Trial by newspaper: The Times and the rape case.

Media criticism.
April 20 2006 7:31 PM

Trial by Newspaper

The New York Times and the Duke rape case.

In the time-honored institution of trial-by-newspaper, the press collects and examines evidence, obtains testimony, and often issues between-the-lines judgments on the guilt or innocence of the accused months before many high-profile cases go to a jury.

The fairness of a trial-by-newspaper, of course, depends on how closely a news organization apes the practices of official courts. Fairness requires it to consider not only the statements and evidence of the accuser, but that of the accused, no matter how heinous the charge. By that measure, the New York Times has failed the two Duke University lacrosse players who were indicted Tuesday of raping a woman during a party in an off-campus house on March 13.

The Times began its coverage of the Duke case on March 29 with a Page One article and has returned to the story almost 20 times since. The Times initially framed the story as one about not only rape but about town-and-gown hostilities in Durham, N.C., about the privilege enjoyed by Duke students, about the thuggish tendencies of lacrosse players, and about race. The accuser is black and attends a nearby state university. All but one of the Duke players is white.

Although it published the blanket denials from the players, avowing that they broke no law the night the woman, an exotic dancer, was hired to entertain, the Times gave shorter shrift to the exculpatory evidence defense lawyers have been piping to news organizations since at least April 8. On that date, the Durham Herald-Sunreported on the Web that Bill Thomas, a lawyer for one of the players who hasn't been charged, said time-stamped photographs of the accuser contradicted her story about being raped, strangled, and beaten by three team members. The Times reported on the photographic alibis in its April 10 edition but did not return to the subject until today, April 20.

Meanwhile, the North Carolina press and cable TV news, most notably MSNBC's The Abrams Report, have relied on the defense lawyers' comments to establish a timeline that casts doubts on the accuser. Last night (April 19), Abrams aired some of the photos after the defense lawyers distributed them. (Abrams graduated from Duke  in 1988.)

The Times' migration toward a fair trial began April 11, when it couldn't avoid reporting the defense attorneys' annoucement that the prosecution's DNA tests had failed to link any of the 46 players tested to the woman. Compared to the initial coverage, today's Times story (cited above) reads almost like a brief in support of defendant Reade Seligmann.

Something untoward happened to the accuser on March 13, but exactly what that something is I can't tell from the Times trial of the Duke students.I'm prepared for the prosecution to shred the lacrosse players' evidence and convict one or more of them, but if I were casting my ballot based on the press coverage to date, I couldn't vote guilty.

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Here's a question I don't have an answer for: The Times has avoided reporting the fact that the dancer was hired from an "escort service," which the Washington Post, the Associated Press, the Raleigh News & Observer, and other many other publications have thought pertinent. What do you think? Send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.