Blue (-Eyed) Devils?

By MARK JURKOWITZ  |  April 26, 2006

Cosby sees “the same style of aggressive defense” in the Duke case. “I think the defense strategy is that this woman will say, ‘Enough, I can’t take it anymore,’ and fold. And the question is, will she fold?”

There have been ebbs and flows in the trial-by-media phase of the Duke rape case. But it’s hard not to feel that recently, the defense has scored big.

For one thing, it’s been bolstered by the much-discussed lack of DNA evidence, although the results of additional tests are still pending, and Newsweek has reported that the first tests were inconclusive, rather than completely exculpatory.

After interviewing the cab driver who helped account for Seligmann’s whereabouts on the night of the alleged rape, Cosby asked him on the air, “How do you feel to know you may be Reade Seligmann’s alibi?”

After reviewing photos taken at the party and adding in the cabby’s account, Newsweek concluded that the evidence “would seem to indicate that it was virtually impossible that Seligmann committed the crime.”

It’s also worth noting that two online polls — one on the Drudge Report and the other on the MSNBC Web site — showed that a majority of voters wanted the accuser’s name to be revealed. While it’s possible that this reflects citizen distaste for the longstanding media ground rule of not identifying victims and alleged victims of sexual assault, the result would also suggest a public inclined to believe that the accuser is lying.

With District Attorney Mike Nifong — who is facing a May 2 election — opting to go silent after reportedly giving about 70 interviews earlier in the case, the big media moment for the prosecution last week occurred when Kim Roberts, the second stripper at that fateful party, weighed in.

Admitting that she could not say for certain whether a rape had occurred, Roberts told the Associated Press, “In all honesty, I think they’re guilty.”

Cosby, who also interviewed Roberts, said she seemed reluctant to talk. But Cosby also believes that Roberts ultimately concluded that the accuser needed reinforcements in the media battle.

“There is this public-relations war, clearly,” says Cosby. “And she felt [the accuser] was out there by herself.”

Manna for cable news
Sure, there’s something for every media outlet in this sordid tale. And in his column last Sunday, New York Times public editor Byron Calame reported that his paper had already published more than 20 stories on the case.

But it is really the cable-news infrastructure — created by the relentless coverage of the O.J. Simpson case — that has turned splashy crime stories into regular TV soap operas.

The O.J. case “will always be looked at as a watershed moment,” says Crier. “It’s drama in real life — the very thing that makes soap operas so successful.”

The O.J. trial revived Geraldo Rivera’s flagging career, gave us Greta Van Susteren in a CNN show called Burden of Proof, and turned a whole group of sound-bite-spouting lawyers into TV stars. In an interview with TV Guide, Simpson defense lawyer Barry Scheck decried this “rise of legal info-tainment.” But it was too late.

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What’s in a Name?

In a case as culturally loaded as this one, language is crucial in cementing public perceptions about the veracity and character of the accuser. Court TV anchor Catherine Crier says that one of the things that makes the “race” and “class” issues in this story so prominent is the question dogging the alleged victim: “Is she a wanton woman?”

Writing for Arianna Huffington’s blog, legal analyst Karen Russell raised the key issue of how the media should describe the woman: “Victim? Accuser? Single mom? Exotic dancer? Part-time student? Stripper?”

It sure seems to make a difference.

Weighing in from his side of the class divide, Rush Limbaugh told his dittoheads that the Duke athletes were accused of raping some “hos.” (He later called that terminology a “terrible slip of the tongue.”)

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