Michael B. Nifong--the district attorney who pursued Seligmann, Finnerty and teammate David Evans even as evidence of their innocence mounted and his case imploded--was held accountable for his actions. Hours after Seligmann testified, Nifong announced his intention to resign; the next day, he was disbarred.
The media incurred no such penalties. No loss of license, no disciplinary panels, no prolonged public humiliation for the reporters, columnists, cable TV pundits, editorial writers and editors who trumpeted the "Duke lacrosse rape case" and even the "gang-rape case" in front-page headlines, on the nightly news and on strident cable shoutfests.
Of course, Nifong had information and power the media did not. His failing in the case cannot be overstated, nor can it be equated to that of a throng of journalists and pundits, however odious some of their reporting and commentary. 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."
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