Archive for February, 2008

Me vs. N&O (third and final round)

Friday, February 29th, 2008

The News & Observer’s public editor, Ted Vaden, deserves credit for responding promptly to my complaint about the column by Barry Saunders published in the N&O earlier this week. But I’m afraid the credit ends there. Ted addressed few of the specifics I brought up, and in fact exhibited some of the same shortcomings in critical thinking as did Barry. There must be something in the water at the N&O these days.

In any event, here’s Ted’s reply, in full and (naturally) annotated:

Thanks for including me in your circle of comment on this issue. I hold you in high regard as a thinker and writer whose ability greatly exceeds my own, so I respond with trepidation.

With that kind of start, I know I’m about to have smoke blown up my skirt. But I can’t complain — I opened my blast at Barry with a similar paragraph of lavish praise.

I have read through your analysis of Barry’s column, and I just don’t buy the notion that Barry has crossed a line of fair comment into bad journalism. Maybe he reaches in some areas - the nurse may be a valid target - but the idea of naming 28 defendants does strike me as a cattle roundup that really is a legal tactic - a legit target for criticism and, yes, lampooning.

Considering the scope of the Duke/Nifong scandal, 28 defendants actually seems like a modest number. (Remember, just among the faculty alone there were 88 professors who encouraged, condoned or actively participated in the harassment of the plaintiffs, whose only “crime” was to be on the lacrosse team.) Besides, Ted and Barry both demonstrate the same naivete about the “cattle roundup.” Do they truly not understand that lawyers routinely name every possible defendant in the first draft of a lawsuit, especially those which involve a sprawling case with multiple plaintiffs? It’s telling that a mocking reference to the 28 defendants is the most specific thing either one of them has to say about the lawsuit. I wonder if they’ve actually read it?

I could see the Gearino rapier wit employed under different circumstances on similarly inflated claims. Ditto Barry’s jabs at “negligent infliction of emotional distress.” The legal hyperbole is all fair game.

“Similarly inflated claims”? Apparently, it is now a settled matter that the lawsuit is not to be taken seriously. As far as “legal hyperbole” goes, of course it’s fair game. I specifically said, in my complaint to Ted, that I didn’t seek to impair any columnist’s right to express opinion. I asked, as a paying subscriber and thus as someone interested in getting the best product for my money, for better editing — with the hopeful result being sharper, more effectively reasoned opinion. I want major-league stuff from the N&O. Not lowbrow yuks about the number of defendants and how the players’ “wittle feelings” were hurt. All Ted does here is make a vigorous defense of mediocrity.

Is it disingenuous to revive the old rowdiness charges against the lacrosse team? I think it’s valid to remind the community that their behavior before the incident, and during it for that matter, was not beyond reproach.

There are two problems with the endless reminders of the lacrosse team’s behavior. First, you’d think that a paper whose early coverage of the case was profoundly flawed — in part because it unhesitatingly bought into the unfounded assertions that the players were violent, assaultive thugs who’d gang-raped an innocent woman — would be more careful in its subsequent references to them. Second, when the players continue to be described as hooligans even after it’s been established that there was no rape and that a majority of the team has never been charged with alcohol-related offenses, much less assault, then those continued references seem to be an effort to suggest that the players brought their woes upon themselves.

I think it’s a red herring to compare the lacrosse team rowdiness record to that of the Duke community at large. It’s bad behavior, comparatively or not. But that can be overdone, and I hope Barry and the paper don’t keep raising that as a response to the legitimate concern that three lacrosse players were victims of injustice (for a while).

It’s breathtaking that Ted, in the space of a few dozen words, can assert (a) that it’s “valid” to keep reminding the community of the lacrosse players’ misbehavior, and (b) that it’s a “red herring” to ask whether that behavior was, in fact, actually any worse than anyone else’s at Duke. This willful refusal to provide context and detail confounds the hell out of me. Why doesn’t the N&O simply give the public the information, and let us decide how much significance to attach to it?

I think Barry certainly has a valid position and reflects the sentiment of a large portion of the community that the continuing wave of legal action - whether in the name of dollars or retributive justice — is a little wearying.

So the tone and direction of the news coverage is now determined by applause meter?

That’s the sentiment I hear from my non-newspaper acquaintances who don’t have a dog in this fight. I teach a class at Duke, and they were split 1/3-2/3 yesterday over whether Barry’s column was on target.

This is a perfect circle of flawed logic. The N&O keeps telling the public that the lacrosse players were hooligans, and then when two-thirds of Ted’s class — having been endlessly bombarded with that thought — agree with Barry’s column focused on their alleged hooliganism, that’s proof that the N&O is simply reflecting the thoughts of the community.

It’s hyperbole, yes. It’s overly simplistic. But I just don’t agree that it’s dishonest or unfair. I think the lawsuit was a valid target for a news columnist, and Barry is well equipped to take up the cudgel. So in that respect, I disagree that the editors fell down on the job.

Excuse me, but when something in the paper is both hyperbolic and simple-minded, it is by definition the very “bad journalism” that Ted denies in his second paragraph above. And of course the column was unfair. It dripped of contempt and scorn for the players, and was written only to make a mockery of them. Ted seems to confuse fairness with balance here. A news story ought to be both fair and balanced. A column, in contrast, isn’t required to have balance. It is, after all, a declaration of opinion. But a column ought to be fair in the sense that the columnist at least gave the other side a fair hearing before rendering his judgment. There was no evidence of that in Barry’s piece.

(P.S., I wouldn’t hang my hat on the Johnson/Taylor book. The N&O has submitted to them a list of errors for correction — I don’t know whether they have — the worst of which was getting the Public Editor’s name wrong!)

In other words, errors were spotted, complaints were made and the N&O is now frustrated because nothing’s being done about them? Hey, I understand the feeling.