Monday, September 25, 2006

Duke lacrosse: Custom, interest, and the pursuit of truth

Like the Plame/Wilson case, the Duke lacrosse travesty presents us with a legal case in which the MSM is both chronicler and secret-keeper. While they tout the public’s “right to know” as they try to unseal court records and publish salacious minutia, they also hide important information from public when it serves their interest or ideology.

Crystal Mess highlights a serious example of this at the Raleigh News and Observer. On 25 March, the N&O ran a sympathetic piece on the escort at the center of the case. They included excerpts from an interview she gave their reporter. The N&O admitted that they applied an interesting bit of news judgment in reporting her statements:

[Managing Editor Linda] Williams said editors and the reporter discussed the fairness issue at length before interviewing the woman and publishing the story. The governing decision, she said, was to print only information from the interview that conformed with the police reports. "We limited for publication the statements from the woman that were in line with what she said in the police report," Williams said. Other information from the interview has not been published.
We now know that the accuser has given contradictory statements to police and other investigators. What the N&O has not told us is what contradictory statements she gave their reporters.

Nor has the N&O revisited that interview in light of their own subsequent reporting. In the 25 march interview, the accuser claimed that she was nervous the night of the lax party because she had never danced in front of a large group before. She stated that she had only recently gone to work as a dancer and had only done a few one on one performances.

The accuser had worked for an escort company for two months, doing one-on-one dates about three times a week."It wasn't the greatest job," she said, her voice trailing off. But with two children, and a full class load at N.C. Central University, it paid well and fit her schedule.This was the first time she had been hired to dance provocatively for a group, she said.
The N&O did an interview with one of her drivers that calls this into question. He told the paper that he had seen the accuser dancing at two strip clubs in the Raleigh area. In addition, the police have statements that indicate that the accuser had six one-on-one motel “dates” on the weekend prior to the lax party.

As Crystal Mess writes, it is time for the News and Observer to stop hiding what they know.

This N&O cover-up is an extreme example. The more common form of the problem grows out of the MSM’s love of unnamed sources. They get the best nuggets when their source knows they will remain anonymous. But their custom of protecting those sources also makes it easier for leakers to lie and dissemble. (See here.)

For example, DA Nifong now piously claims that he cannot discuss the case because indictments were handed up. Yet there were leaks from the prosecution long after the indictments of Seligman and Finerty. For example, someone showed their files to the New York Times reporters for their recent pro-Nifong story. Someone tipped reporters to the partial DNA “match” from the second round of testing before the documents were handed over to the defense.

The MSM is letting the DA and DPD get away with dishonest spin. Publicly they claim they cannot discuss the case. Off the record they feed reporters information. In essence the customs of the MSM guild (protect anonymous sources) allows public officials to lie.

Ruth Sheehan gave us a small but revealing example of how this guild custom leads to intellectual laziness and professional corruption. She had mocked bloggers for questioning the arrest of cab driver Moezeldin Elmostafa. When the trial showed that the case was as weak as bloggers said, she backpedaled and tossed out a weak justification:

Before the trial, word was that the "aided and abetted" shoplifter in the case would testify against Elmo. Also, the authorities had a security tape proving Elmo's involvement.

Let's just say that neither one panned out.

The shoplifter never testified. And the tape? Well, that was like going live with Geraldo Rivera when he opened Al Capone's vault: There was nothing there.
Instead of showing a cab speeding away from the scene of a crime, the tape showed the shoplifter hiding her bags behind her hip, then getting in the backseat and closing the door. Then the cab pulled away from the curb

“Word was”. What she really means is that sources inside of Nifong’s office and the DPD provided misleading information about their evidence. Is she outraged about that? No, she is more concerned with saving face in her tussle with the blogosphere. Besides, if she was too hard on those prosecution sources the N&O might miss out on some of those photo-friendly perp walks.

In criminal cases the use of unnamed sources skews the media coverage toward the prosecution. A good source in the DA’s office will give a crime beat writer a steady stream of exclusives and front page stories. Reporters have a powerful incentive to stay on good terms with those sources and avoid subjects that antagonize them. Defense sources are less useful to journalists and, hence, do not receive the same kid glove treatment.

What is good for reporters, however, is bad for the legal system. There are few checks on the power of prosecutors. The press could provide some scrutiny of their actions as they wield their enormous power. They rarely do so because they value their “exclusive” stories from anonymous sources. The public interest comes in a distant second to short-term self-interest.

See also:

Duke Lacrosse: Assessing the News Observer

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