A Time To Kill – A Time To Apologize

January18/ 2000

… Friends and loyal readers, BE AWARE that this is another Durham Nifong Mess column.  I believe it is a special one but still it is another one.  If your NewYear’s resolution was No More Nifong feel free to click out.   This material will NOT be on the final exam!  If you choose to Read More I would appreciate your thoughts and forwarding this to others you think might be interested.   Everything about the Durham mess will be accelerating now with new developments likely every day.

 A Time To Kill – A Time To Apologize  The enduring shame … I have been asked many times what were my first thoughts when I heard/read the  account of The Duke Lacrosse Case.  That’s easy.  It is in my archives along with the 16+ columns I have composed (to date) on this remarkable incident.  I considered the two extremes …. Tawana Brawley or “A Time To Kill”.  The primary regional newspaper, The News & Observer, considered only ONE extreme.  And that will be to their everlasting SHAME.

Only the on-site participants in the party on March 13 really knew what happened when the story first broke in early April.  I did not know.  You did not know.  Mike Nifong, Richard Brodhead, Melanie Sill, Malik Zulu Shabazz, Mike Krzyzewski, Nancy Grace, Joe Cheshire, nor any of the 88 Duke faculty and staff who’s names quickly appeared on an infamous letter … none of us REALLY KNEW.

We were all free to assume any opinion we wished based on our own prejudices, our own experiences, and our own ability to see beyond our own prejudices and own experiences.  Well, not quite all of us.

The print media elevates itself far above us.  They, according to them, report only the facts on their news pages.  They, according to them, reserve their opinions for their Opinion/Editorial sections.  They, according to them, take their individual prejudices and ideological slants out of their hard news reporting.  We can trust them, they say … because, well because, they say we can.

Based on how The N&O rather successfully crafted this story their way I now mistrust any on-going investigative reporting they publish.  I don’t care one bit for Jim Black but maybe they scurriously jobbed him too, like they definitely did these three Duke students.  Who’s next?  Me, you, the bad guys, the good guys, whoever the N&O takes a dim view of or wishes to exploit?

The News & Observer is a private business entity making a profit for their owners and stockholders.  No problem with that EXCEPT they also elevate themselves to a holier than thou pedestal where they are above such capitalist motives and are the entity entrusted to tell us what is happening in our community, state, nation, world.  Their reporters, they tell us, are not connected in any way to their ad sales or circulation departments.  Their reporters, they tell us, are 100% altruistically motivated to find the truth and report the truth to us.

In the newspaper’s toy department, Sports, whenever a columnist writes anything unfavorable about our team we snort they’re just trying to sell papers.  Assuming some how that Caulton Tudor is on commission and needs a new roof on his lake house.  He writes a column about Chuck Amato’s staff turnover, 5,000 extra Wolfpack-hating readers buy that day’s edition.  Caulton makes a dime apiece off those 5,000.  He calls Baker Roofing and orders the shingles. (!!??)

There are other theories on their agenda.  That they are in cahoots with the Democrats and are nothing more than a house organ for getting Dems elected at every level.  That Publisher Orage Quarles and Editor Melanie Sill apparently love to get VIP invites to Inaugurals.  One doubts that embattled Democratic scallywags Jim Black or Meredith Norris hold much to the validity of the cahoots  theory.  

As long as criticism of The News & Observer is based on the beating of these dead horses, their Deflecto-Shield easily repels any culpability on their part and professional smugness remains the order of the day on South McDowell Street.

Discount both the above criticisms.  Why did the N&O pursue its extremely biased reporting of The Durham Nifong Mess?   Melanie Sill has always been extremely gracious to me.  I’m told I would really like Orage Quarles as our senses of humor are very much alike.  So, why have they completely failed our community in this case … Black – White – Rich – Poor.  They failed us all.   And, they have never had the courage to say “We were wrong.  We Apologize”.

(1) The N&O’s executive management assumed they were simply more insightful (i.e. “smarter”) than both their great unwashed readership AND the mounting evidence to the contrary of their biased pre-conclusions.

(2) This was (still is) a major league story being handled by minor league journalists.  By mid-April the significance of this story had far eclipsed Quarles and Sill’s pay grades.  McClatchey should have sent in the pros from Dover to manage this one.

Newspapers borrow an excuse trick from governmental bureaucracies.  If no ONE is responsible for a decision, then no one is responsible.  I sat in on the N&O’s front page committee meetings last Fall.  I saw group input.  I saw the man at the head of the table ask for input, then he decided.  No votes were taken but, then again, there is not a Durham Nifong Mess every week.

News editors assign breaking stories to reporters.  Reporters write stories.  Editors edit those stories.  Headline Editors write Headlines of varying alarming size and placement to promote those stories, edited by those editors, written by those reporters and read by the great unwashed who buy the newspapers.

If, in early April, you had executive influence at The N&O.  IF you had an over-riding image of Tawana Brawley and Al Sharpton’s infamous scam, then you knew that black stripper was lying through her teeth.

If, in early April, you had executive influence at The N&O.  IF you immediately recalled the inflammatory racist attitudes and hatred depicted in the Southern civil rights movie “A Time To Kill” (adapted from John Grisham’s first book).  You saw incredible similarities in the early reports on this case.  You likely thought we just got us a Pulitzer opportunity right here in our backyard.  Hot Damn!.

