Monday, June 18, 2007

Nifong Disbarred; Media Leaves Duke Lacrosse Story, Misses Amazing Opportunity To Improve Public Discourse

(From Flickr user digital image fan via CC)

The backlash against Mike Nifong, the DA in the Duke Lacrosse Case, has started in earnest...and WHAT a backlash it is. According to the Associated Press:
Nifong was disbarred Saturday, a ruling that came one day after he stunned his staff and own attorneys by announcing through tears he planned to resign as Durham County's district attorney. In imposing punishment, a disciplinary committee called Nifong's prosecution of Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann a politically motivated "fiasco." The five-day ethics trial ended Nifong's three-decade legal career, which he spent entirely as a prosecutor in Durham County. He was generally viewed as an honest lawyer...
The list of misdeeds that Nifong has been accused of (and undoubtedly actually did) is long and shocking. He withheld exculpatory evidence. He made inappropriate statements to the public about the case. He pressed on with the case even when he knew that there was no way he could win a conviction. And that's just off the top of my head (Go to Nifong's wikipedia page for some more details).

Part of me feels for this man, whose career has now ended in a spectacular flameout. However, a part of me also knows that the men who were accused of the rape have had a bad enough time these past few years that Nifong's disgrace is probably nothing in comparison. It's both refreshing and terrifying that we live in a country where being accused of being a rapist can be almost as bad as being convicted of the same thing.

Now ABC reports that, with regards to the case, the media is packing up its bags and moving on:
The word on the street around Duke University is that the Duke lacrosse story has outlived its shelf life...Despite interest in the story, it looks like the media parade is leaving. "The high intensity moments are over," Setrakian said. Edmisten said the chairman of the hearing in the case referred to the events as a dangerous soap opera. So, while further legal movement in the case may be in store, at least for the residents of Durham, this show is fading to black.
Here's why this gets me: By packing up leaving in the aftermath right now, at this critical moment when Nifong is finally being punished for his crimes, the media demonstrates yet again how it is beholden to sensationalism, and ultimately, to profit. To many of you (and even to me), this is old news. But I couldn't resist bringing it up anyway.

Not only that, but the media is missing an amazing opportunity to engage in public discourse about the litany of deeper issues underlying the Duke case. The reason they latched onto the rape case in the first place was because it was a spectacular attention-grabber: three white preppy, elite lacross players (a sport which seems to epitomize the upper class) from a top-tier university brutally assaulted a black, lower-class single mom who went to a state school. There were a lot of issues this case brought up, and a lot of fires that it stoked. It was a case that brought up struggles and conflicts that have haunted us throughout our country's history: namely, the conflict of the upper class against the lower class, the race issues between whites and blacks, and, to tie it all together, the destructive psychological devastation of rape.

But now that the case is over, there are different questions that we should be asking. Questions like why do we live in a society where being accused of rape is as bad as being convicted (i.e. where the media has grossly asymmetric rules about who it can name and who it can't)? Where the media (even the New York Times) can actively and powerfully propagate such destructive misinformation and get away with it without being held to account? Where lawyers yield such tremendous power over all of us in the form of prosecutorial discretion?

Unfortunately, the media won't be asking those questions, not to any meaningful extent anyway. The reasons for this are legion, but up at the top of the list I'm sure are both a lack of desire to criticize itself and the endless and self-defeating quest for ratings. To ask these questions would require an informed dialogue and citizenry, a level of public discourse that challenges deeply held assumptions and uses logic and reason behind its arguments. And really, if they did address these issues on TV, is there really anyone who would watch?

[Note: To paraphrase Sideshow Bob, I'm aware of the irony of using an article on ABC News reporting on the media in order to report about the media, so don't bother pointing that out]

1 comment:

Chris said...

What bothers me more about this case is how indicative it is in the U.S. with our growing failure to indeed consider people innocent until proven guilty.