Duke lacrosse scandal

Blogger note: There has been a lot of discussion with the Duke lacrosse story in my journalism class, and I used it as an example of poor editorial decisions in my final professional ethics case study presentation. I wrote a paper for Dr. Farrell about the whole situation. We had the opportunity to hear former Durham Herald-Sun editor Bob Ashley speak last week. This essay is about his speech and an article we read. Overall I think Ashley’s actions are a disgrace and his presentation was nothing more than a cover up.

It’s all in this essay, which you can choose to read or not. But Dr. Farrell seemed to like it (97 percent and he wrote, “This is excellent Brad.” I’m pretty proud of that because I have been struggling in that class.) I hope you can enjoy and maybe even learning something in this essay. Enjoy.

Despite no evidence against the Duke lacrosse team, the entire country pursued them as guilty of raping a stripper at a party. If Durham is what Bob Ashley explained as “a preview for what America is becoming,” then what should we make of the media’s actions in handling this situation?

Should we expect more of what former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent calls “delicious stories,” concocted up from a city’s near even mix of black and white and a higher percentage of other minorities? Will there be more stories of “white over black, rich over poor, athletes over non-athletics, men over women, educated over non-educated?”

I hope not. What I hope to see in the future of journalism is getting back to the basics. What Rachel Smolkin identified as journalism’s most basic tenets: Be fair; stick to the facts; question authorities; don’t assume; pay attention to alternative explanations.

I’m not sure that any one was a good example of journalism in this case, especially not in the beginning. In Smolkin’s article she points out what I consider to be disgusting illustrations of coverage. It is a dark day in the media when Nancy Grace’s message is synonymous with an LA Times headline. Grace judges the team’s suspension in just as tasteless a manner as the huge newspaper. “Lax environment; Duke lacrosse scandal reinforces a growing sense that college sports are out of control, fueled by pampered athletes with a sense of entitlement,” said the headline.

What seems to be most evident after reading Smolkin’s article and hearing the Herald-Sun Editor-in-Chief speak last Wednesday is that journalists hold everyone accountable but themselves. The excuses are overflowing in the 16 page article by Smolkin, and in an hour and a half of listening to Bob Ashley there was never anything more than the blame-game. Even in Smolkin’s article, Ashley addressed the Herald-Sun’s coverage as pretty good.

Pretty good isn’t good enough. If journalism is holding others accountable then the journalists are liable as well. It was not the case that journalists accepted their mistakes in this case. If this were so there would have been 16 pages of justifications and most importantly, apologies. I hate to see newspapers apologize when they have made a good decision, because caving in and apologizing for the truth isn’t what the job is. But it seems there were few or no good decisions, so an apology could have been justified. It’s also not our job to play God and decide for the community the outcome of incomplete court cases. Instead of taking responsibility and saying “We made a mistake,” journalism pointed fingers and said why they were misled when making their decisions.

“I think we were a little slow to get traction on the story, frankly,” said New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller. “Partly we were slow figuring out who had custody of the story: sports, national, investigative. It took us a while to get specific people focused on this as their responsibility.”

As an editor of a newspaper, especially a paper as relied upon in this country as the Times, your initial job isn’t to figure out what section this story will go to or whether or not to attack a story with investigative reporting. It is best to do your reporting, get your story and then you can decide where, if at all, to run the story. It shouldn’t be an issue of how big or where to play a story when deciding how to report.

After Ashley’s presentation at the library it seemed there were as many questions after as before, if not more. Ashley said in Smolkin’s article and at the lecture that he felt the Herald-Sun did a good job with what they had. But in an editorial that ran in the paper on March 28, 2006, the paper said, “There’s no question the student-athletes were probably guilty of all the usual offenses­­—underage drinking, loud partying, obnoxious behavior. But the allegations of rape bring the students’ arrogant frat-boy culture to a whole new, sickening level.”

In the 16 pages of Smolkin’s article and over 2 pages of notes from the lecture, nowhere is there any evidence that the paper had anything to justify such accusations. “Those animals reportedly kicked her around like a dog,” said a column in the paper. Who was this reported by? If by the national media then you can call the Herald-Sun lazy for not doing their own reporting in their town. If it was by them then their reporting was faulty. Even if this was a column, it was still libelous material considering the event never happened. This doesn’t sound like a “pretty good job.”

Ashley, who is in charge of the editorial page, takes defense in that their judgments were right and that it was important for the judicial system to handle this case, rather than the bloggers and network pundits. But editorials that say there is no question of the amount of guilt before the judicial system has decided to put themselves on the same level as the bloggers journalists have been condemning since the uprise of the Internet and downfall of the print age.

It seems that Ashley’s formula answers are the same no matter the question. Despite what is seen as a “miscarriage of justice” Ashley holds his ground that the paper made the right decisions no matter the question. In Smolkin’s article, the lecture and in the E-mail this reporter had to send to get an answer for the one question floating after it all, all answers seemed nearly rehearsed. My lingering question for Bob Ashley:

“You said your competitor, the News and Observer, had information that you had not yet seen and that’s why their coverage was better. While I still say that no one’s coverage was actually good, you could hold that one paper’s was better than another. But you were reading those stories, and seeing that they had something you didn’t. Journalism is a competitive business, so it seems that after one or two days of seeing that you were getting beat, you would have asked the defense to see this “missing evidence.” Why didn’t this happen in the Herald-Sun’s case?”

Ashley’s answer is nearly word for word to a quote in Smolkin’s article on page 7. Exact quote from the E-mail:

“Of course we asked to see more evidence, and yes, journalism is a competetive business. In fact, we beat the competiton on many stories, and they beat us on many. We had more success with some sources, and they had more success with some.”

To Smolkin’s request of an assessment of his newspaper, Ashley replied: “Overall, I thought it was pretty good. We were operating in a very difficult environment with media from all over the country…It was pretty much down the middle and pretty thorough. We got beat on some stories I wish we’d had first, but we beat others…on some others.”

This quote was given nearly a year ago. It seems Ashley has not learned from what was a mistake. According to a Nexis search, even Nancy Grace has learned her lesson, as she had not reported on the case once in the year prior to this article.

Daniel Okrent suggested apologies from the media. Front page apologies from the editors, like Bob Ashley, that says, “We blew it.” While few apologies were noted according to Smolkin, the overall effort to fix the damage of this witch-hunt has been minimal.

Apologies come from the realization of a mistake. If the media have not apologized, can we assume that nothing was learned from the Duke lacrosse mishandle? While I do hope the journalism community has learned a lesson, I can attribute Editor-in-Chief Bob Ashley’s reactions for me believing we haven’t.

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