Whenever I have given talks about the Duke lacrosse case, I usually have noted that removing bylines would lead most readers to guess that it was the Duke Chronicle articles that were produced by the paper of record, and the New York Times’ by a university newspaper. I always have remarked that this student newspaper was the sole publication that had nothing for which it needed to apologize in its coverage of the case.
That claim no longer is tenable, after an embarrassing—and, in light of the 30 for 30 documentary, spectacularly ill-timed—recollection of the Group of 88 by Neelesh Morthy. I normally refrain from sharp criticism of a student newspaper’s articles. But this highly revisionist piece—entitled “Misreading ‘A Social Disaster’”—was so poorly done (and so remarkably uncurious about what its subjects told the reporter) that it deserves comment, especially given the Chronicle’s previous high standards on the case.
Morthy interviewed four members of the Group, two of the Group’s faculty critics (Steve Baldwin and Roy Weintraub), and one of the Group’s faculty defenders (Jim Coleman). To one of the Group members—presumably a tenured professor, given the passage of time between 2006 and now—Morthy granted anonymity. Thus protected, the anonymous Group member proceeded to claim that he or she offered to pay bail for an accused student. The bail for the falsely accused players was $400,000. (Did a Group member really have hundreds of thousands of dollars laying around in the spring of 2006?) The never-before-seen claim was so remarkable that I assumed Morthy tried to verify it with the falsely accused players or their attorneys. Yet his article did not refer to a request for comment.
So I e-mailed Morthy to ask. The first response thanked me for offering “suggestions” if Morthy decided to “follow-up [sic] on the topic.” The e-mail had made clear it was asking a question, not offering suggestions for an additional article that surely would never appear. When I again asked whether he had sought comment from any of the falsely accused players or their lawyers before printing the claim that a Group member offered to put up a $400,000 bail, Morthy replied, “I decline to comment.”
Declining to comment about performing a basic journalistic task isn’t a good look for the Chronicle.
At least one section of the article left it unclear whether Morthy had even read the Group’s ad. He chatted with Christine Beaule, who has left Duke to teach at the University of Hawai’i. (Beaule, who is at least the tenth Group member to get another academic job, gushed that her current institution, as the reporter paraphrased, “has more respect for minorities, less sense of entitlement and that racist statements are not used as loosely as she sometimes found at Duke.”) Beaule informed Morthy that, “With all due respect to The Chronicle, it’s not an important place to promote a message. It was just another space.”
Yet the statement itself said something entirely different—that the Group members placed the ad in the Chronicle because they considered it “the most easily seen venue on campus.” Morthy’s article provided no indication that he asked Beaule (a former writing instructor!) about this contradiction. Instead, he just passed along her misleading statement. And since the copy of the ad accompanying the article (at least on the Chronicle’s website) was too small to see clearly, readers could not easily check.
Morthy also spoke with Alex Rosenberg, consistently one of the Group’s most defiant members. In 2006, Rosenberg was outspoken in his criticism of Reade Seligmann; he told me that fall that he was “ashamed” of Seligmann. Rosenberg informed Morthy, however, that “[Seligmann] didn’t seem the kind of person who would be guilty of a violent crime.” What explains this remarkable shift of opinion? Why didn’t Rosenberg communicate this sentiment in 2006, when it might have made a difference? Morthy seemed uninterested in exploring such issues.
While a sharp critic of Mike Nifong, Jim Coleman also has been defending the Group almost since the day the criminal aspect came to a close (Nifong’s criminal contempt hearing). He did so again in his Chronicle interview; Morthy paraphrased him as musing that the statement “had no impact whatsoever on the case or on Nifong’s improper conduct.” No prominent critic of the Group ever claimed that the Group had an impact on Nifong’s misconduct, so Coleman was left to argue against a straw man. On the first point (as Coleman, if not Morthy, surely knew), the ad negatively influenced local opinion to such an extent that it played a prominent role in the accused students’ motion to change venue—perhaps the first time in American history in which college students cited their own professors’ words as grounds for taking a trial out of the university’s town. Did Coleman’s remarks to Morthy suggest that the Duke Law professor was prepared to file an amicus brief on Nifong’s behalf if the change-of-venue motion had gone before Judge Smith? Yet another question the Chronicle left unexplored.
Morthy’s . . . unusual . . . approach to journalism seemed in service of portraying the Group of 88 statement as a generalized response to racism or sexism, but not a rush to judgment on the case. (“It wasn’t about the kids at all,” assured Beaule.) Though Group members have been advancing such a claim for years, it’s rather hard to do so—since in the cover e-mail soliciting signatures, Wahneema Lubiano described the statement as “about the lacrosse team incident.” [emphasis added] Morthy disposes of this problem by not mentioning Lubiano’s cover e-mail in his article.
Even so, the actual wording of the ad renders Morthy’s “misreading” framing absurd. The Group affirmed, in their own words, that something “happened” to false accuser Crystal Mangum. And they expressed their thanks—“for not waiting”—to the protesters that swarmed the campus in late March 2006. The highest-profile of these protests included the potbangers (who advocated the captains’ castration), the “open-mike” protests (which featured speakers, wearing t-shirts, presuming guilt), and the “Take Back the Night” protest (which saw the distribution of the “wanted” posters).
Morthy gets around this inconvenient problem of the statement’s own language by not mentioning either of these clauses in his article. I asked him why. The response? “I decline to comment.”
Alas, Morthy’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Three days after his article appeared came the 30 for 30 documentary, whose opening section contained length video of the protesters who the Group of 88 thanked, publicly, for not waiting. Did Morthy—and the Group members who spoke to him—somehow hope that ESPN would cancel the documentary before it was broadcast?
Morthy, of course, cannot be faulted for multiple current and former Duke professors misleading him in an attempt to whitewash their performance in the lacrosse case. He can, however, be faulted for seeming to view his role as (at best) an uncurious stenographer. It’s a shame to see the Chronicle lower its standards and sacrifice its strong record on the case in a futile effort to redeem the Group’s reputation.