Raleigh News and Observer columnist Ruth Sheehan apologizes for presuming Duke lacrosse players were guilty

How refreshing:

Members of the men’s Duke lacrosse team: I am sorry.

Surely by now you know I am sorry. I am writing these words now, and in this form, as a bookend to 13 months of Duke lacrosse coverage, my role in which started with a March 27 column that began:

“Members of the men’s Duke lacrosse team: You know. We know you know.” [Here’s the link to that column. -ST]

That was when Durham police and District Attorney Mike Nifong were describing a “wall of silence” among the men who attended the now-vaunted lacrosse party at 610 Buchanan Blvd. Nifong, now described by the state attorney general as a “rogue prosecutor,” was widely respected as solid, even understated.

Though wrong, my initial column was cheered by hundreds of readers.

Last weekend, our public editor, Ted Vaden, laid me low for that first column, and the second, which called for the firing of lacrosse coach Mike Pressler. According to Don Yeager, a former Sports Illustrated staffer who is writing a book about the case, Pressler blames me for his dismissal. I’m sorry he ended up coaching at a Division III school.

But, lest my reporting on Duke lacrosse over the course of a year be reduced to two early columns, let me remind you that I did not just throw those two Molotov cocktails and remain mute for nine months before declaring myself “naive.” My lacrosse columns numbered 14.

On April 13, 2006, two weeks after the first column, I drew comparisons between the Alleged Victim and Tawana Brawley: “If lying, take her to task.”

In June, I said it was time for a special prosecutor to step in.

And on Jan. 1, I called on Nifong to do what the attorney general finally did: drop the charges. I also acknowledged publicly how wrong I had been.

For many, that wasn’t enough. When the former players were declared innocent, I received 75 copies of my March 27 column (or parodies of it) and as many requests for an apology.

Here it is: I am sorry.

Her apology was overdue, but not as overdue as that of the NYT. The Duke Chronicle reported that the NYT’s first public editor criticized the NYT’s one-sided coverage of the lacrosse case:

“I think The Times’ coverage was heartbreaking,” said Daniel Okrent, who served as the first public editor of The Times from October 2003 to May 2005. “I understand why they jumped on the story when they did, but it showed everything that’s wrong with American journalism.”

The Chronicle also pointed out other noteable critics of the Times’ coverage:

“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,” said Jack Shafer, editor at large for Slate.com and author of several articles criticizing The Times’ coverage of the case.

After the March 29 article, The Times maintained coverage on the sports pages and inside news pages until a highly criticized 5,600-word article by Duff Wilson and Jonathan Glater ran Aug. 25 as The Times’ lead story.

In an August article for Slate.com Stuart Taylor, a columnist for the National Journal and a former Times reporter, said Wilson and Glater’s piece “highlights every superficial incriminating piece of evidence in the case, selectively omits important exculpatory evidence and reports hotly disputed statements… as if they were established facts.”

He also criticized the article for relying heavily for evidence on a 33-page report by Sgt. Mark Gottlieb and three pages of handwritten notes that had been made exclusive to The Times. Gottlieb wrote the notes after the initial investigation and told defense lawyers he was “relying… on his memory” to write a chronological report of the investigation, The Times reported.

“[It] was the worst single piece of journalism I’ve ever seen in long form in a newspaper,” Taylor said in an interview with The Chronicle. He added that many of the paper’s articles-most of which were written by Wilson-were pro-Nifong and downplayed much of the defense’s evidence.

“About the time Nifong dropped the rape charges [Dec. 22], they brought in a more serious reporter, and their coverage began to sound more like a newspaper and less like a propaganda organ for a transparently abusive prosecutor,” Taylor added.

But has their been a direct apology for the NYT itself? James Taranto writes:

But Okrent’s successor, Byron Calame, published a column this weekend in which he offered what blogger KC Johnson, a leading expert on the case, calls the “scarcely credible thesis” that the “past year’s articles generally reported both sides, and that most flaws flowed from journalistic lapses rather than ideological bias.” Johnson offers a lengthy bill of particulars, but his overall point is this:

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

The question answers itself, doesn’t it? It seems likely that the Times was engaging in some Terry Moran-style stereotyping, rationalizing that the erstwhile defendants were fair game because they were privileged jerks. But even privileged jerks are due the presumption of innocence.


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