Editor Bill Keller Defends His Paper's Shoddy Duke Rape Hoax Coverage

Executive Editor Bill Keller says criticism of his paper's coverage of the Duke lacrosse case has "in some instances been unfair to the point of hysteria." But former Public Editor Daniel Okrent thinks the Times should apologize.

The Duke lacrosse "rape" hoax refuses to fade away, no doubt to the chagrin of Times Executive Editor Bill Keller.

The Times features prominently in a comprehensive article by Rachel Smolkin in an upcoming edition of the American Journalism Review. Smolkin's long piece is a week-to-week dissection of the credulous media coverage given to false rape charges by a stripper against three Duke lacrosse players. Smolkin talked to former Times public editor Daniel Okrent, who was critical of his paper's coverage at the time and remains so.

After blaming out-of-control Durham District Attorney Michael Nifong (who resigned his post and was disbarred for ethics violations in his handling of the case), Smolkin turned fire on a media all too eager to fit the story into a comforting liberal template of black-on-white, rich-on-poor, privileged athlete vs. working class mom.

"But the media deserve a public reckoning, too, a remonstrance for coverage that - albeit with admirable exceptions - all too eagerly embraced the inflammatory statements of a prosecutor in the midst of a tough election campaign. Fueled by Nifong, the media quickly latched onto a narrative too seductive to check: rich, wild, white jocks had brutalized a working class, black mother of two.

"'It was too delicious a story,' says Daniel Okrent, a former New York Times public editor, who is critical of the Times' coverage and that of many other news organizations. ' It conformed too well to too many preconceived notions of too many in the press: white over black, rich over poor, athletes over non-athletes, men over women, educated over non-educated. Wow. That's a package of sins that really fit the preconceptions of a lot of us.'"

Keller defended his paper against critics of the story: "Times Executive Editor Bill Keller says criticism of his paper's performance has 'in some instances been unfair to the point of hysteria.' But he also says, 'I think we were a little slow to get traction on the story, frankly. Partly we were slow figuring out who had custody of the story: sports, national, investigative. It took us awhile to get specific people focused on this as their responsibility.'"

Without naming names, Keller obliquely criticized two sports columnists, Selena Roberts and Harvey Araton, who threw out the presumption of innocence while railing against white privilege.

"New York Times columnist Selena Roberts railed against the 'code of silence' that same day, declaring, 'At the intersection of entitlement and enablement, there is Duke University, virtuous on the outside, debauched on the inside...a group of privileged players of fine pedigree entangled in a night that threatens to belie their social standing as human beings.'

"Keller says assessing morality 'taught and practiced in the theater of college athletics' is a fair subject for sports columnists. But without naming specific columnists - the Times' Harvey Araton also jumped in to upbraid the women's lacrosse team for writing 'innocent' on their sweatbands - Keller says, 'I did think, and I told the columnists, that there was a tendency in a couple of places to moralize before the evidence was all in, and not to give adequate weight to the presumption of innocence....As a generalization, I'm not dismissive of the people who think that what appeared in the sports columns kind of contributed to a sense that the Times declared these guys guilty. I think that's a false impression, but I can understand where people got it.'"

Times Watch criticized Roberts' and Araton's inflammatory smears of the innocent Duke players.

Smolkin eventually focused on the Times story that garnered the most notoriety and criticism, the front-page, 5,600-word article on August 25, 2006 by Duff Wilson and Jonathan Glater.

"Although the Times' August story depicted a troubled investigation, overwrought summary graphs inflated Nifong's case and downplayed his blunders: 'By disclosing pieces of evidence favorable to the defendants, the defense has created an image of a case heading for the rocks,' the story said. 'But an examination of the entire 1,850 pages of evidence gathered by the prosecution in the four months after the accusation yields a more ambiguous picture. It shows that while there are big weaknesses in Mr. Nifong's case, there is also a body of evidence to support his decision to take the matter to a jury.'

"Wilson and Glater relied heavily on exclusive access to 33 pages of typed notes and three pages of handwritten notes by Mark D. Gottlieb, the police sergeant supervising the investigation. Joseph B. Cheshire, an attorney for Evans, was quoted calling the belatedly filed report a 'make-up document.' Cheshire said Gottlieb told defense lawyers that he took few handwritten notes and relied on his memory and other officers' notes.

"But elsewhere in the article, the journalists described those notes without skepticism. After detailing serious discrepancies between the accuser's description of the suspects in Gottlieb's notes and those of another officer, Benjamin W. Himan, the Times story stated, 'The difference in the police accounts could not be explained.' It added that Gottlieb 'is by far the more experienced' of the two."

One of the few reporters who got the story right couldn't believe the Times' treatment: "Joe Neff, a News & Observer investigative reporter who lives in Durham, read the Times' story with surprise. Neff has specialized in documenting prosecutorial misconduct; Editor Melanie Sill credits his work in a death-row case for helping to bring about the state law that requires prosecutors to share all of their evidence with defense attorneys.

"Neff had seen Gottlieb's notes before his August 6 story but could not convince his source to let him report on them. 'I was really struck that [the Times reporters] used this report that I had seen, but they used it basically 180 degrees from how I was planning to use it,' Neff says. 'The discrepancy between Himan's description [of the suspects] and Gottlieb's description was irreconcilable.'

"Neff was one of a handful of journalists who dug deep into the evidence - some publicly available, some shared confidentially by sources - to debunk Nifong's case. These journalists bucked the pack and burrowed beneath an enticing narrative to raise questions about the rush to judgment against the lacrosse players. "

Smolkin wasn't done with columnist Selena Roberts: "In a mystifying March 25, 2007, column, the New York Times' Selena Roberts opined, 'A dismissal doesn't mean forget everything. Amnesia would be a poor defense to the next act of athlete privilege.'"

Former Public Editor Okrent chided Keller's cavalier treatment of the Times' botched reporting: "Keller says media organizations should press forward with 'more, better reporting,' and cites a front-page story by David Barstow and Wilson that appeared December 23, the day after Nifong dropped rape charges. The article included admissions Nifong made in a three-hour interview two days earlier, including his acknowledgment that DNA results he kept from the defense were 'potentially exculpatory.'

"To Daniel Okrent, simply continuing to report is not enough. 'The one thing I'm quite certain I didn't see was an apology, which is certainly not one of the acts that the American media are particularly good at,' the former Times public editor says. 'It's a matter of media organizations owning up to their responsibility, and when they do something wrong, they should acknowledge that they do something wrong.'

"Okrent envisions a mea culpa - an editor's note, a front-page article, perhaps an 'appearance on a platform in Times Square'-that would say, candidly: ' "We blew it. We're sorry. We accept responsibility for having blown it." '

Case expert and history professor K.C. Johnson isn't satisfied with Keller's casual response.