information."
Calame's close reading teased out a useful nugget.
"In one striking instance in the article, however, The Times decided Sergeant Gottlieb's 'case notes,' apparently based on his memory, were more credible than the handwritten notes of a fellow police investigator, Officer Benjamin Himan. Mr. Wilson said he had been told that the sergeant relied 'largely' on Officer Himan's handwritten notes when the two of them met the accuser on March 16 of last year to ask her to describe her attackers. Officer Himan's handwritten notes show she described all three as chubby or heavyset, although one of the three eventual defendants was tall and skinny.
" 'In Sergeant Gottlieb's version of the same conversation, however, her [the accuser's] descriptions closely correspond to the defendants' and included one who was tall and skinny, the Aug. 25 article reported. So the Times article prominently listed Sergeant Gottlieb's recollection of the accuser's mentioning a tall and skinny attacker as one of three revelations from the prosecution files that showed the documents contained 'evidence stronger than that highlighted by the defense.' Despite the paper's full disclosure of the sergeant's aversion to note-taking, I find that news judgment flawed - one allowing critics to foster a perception of the paper as leaning toward Mr. Nifong."
Blogger KC Johnson, ahistoryprofessor and expert on the Duke lacrosse case, goes through Calame's article point by point and lambastes Calame's defense:
"Calame, in short, appears unable or unwilling to consider how the Times' failure in the lacrosse case - and having the thesis of a paper's major article publicly dismissed as untrue surely constitutes a failure - was attributable to reporters and editors allowing their worldviews to distort the facts."
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Johnston also faults Calame for exclusing "Times columnists - including the sports commentators critical of Duke - who may have held forth on the case" - specifically, the inflammatory anti-player raving of sports columnist Selena Roberts,who Calame defended in 2006 but denied responsbility for today.
"Since Calame had no problem defending sports columnists in 2006, why does he now consider them out of bounds for his critique? Could it be that even he can't defend Roberts' most recent effort?"