If you had executive influence at The N&O and you were responsible and took very seriously the public trust you so trumpet for your newspaper;  you would have gathered your entire news and composition staff in one room and you would have said:

   “READ MY LIPS Ladies and Gentlemen … This Durham Case has all the combustible components of a nuclear national news story.   It is quite likely that this will be the biggest story you ever cover in your career.  Every word we write on this will be scrutinized and re-examined for many years.  As the primary print media in this market, we, the N&O, are the flagship in this, like it or not.  

   We have convenient access, we have in-place local sources, we have the staff and resources.  We are and we will be the newspaper of record on this.  That is both a blessing and a curse as you will learn in the weeks and months to come.  Each one in this room will be a different person when this is all over.   

   This is a newspaper’s version of going to war.  Once the first shot is fired, all the grand assumptions are out-of-date.  We must be of clear and open minds as we tackle this because Ladies & Gentlemen, WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT HAPPENED AT THAT PARTY as we sit here on this early April day in 2006.

   We will make some mistakes.  We will be lied to.  We will be exposed to incredible emotional influences from all sides.  Your individual prejudices and experiences will be raw nerves you must subjugate in every word you write and every photo you take on this.

   When it is all over, whatever the outcome, we must be able to look ourselves in the mirror and say “We reported the facts as they were available at the time.  We did not see Al Sharpton’s smarmy face in 1987 in Wappinger Falls, New York.  We did not see Matthew McConaughey defending Samuel L Jackson from the white rednecks.  We did not see visions of a Pulitzer if we can romanticize this to a knee-jerking bleeding heart audience.  We did not pick our favorites from the casts of characters that will emerge in this.  We did not allow our sympathetic perspectives as a white person, a black person, a parent, a Duke fan, a Liberal, a Conservative, a rich person, a poor person to cloud our reporting of the facts as they emerge.

    Now what do you say?  Let’s go out there and NAIL THOSE AWFUL “RICH WHITE BOYS”!.

Find me at least three N&O employees who will say that any of the above (except that last sentence) was ever given as how the N&O was going to approach this.

As the pot bangers and the candle lighters vigiled and protested and pontificated and demanded and wept and moaned and caterwauled … the N&O chronicled every pot bang and every caterwaul with above the fold pictures and accounts.  As Duke’s faculty rushed to judgement and 88 of them signed an indignant letter condemning the rich white boysthe N&O gave them total (unearned) credibility and massive (undeserved) publicity.

Where is the follow-up on the pot bangers, the candle lighters and The 88 Self-Righteous Duke Faculty And Staff that signed that letter?  88 names on record.  Where is the follow-up now, Orage Quarles.  Where is the pursuit of that story now, Melanie Sill?

We’ve moved on they will say.  Straight from The Drive-By Media Handbook.  When we get it wrong, we hope they forget it. With each passing day, we are supposed to forget all the incredible absurdities the N&O force fed us in the first 90 days of this mess.

As Nifong’s Gestapo tactics trampled the rights of the defendants / the accused … the N&O chose to search tax records for the dollar value of their parents’ homes and their parents’ incomes.  Relevant how?  As the exotic dancers quickly became nothing at all like Samuel L. Jackson’s daughter in the movie, the N&O ran a full page Glamour Shots story on the accuser that Mother Teresa would not have merited.  The honor student, single mother of two, navy veteran … et al was portrayed by the N&O to such farcical excess to be too over the top for an SNL skit.

   So determined was the N&O to craft this story like they wanted it to be that they refused to tell naïve readers what exotic dancer is a common euphemism for and in reality what exotic dancers really do for a living.  The N&O was committed to a path that demanded only the one perspective they wanted you to know”.

Yes, they backed off considerably when the aspects of the imaginary case they so resolutely championed began to unravel like a ball of string going over a cliff.  But, like that rapidly unraveling string, what also unraveled was any shards of You can trust us … we’re your local newspaper.  

Newspapers are a proprietary element in a community.  We want to believe it’s our paper although they run it.  They like us to think that way.  We cuss that sorry fishwrapper, but still refer to it as our local paper.  We get angry if they make a typo in Aunt Emma’s obituary or they get a score wrong in our kids’ soccer game or, heaven forbid, they drop our favorite comic strip.  It’s our paper.  They write it and print it and throw it in our driveways at 5 AM,  but it’s really ours.   No, it is not.

This travesty will officially end and likely very soon.  The locomotive called Justice is barreling straight at  Nifong’s gross incompetence … at Duke’s incredible hypocrasy … at The News & Observer’s sanctimonious failure.  The rich white boys and their families will recover and go on to productive successful lives.  Crystal Gale Mangum (aka Precious) and Kim will simply disappear within the next two years.  The Black v White … Rich v Poor issues in Durham will gurgle and percolate as they have for decades.  Extreme situations test the true mettle of men and of institutions.  It measures their courage.  It measures their integrity … what there is to measure. The window for honorable resolution no longer exists.

On South McDowell Street in Raleigh, Publisher Orage Quarles and Editor Melanie Sill will cluck their tongues and reassure themselves … “Readers have short memories.  We will publish a new paper tomorrow, next week, next year … they will forget … because we know:

If we ever admit we made a mistake, 

it might affect our credibility”.  


“A Time To Kill” never existed in this case.

“A Time To Apologize” has passed.


?   What Father-Son duo played in A Time To Kill  ? 

… one of BobLee’s current favorites.

 Comments to BobLee …. 

[email protected]

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