Thursday, April 19, 2007; A27
It pales in comparison to the carnage and loss of life this week at Virginia Tech. But last week the tattered reputation of journalism in this country saw severe damage. The role of the media in the phony Duke lacrosse rape story and the Don Imus firing left large parts of the so-called establishment press embarrassed and besmirched.
The Imus story involved the worse offense, for it was wholly gratuitous. CBS Radio and MSNBC fired the millionaire talk-show host only after criticism of his foul-mouthed assault on the Rutgers women's basketball team mounted and advertisers canceled their contracts. It showed no courage on the part of those organizations, which had put up with similar slurs for years and counted themselves lucky to have such a moneymaking act in their stable.
I had never heard Imus's broadcast, because I am a longtime fan of NPR's "Morning Edition," which is on at the same time. I was stunned to learn how many of the journalists I admire had been regular guests on the program. Many are now having a hard time explaining their association.
It turned out that many of them had heard Imus ridicule and insult women, gays, African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Catholics and others. Some had been targets of his unfunny slurs and came back for more.
Their rationalizations are lame. Some said the "jokes" were just part of his exaggerated way of speaking, so they didn't take them seriously. Others said they found him a savvy, insightful interviewer, and they appreciated the time he gave them to express their thoughts. And some were honest enough to say that they valued his big audience, especially when they were promoting their books.
These are weak excuses for journalists' participation in this continuing offense to civility. Jokes are not jokes when they wound and humiliate. The claim that Imus's slanders were the price they had to pay in return for his providing a forum for their ideas doesn't wash. Big-name newspaper, magazine and TV journalists have no trouble finding places where they can voice their thoughts.
The simple lesson, which some stubbornly are not acknowledging, is that when professional journalists lend their credibility to entertainers or others whose standards are far lower than those of the news organizations for which those journalists work, they not only damage their credibility but also diminish the standards they are supposed to embody.
The Duke story -- the supposed gang-rape of a black woman by three white lacrosse players -- is more complex. The woman turned out to be unreliable, and the prosecutor persisted despite weaknesses in the case and even withheld evidence in order to bring charges. Now the charges have been dismissed, leaving the accused students to try to repair their reputations.
Rereading some of the coverage of the case is a painful journey into journalistic excess -- and one-sidedness. Early on, before charges had even been filed, Selena Roberts, a fine sportswriter at the New York Times, wrote that "players have been forced to give up their DNA, but to the dismay of investigators, none have come forward to reveal an eyewitness account." The reason, she said, is that "the stigma as a traitor -- and the threat of repercussion and isolation -- is more powerful than the instinct to do what's right, a pattern perpetuated on every level of sports, from prep to pro."
The real reason, it turns out, was that the rape story was concocted and the lacrosse players were telling the truth when they said no such crime occurred.
The Times was not alone. In The Post, reporter Lynne Duke wrote a story that began: "She was black, they were white, and race and sex were in the air. But whatever actually happened that March 13 night at Duke University -- both the reported rape and its surrounding details are hotly disputed -- it appears at least that the disturbing historic script of the sexual abuse of black women was playing out inside that lacrosse team house party."
It was playing out, too, in the pages of newsmagazines and in newspaper columns and editorials, all with the usual brief mention that no one had yet been convicted. But the claims of innocence that were made from the beginning were given little weight.
Now we know better. But how often do we have to relearn the lesson that leaks from prosecutors can be biased and unfair?
When will we start to think about the people who are hurt by our coverage? And when will we take our responsibilities seriously?