Twelve years ago today, three varsity lacrosse players at Duke University were cleared of sexual assault charges by a North Carolina attorney general who was visibly outraged at the injustice done to the young men.
Speaking for the players’ families, defense lawyer Joseph Cheshire said simply, “We’re angry — very angry — but we are very relieved.” One of the exonerated lacrosse players, 24-year-old David Evans of Bethesda, Md., who’d graduated from Duke one day before being indicted by a publicity-happy prosecutor, told reporters: “We went to hell and back.”
Among the crowd present on April 11, 2007, were representatives of media outlets that had made the students’ ordeal much worse. You might have thought in the aftermath that the press would take stock of its own role in fueling the frenzy in Durham. Tragically, that did not happen.
* * *
Once upon a time, American journalism had an unofficial career ladder. Typically, a cub reporter was assigned to follow the cops and the fire department – the “police beat,” it was called — and from there, with luck, got promoted to general assignment reporting or to cover the criminal courts. Under the watchful eyes of experienced editors, the next progression might be city hall, and then — given enough aptitude and hard work — political reporting, perhaps the state capital, and finally the Washington bureau.
Most of that tradition and infrastructure is gone now, a casualty of a broken business model and a journalism model that rewards clickbait over careful reporting. Medium-sized newspapers — some of them in big markets — only have skeletal reporting staffs these days. Similar pressures have gutted broadcast outlets, while internet journalism has allowed some ambitious young practitioners to hang out a shingle without paying any dues.
Yes, such complaints have a fuddy-duddy quality to them. And it’s also true that the old system had flaws — and had begun to fray before online journalism ever became a thing. The Janet Cooke scandal happened nearly four decades ago when newspapers were essentially printing presses generating millions of dollars in profits every month. Stephen Glass was the product of a magazine system that was supposed to catch minor errors, let alone serial fabulists. Although Jayson Blair was hired basically right out of college by The New York Times, the editors who recruited him had come up the old-fashioned way. While we’re talking about the Times, Walter Duranty was covering up for Stalin’s genocide three decades before the computer chip was invented.
Those caveats aside, my worry is that a generation of journalists has come of age lacking the requisite experience and without being taught how to put aside their biases and value empirical data instead. And without learning the tools of the trade to help them detect obvious b.s. What was done to the falsely accused Duke lacrosse players, in other words, constituted journalistic malfeasance.
Certainly, others were to blame as well. With the exception of law professor James Coleman, Duke’s faculty and administration debased themselves. Disbarred former prosecutor Mike Nifong — and the police officers and crime lab technicians who hid exculpatory evidence — were fortunate they weren’t sent to the penitentiary.
Most disturbing, though, was the conduct of the media. Cable television led the stampede to the bottom, as it often does, but it was joined by a chorus of supposedly respectable news organizations, including the New York Times. Time-honored concepts such as innocent until proven guilty, skepticism of election-year political posturing, checking facts, waiting for the evidence — all this was subsumed in an orgy of class bias and racial profiling.
“The [Duke] case,” wrote journalist Stuart Taylor Jr. and history professor KC Johnson, “shows the need for editors and watchdogs to remind journalists that they are supposed to be in the truth-telling business and that truth emerges from facts and evidence.”
A dozen years later, the hoaxes keep coming, with once-venerable news organizations often leading the mob. And we can’t blame that on Donald Trump.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.