Duke, the New York Times, and the American Political Culture


When I was a journalism student at the University of Tennessee more than three decades ago, the New York Times was considered the "gold standard" of newspapers. It was the "Newspaper of Record" and the place where all good reporters wanted to spend their careers.

Such accolades, while partly deserved, given the level of writing talent that occupied the Times’ newsrooms, had their holes as well. After all, the New York Times also is the Newspaper of Walter Duranty, the Stalin apologist who won a Pulitzer Prize ostensibly for his "coverage" of Stalin’s brutal collectivism in the Ukraine in the early 1930s. Historians note that about seven million people were starved to death; Duranty’s prize-winning coverage, however, painted a happy face on the whole ordeal and parroted the Party Line. Duranty’s picture still hangs in the lobby of the Times offices, a reminder that the Times is all-too-happy to glorify an out-and-out liar as long as his political ideology is in the "right place."

Today, the New York Times no longer is the standard-bearer of newspaper journalism; instead, it carries the standard of modern leftist political culture, and nowhere did that become more apparent than in its coverage of the infamous Duke Lacrosse Non-Rape, Non-Kidnapping, and Non-Sexual Assault Case. Like its saturation coverage of the story that it created — the refusal of Augusta National, home of golf’s Master’s Tournament, to admit women as members — the Times contributed numerous articles and columns to this story, and managed to become the “gold standard” for biased and inaccurate coverage.

I will go a step farther; the New York Times — with the possible exception of the Durham Herald-Sun — had the worst coverage of the case of any journalistic outlet in the country. Where others saw a case falling apart, the Times saw "a body of evidence to support his (District Attorney Michael B. Nifong) decision to take the matter to a jury."

Now that charges are dropped, the Times is taking a "sort of" second look at its coverage in the case. Although the charges were dropped and the players exonerated, Times sports columnists Selena Roberts and Harvey Araton, both of whom wrote scathing attacks on the Duke lacrosse players over the past year, continue to attack them as though nothing has changed. Furthermore, the Times has not editorialized any mea culpa even though it rushed to judgment.

K.C. Johnson has dealt with the recent article by the Times’ Public Editor Bryan Calame that attempts to analyze what the Newspaper of Walter Duranty did on this case over the past year. Perhaps, the most offense piece (out of many offensive pieces) done by the Times was its infamous August 25, 2006, piece that treated an obviously false police report as an Oracle of the Gods from Mount Olympus. Last summer, in debunking this article, I wrote:

While supporters of Nifong will claim that this article from the “newspaper of record” sheds further light in favor of the prosecution, it actually does the opposite. First, and most important, it tells us that the most important “mainstream” newspaper in the world does not ask serious questions when clear discrepancies are raised. Second, it also tells us that when an agent of the state lies, and uses the prosecutorial apparatus in a dishonest and abusive way, the agent can find refuge in the New York Times if the desired outcome can validate the Times’ politically-correct view of the world.

Tawana Brawley disappointed the editors of the Times, who obviously were hoping that the girl’s story was true. Having been burned once, the editors this time apparently have decided that they will continue to press the lie no matter what the truth may be. They will stand by their man, Michael Nifong, and stand by him to the bitter end. But they will stand by him.

Indeed, no paper of stature presented a more positive view of Nifong than did the Times, and even now the paper is loathe to admit that this entire case was a piece of fiction that Nifong and the police hatched — and was aided and abetted by false coverage from the "Newspaper of Record."

But don’t take my word for it. Look at what other respected people have to say about the performance of the Newspaper of Walter Duranty:

  • Daniel Okrent, the first Times public editor: "I think The Times’ coverage was heartbreaking. I understand why they jumped on the story when they did, but it showed everything that’s wrong with American journalism."
  • Jack Shafer, Slate editor at large and author of the Slate press box column: "Here was a story that fit a template that they recognized and thought was a productive one… a story about privilege, a story about town and gown, a story about how race is handled in America." Now that their original analysis had proved wrong, "How do you elegantly say, u2018Whoops, we erred here?’ I still think The Times has not acknowledged the role it played in sensationalizing its story…. You don’t need to put on the hairshirt and run around and get everyone to accept an apology — I’m talking about correcting the record and getting the story better, righter, straighter."
  • Stuart Taylor, senior writer at National Journal: The August 25 Times article "was the worst single piece of journalism I’ve ever seen in long form in a newspaper." Yet its impact was substantial: "A lot of people think The New York Times is a bible of what really happened. I think an awful lot of people have been misled by The New York Times coverage and either didn’t pay attention to what critics were saying or shrugged it off — ‘Who am I going to believe, The New York Times or some no-name critic in the blogosphere?’"

Calame’s analysis, while critical, ultimately said the coverage of his newspaper was an example of what one might call "no harm, no foul." (Nifong is using the "no harm, no foul" defense as the North Carolina State Bar scrutinizes his withholding of evidence. It seems that so far, the NC Bar has chosen to debunk that theory.)

K.C. Johnson takes a different approach:

Calame’s scarcely credible thesis: "I found that the past year’s articles generally reported both sides, and that most flaws flowed from journalistic lapses rather than ideological bias."

Who does Calame think he’s fooling? Imagine the following scenario: three African-American college students are charged with a crime for which almost no evidence exists. One has an air-tight, public, unimpeachable alibi. Their accuser is a white woman with a criminal record and major psychological problems. They are prosecuted by a race-baiting district attorney who violates myriad procedures while seizing upon the case amidst an election campaign in a racially divided county.

