Witness for the Prosecution?
The New York Times is still victimizing innocent Dukies.
Imagine you are the world's most powerful newspaper and you have invested your credibility in yet another story line that is falling apart, crumbling as inexorably as Jayson Blair's fabrications and the flawed reporting on Saddam Hussein's supposed WMD. What to do?
If you're the New York Times and the story is the alleged gang rape of a black woman by three white Duke lacrosse players—a claim shown by mounting evidence to be almost certainly fraudulent—you tone down your rhetoric while doing your utmost to prop up a case that's been almost wholly driven by prosecutorial and police misconduct.
And by bad journalism. Worse, perhaps, than the other recent Times embarrassments. The Times still seems bent on advancing its race-sex-class ideological agenda, even at the cost of ruining the lives of three young men who ithas reason to know are very probably innocent. This at a time when many other true believers in the rape charge, such as feminist law professor Susan Estrich, have at last seen through the prosecution's fog of lies and distortions.
The Times took its stand in a 5,600-word, Page One reassessment of the caseon Aug. 25, written by Duff Wilson, a sportswriter responsible for much of the paper's previous one-sided coverage, and Jonathan Glater. The headline was "Files From Duke Rape Case Give Details But No Answers."
Like the headline, the piece cultivates a meretricious appearance of balance. But its flaws are so glaring that it was shredded by bloggers within hours after it hit my doorstep. They were led by a Durham group called Liestoppers and by KC Johnson, an obscure but brilliant New York City history professor of centrist political views. Johnson alone has produced more insightful (if sometimes one-sided) analysis and commentary on the Duke case—about 60,000 words—than all the nation's newspapers combined.
The Wilson-Glater piece highlights every superficially incriminating piece of evidence in the case, selectively omits important exculpatory evidence, and reports hotly disputed statements by not-very-credible police officers and the mentally unstable accuser as if they were established facts. With comical credulity, it features as its centerpiece a leaked, transparently contrived, 33-page police sergeant's memo that seeks to paper over some of the most obvious holes in the prosecution's evidence.
This memo was concocted from memory, nearly four months after the underlying witness interviews, by Durham police Sgt. Mark Gottlieb, the lead investigator. Gottlieb says he took no contemporaneous notes, an inexplicable and indefensible police practice. Gottlieb had drawn fire before the alleged Duke rape—perhaps unbeknownst to the Times—as a Dukie-basher who reveled in throwing kids into jail for petty drinking infractions, noise violations, and the like, sometimes with violent criminals as cellmates.
Gottlieb's memo is contradicted on critical points by the contemporaneous notes of other police officers, as well as by hospital records seeming to show that the accuser did not have the injuries Gottlieb claims to have observed. The Times blandly mentions these contradictionswhile avoiding the obvious inference that the Gottlieb memo is thus unworthy of belief.
It is almost entirely on this Gottlieb memo that the Times rests its summing-up fifth paragraph:
[A]n examination of the entire 1,850 pages of evidence gathered by the prosecution ... shows that while there are big weaknesses in [District Attorney Mike] Nifong's case, there is a body of evidence to support his decision to take the matter to a jury.
Stuart Taylor Jr. is a National Journal columnist and Newsweek contributor.
Photograph on Slate's home page of Duke University rape suspects courtesy Duke University/ZUMA Press.