Eat The Press

Newsweek has an exclusive interview this week with Reade Seligmann, one of the three Duke lacrosse players embroiled in the much-rehashed rape case. It's a tear-jerker of a piece, with tales of dashed innocence, traumatized siblings and parents stretched to near breaking points after their son was identified by a North Carolina stripper as one of her attackers. We learn that the exiled Seligmann, still an undergraduate, has been permitted to finish his academic semester at home, where he's since made the athletic-conference honor roll, volunteered at a soup kitchen and coached football at his old junior high school. To deal with the stress and depression of the scandal, Seligmann, who was reportedly recognized and offered good wishes by one of the soup kitchen's homeless patrons, turns to Kipling poems and close friendships with his fellow accuseds (Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans) for solace, and plans to eventually channel the experience into a career as a criminal defense lawyer.

While journalist Susannah Meadows is careful not to make proclamations of innocence, the sympathetic profile represents a full 180-degree turn from the fire-and-brimstone declarations that dominated the scandal's early coverage. The story, which broke last April, led to a cannonade of anger over the alleged rape of a low-income black woman by three privileged white men in a town known for heavy class and race disparities. Public furor grew as witnesses recounted racist expletives hurled at the women by Duke students, and the subsequent resignation of the school's lacrosse coach and cancellation of the lacrosse season only deepened cries of outrage. The New York Times in partcular was charged with pushing an anti-Duke agenda, with articles highlighting the university's fears over its sullied reputation and columns asking hedged questions like "What happens when a school sells its soul for sports?"

Gradually, the pendulum began to swing back as reports of lack of evidence, botched investigations and prosecutorial and police misconduct hit the airwaves. Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong came under fire as his self-declared air-tight case against the three men crumbled into a soupy quagmire of inept investigations and shaky-to-nonexistent evidence. Times columnist David Brooks, who initially grabbed a pitchfork in the anti-frat-boy charge, was offering mea culpas by the end of May, and in August the Times ran a 5,600-word front page reassessment of the case. The story was quickly shredded by angry bloggers and other writers crying foul over the Times' supposed bias against the students.

October brought further redemption for the defendants in the form of Ed Bradley's "60 Minutes" interview.

The three were now described in terms like "honor student" and "one of most talented young players on the team," and given the opportunity to defend themselves on national TV. While the piece didn't lay out much evidence not already covered in the Times' Page One story, it emphasized the fact that a question now existed as to whether a rape had ever occurred. Legal analysts declared the interview a "great idea," and speculated that it may even lead to all charges being dropped.

Three months later the tide has officially turned, with reports of Finnerty and Seligmann being invited back to campus and given the chance to rejoin the lacrosse team while they await trial. Meanwhile the accuser has given birth to a baby (not sired by any of the defendants), and had her credibility heavily eroded. Reports that the rape (but not the kidnapping or sexual assault ) charges had been dropped led to bizarre debates over the definition of "penetration" as necessary for rape in North Carolina, with journalists rushing to specify that penetration of the accuser's vagina by a penis, rather than a mere object such as a broom handle, was the fact at issue.

Now, MSNBC legal analyst Susan Filan asks "What's left to say in the Duke rape case?" (plenty, apparently, given that the piece is almost 2,000 words). In addition to her lamentations over the failure of the justice system, there's much to be said about the media's role in manipulating the scandal, from the early rush to cover Nifong's guilty-before-proven-innocent speeches to broadcasting photos of the victim on MSNBC and a North Carolina NBC affiliate to subsequent calls for the D.A.'s head on a platter. It's clear that early judgments were based on incorrect or inaccurate information, and that these students have been potentially maligned and their futures damaged by the court of media and public opinion. Still, Filan's calling them potential "poster boys for justice" and "icon[s] for our criminal justice system" seems somewhat premature given that their case has yet to be heard by a court of law. While plenty has been terribly wrong with the investigation, prosecution and coverage of the alleged incident at Duke, as law professor Susan Estrich, who reported on the case for Fox News, said in August (which still holds true, until a jury decides otherwise), "[n]one of this means the woman is lying." As with all criminal cases, the burden of proof lies firmly, and beyond a reasonable doubt, on the state. While the media is obviously not so constrained, it behooves us all to use reasonable care in making wide proclamations of guilt - or innocence.

Update: In a 180 consistent with others linked in this post, Estrich has since changed her position on the accuser, stating on Jan. 1 that "[t]he woman is a liar." Further proof that the media has not been constrained by the as-yet-undetermined judgment of the judicial system in bringing its own verdict on the case.

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