Does anyone believe that the Times would have covered the story outlined above with articles that bent over backwards to give the district attorney the benefit of the doubt, played down questions about his motivations, and regularly concluded with "shout-outs" regarding the accuser’s willingness to hang tough — coupled with sports columnists who compared the accused students to gangsters and drug dealers?

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.

Indeed, if we want to get a sense of the real attitude of the Times toward this case, all one has to do is to read its columnists, who from the start have treated the Duke lacrosse players as the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan. Araton could not believe that members of Duke’s women’s lacrosse team last year would wear blue bracelets with the numbers of Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty, and David Evans and the word "innocent" written on them. After all, these young men were charged with rape, so the mere accusation should be a reminder to all women that these are evil men.

(Araton told me in an email that he was willing to consider the possibility that the charges were untrue. I reminded him that these women were close friends of the accused, and they knew that the facts were not adding up, and that there was no rape, kidnapping, or sexual assault. Araton never wrote back and has ignored my subsequent emails.)

Even now, we are getting the new party line not only from the Times, but also the Washington Post and other mainstream journalistic outlets. The line goes something like: "Yes, they were innocent of the charges, but they had a party where strippers were paid to dance, and there was drinking, and the air was filled with racial slurs." John Feinstein, in a recent Post column, repeats the line that has little more truth than a story from Pravda in the heady days of the former Soviet Union:

The Duke players were victims of a prosecutor, Mike Nifong, who was either overzealous or incompetent or both. They were also the victims of their school’s leadership, which completely ignored an escalating situation, then threw the entire team right under the wheels of the bus in order to save itself. The flip side though is that these were not innocents. This was not a case of one party gone awry, this was a case of a group of out-of-control kids getting themselves into a very bad situation — probably at least in part because some of them were screaming racial epithets at the two strippers they had hired for the evening.

This wasn’t just boys being boys. This was a team about whom a Duke administrator had written a report two years earlier describing them (the lacrosse team) as, “a train wreck waiting to happen.” Tallman Trask, the university vice president who was handed that report, did nothing with it. He informed Joe Alleva, the athletic director, that it existed and Alleva did not so much as ask to see it. And yet neither one of them has been fired in the wake of all this. Only Mike Pressler, the coach, who according to Duke’s own report was the one adult on campus who took some action after the report, was fired.

President Richard Brodhead wasn’t wrong to suspend the team’s season after the initial reports came out. If nothing else it sent a message that accusations of rape would not be taken lightly, even if Alleva’s initial response, “this is an unfortunate incident,” was laughably stupid. But once all 46 players had been DNA-tested and no DNA from any of them showed up on the accuser’s body, Brodhead should have allowed the season to continue. At that point the burden should have fallen on Nifong — who probably should be disbarred given his behavior — and not on the players since at that moment Nifong had produced zero evidence of their guilt. He never did produce any evidence at all which is why the charges had to be dropped.

Now, of course, the defenders of the right and the white are screaming that the lives of the three indicted players have been ruined. Surely, they were treated unfairly by Nifong and by Duke. Just as surely Duke — which is so flush it has more money than it knows what to do with — should pay every penny of their legal expenses. But their lives aren’t ruined. In fact, to some they will now be heroic martyrs. Doors will open for them because of who they are, and because they were unjustly accused.

Let’s not make them into heroes. They were still part of a group of kids that was out of control and never have they shown any remorse for anything other than the fact that they were facing rape charges. No one from the lacrosse team has ever said, “okay, maybe we went too far with our partying at times.” Remember one team member was also accused of a gay-bashing crime in Washington and another sent out a hateful, threatening e-mail in the wake of the arrests. (emphasis mine)

The larger point is this: the white guys aren’t always right and neither are the black guys. In the Duke case, the truth clearly lies in the middle: no one on either side covered themselves with any glory.

There is much to condemn in Feinstein’s piece. A Duke University report authored by the respected law professor James Coleman did not present a picture of the out-of-control team, as it refuted the "jocks running wild" stereotype that Feinstein gives. We know now that there was only one racial remark, and that was an unindicted player responding to a vile racial remark by one of the dancers in which he gave a line from a Chris Rock routine: "Thank your grandfather for my nice cotton shirt." Second, Collin Finnerty was convicted of assault in a Washington, D.C. courtroom under very questionable circumstances and no one there, including the accuser, said anything about someone being a homosexual. This "gay bashing" quote is something that the press literally made up.

(The conviction later was vacated as more information came to light. Finnerty has been on the butt end of a lot of character assassination for that incident, and all it takes is the requisite five minutes to find out what happened, as opposed to what people like Feinstein claim to have happened.)

As for the "vile" email, it was written not in the wake of arrests — yet another piece of very sloppy Feinstein "research" — but after the party, and it was a joke, not a threat. I have dealt with the Ryan McFayden email in another piece that explains what really happened.

Perhaps it would be too much to ask of reporters from the New York Times and columnists like Harvey Araton, Selena Roberts, and John Feinstein to do even basic research before publishing stories. Indeed, they take the other approach, that they are above having to do research like other people who may have to get their hands a bit grubby before firing away in print. The tip-off here is that they rarely return emails to anyone who criticizes them, and their "we are untouchable" attitudes define their work.