Once the sensational Duke University rape case — with its irresistible brew of race, class, and sex — triggered the predictable media circus, an equally predictable chorus of earnest-sounding criticism began to roll in.
“This is gonna end up in the Ringling Brothers Hall of fame,” asserted attorney Avery Friedman as he pontificated about the legal issues on CNN.
“We get high-profile cases on a relatively regular basis,” Court TV anchor Catherine Crier tells the Phoenix. “And each time, the media onslaught is worse than the last.”
A blog called the Maverick Conservative wonders “how we got into this thing of trying cases in the media.... You should not pay any attention to these people either — the media, the lawyers ... etc. It is all noise — often evil noise.”
Despite that plea, members of the blogosphere — like everyone else — have been busy choosing sides since details of this story started emerging in March.
Attention-grabbing crimes — from the 1935 Lindbergh-baby trial to the 1954 Sam Sheppard murder case — have always provided spectator sport. But the game has been refined in the past decade (the post-O.J. period), thanks largely to the emergence of a morbidly fascinated cable-news industry and brigades of bickering commentators who find common interest in airing a case in the court of public opinion long before anyone enters a courtroom. And in the current media universe, the wide array of bloggers essentially functions as an instant online jury.
What’s been remarkable in the Duke saga — in which an African-American stripper and North Carolina Central University student says she was viciously assaulted at a party by several privileged white lacrosse players from an elite educational institution — is the amount of evidence that has already bubbled up in the press. That includes some startling photographs of the accuser at the scene and an account from a chatty cabby who recalls ferrying a suspect that night.
Of course, reporters are intuitively aware that the steady dribble of leaks, interviews, and revelations provides only a selective part of the story — with neither side showing all its cards. Yet the classic competitive rush to be first, the adrenalin hit of the hot scoop, and the sheer voyeuristic (read ratings and eyeballs) value of the story leave little time for introspection or a primer in journalistic ethics.
“The media is always used,” says Crier. “The question is, are we being manipulated?”
It’s not too cynical to conclude that the answer to that question doesn’t really matter. In a case neatly characterized by this week’s Newsweek cover headline — SEX, LIES & DUKE — there are three big reasons why this story is a made-for-media blockbuster.
As a nation, we are both horrified and fascinated by events that expose deep chasms in our society. Who can forget, following the 1995 O.J. Simpson criminal-trial acquittal, the contrast between the celebrating African-Americans and the shell-shocked white viewers? (Eighty percent of the country told Gallup they watched that verdict.)