Suppressing the news: Revisiting the Duke lacrosse scandal

Ken Larrey Contributor
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Newsweek commentator David Graham recently declared the Philadelphia Voter Intimidation controversy to be a non-story: “it’s not about a real investigation; it’s about staging an effective piece of political theater that hurts the Obama administration.”

He also meandered into declaring the ACORN scandal to be “minimal” and “discredited.”  Graham’s career-long track record of suppressing news (without troubling himself with investigation) follows him way, way back to his college years at Duke University.  Why bring up such ancient history?  Well, because he graduated from Duke last year, in 2009.

One of the greatest media frauds in modern history, the Duke lacrosse hoax, was once a story of violent, racially motivated gang rape by supposedly privileged white men (many were actually on significant financial aid).  Finally, here was the evidence verifying the far left narrative of America as a deeply oppressive, racist society – evidence that had been missing, in the opinion of one Duke Professor, since the lynching of Emmitt Till over fifty years prior.  Radical leftists throughout the campus and the nation came out of the woodwork to demand the alleged incident be used as a pretext for a comprehensive discussion on the roles of race, class, and gender in our society.

By the time David Graham took over as editor of the Duke Chronicle, the story was quickly becoming a story of the extraordinary bigotry of segments of the far left and their perverse willingness to exploit an obvious hoax to advance a political and cultural agenda.  The story became the willingness of the Duke Faculty and Administration to burn their own students at the stake in the advancement of and in fear of this same leftist narrative.

All of a sudden, none of these individuals at Duke wanted to talk about the matter anymore, least of all the administration.  It was time to put it all behind us.  Enter David Graham.

Before Graham took over, the Duke Chronicle was frequently commended for its exemplary work and ambitious reporting on the affair, especially in comparison with the atrocious work of the mainstream press.  Under Graham’s watch, however, the paper consistently advanced a “move along, nothing to see here” approach.

Upon taking over as editor, one of Graham’s first acts was to shut down the Chronicle’s message board, a popular forum where students, alumni, and others flocked to discuss the lacrosse case since its inception, alleging the discussion of the lacrosse affair it hosted had become a breeding ground for racism and sexism to such an extent it could no longer be moderated.  Because the evidence no longer exists, it is impossible to evaluate any truth the claim might bear, but the message board had been up throughout the entirety of the lacrosse affair, and his predecessors saw no need to remove it.

He announced in an introductory column in July of 2007 that with “most of the loose ends of the case tied up, both Duke and the Chronicle are ready to move on,” a truly bizarre assertion given the extraordinary unanswered questions.  Investigations into how all of this happened had not even begun, no prosecutions of those responsible for the hoax had taken place, no apologies had been issued, and the Duke Community was clearly still hotly in turmoil as the furor over the closing of the message board would indicate.  As of Graham’s writing, the Duke administration stood firmly by its handling of the affair.  There had been no meaningful policy or personnel changes at the university.  Moreover, just months prior in one of the last publications before the school year ended, a group of students published a full page advertisement in the Chronicle demanding an apology from the 88 Duke professors who had published a “listening statement” in their own full page ad one year prior, publicly proclaiming the guilt of their students and offering racially incendiary quotes supposedly from concerned students.

With the exception of one intrepid, national-award-winning columnist, a holdover from the previous year, the Chronicle’s columnists and editorial board (over which Chronicle insiders say Graham had considerable influence, in spite of his denials) frequently declared the matter dead, over, and done in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary, and accused anyone who asserted otherwise of, well, staging political theater (sound familiar?).  The running joke among bloggers and Chronicle readers following the case was that Graham had turned the Chronicle into “moveon.duke.”

Unfortunately for Graham, his “moveon.duke” narrative was almost fatally obliterated when a series of explosive lawsuits laid out some revelations and allegations that stunned even those who had been closely following the matter (for example that Duke officials instructed Duke Police to deliberately falsify police reports, and that Duke violated the law in an effort to get Prosecutor Nifong reelected).  That hardly stopped Graham from largely maintaining the narrative throughout the year.  Even after these developments, investigation, coverage, and in-depth analysis of this kind of corruption were never much of a priority for Graham’s Chronicle and largely non-existent.

In the very last publication of his tenure, Graham was left with no choice but to admit:

“I was, however, completely wrong when I predicted that the lacrosse case was over, although I still absolutely believe that most students would like to see the case over and done with. I see now that that’s not going to happen so easily, and I’ve come to believe that the litigation process is necessary for whatever closure there will ever be for this University, its students, its professoriate and its alumni.”

After burying the matter for most of a year, in his last act Graham finally acknowledged they might have missed the story…for an entire year.  However, in that same sign-off piece, Graham also committed an egregious violation of journalistic ethics that betrayed his sincerity.

In a case that spotlighted the rise of new media, one of the most significant bloggers on the Duke Lacrosse case wrote anonymously by the name John in Carolina, and he had good reasons for his anonymity.  He was also the most critical of David Graham’s “moveon.duke” policy regarding the scandal during Graham’s tenure.  In communicating with Chronicle reporters and editors, John in Carolina had revealed his identity on the promise of anonymity.  In Graham’s sign-off piece, he made a point of breaking that promise and revealing John’s identity as a way of sticking it to the blogger who had taken issue with his non-reporting.  Journalists have gone to jail to protect their sources.  David Graham gave one away to settle a personal vendetta.

After being roundly chastised for his lackadaisical first effort, to his credit, Graham went back and essentially did the piece over again, this time doing some research and making some phone calls.  But the real story remains: why on earth is a renowned national magazine assigning a recent college graduate with no legal expertise to do effectively his first significant commentary on a complicated and very high profile national legal controversy?  Oh, right.  There is a lot left to investigate about the J. Christian Adams’ allegations, but if Newsweek needed someone without much accumulated credibility to risk and to suppress a racial and legal news story damaging to leftist narratives before it gets started, they found the right man.

Ken Larrey was a student at Duke University during the time of the Duke Lacrosse scandal.  He founded an organization, Duke Students for an Ethical Duke, dedicated to aiding Duke students facing action from Judicial Affairs, and ensuring the lessons of the affair were not lost on the institution.