Four Years Ago Tonight: March 13, 2006 at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd in Durham a party was held. The aftermath of that party is forever etched in the history of The Triangle and in the history of American journalism. On this 4th anniversary, we revisit a specific segment of The Duke Lacrosse Scandal (DLS). It is important that WE NEVER FORGET!
Ruth Sheehan is a metro columnist for Raleigh’s The News & Observer. We first met 8 years ago at one of my notorious BobLee Bring Togethers.
Ruth, WPTF’s Jerry Agar and I shared coffee at a Panera’s. It was not over a specific combustible issue de jour but just three local opinionaters that viewed societal ebbs and flows thru partisan lenses. Jerry and I conservatively; Ruth liberally. Jerry has moved on to Chicago and Toronto. His chair at WPTF taken by my buddy Bill Lumaye.
Ruth and I e-chat regularly over Life & The Loonies Who Live It. We both receive “those e-mails” from agitated nutjobs who compensate for their spelling shortcomings with lots of colorful suggestions of a prurient nature. That background is important to today’s retrospective of The Duke Lacrosse Scandal (DLS).
I posted 24 columns on DLS. Ruth, 4-5. including one Lalapalooza that we will discuss in a minute.
A “columnist” writes his/her OPINIONS. Those musings hopefully follow facts but not necessarily. Ideally a columnist will be “provocative” because “provocative” opinions stir reader emotions pro and con. The “cons” are much more colorful when provoked.
A metro columnist differs from an op/ed columnist.. Op/ed stands for Opinion/Editorial and represents a newspaper’s “Official opinion”. Ruth writes her opinions. Columnists whose provocative opinions do NOT mirror their employers usually become “former columnists”. It’s a dirty little secret ….. newspapers view their readers with utmost contempt – If those naïve morons had good sense they would never believe the bilge we throw at them.
I’ve known my share of reporters, columnists and editors. They process perceived “criticism” like Ol’ Roy does ….. not very well. Like a cat likes a suppository. The mildest “suggestion” is considered an attack. …… VERY thin-skinned folks! I digress.
The party was held on March 13 but the resultant media tsunami did not hit until approximately two weeks later when “the honor student …..” filed her bogus charges. DLS timeline really began in early April of 2006.
The N&O as the primary print media organization for the regional market, drew “lead dog” position pulling the media coverage of DLS.
As adroitly noted on this very website four years ago …… when the police report was first made public there were three possible options on the table:
1. Tawana Brawley Option ….. total fabrication by the “honor student ….”. Named for the totally fabricated racist scam that made Al Sharpton “in-famous”.
2. Time To Kill Option ….. major racist “hate crime” by really stoopid rich white boys. (NOTE: Time To Kill is a movie adaptation of John Grisham’s first novel about a racist “hate crime” in Mississippi where “white boys” are the very bad guys).
3. Something in-between …. Whatever happened, let’s be very cautious. This is highly incendiary.
The news team at the N&O only took a nano second to eliminate options #1 and #3. With visions of a Pulitzer dancing in their heads, their headlines from Day One screamed TIME TO KILL ….. “Lynch those rich white boys right now”.
The two N&O editors turning cartwheels and giving each other high-5s were Executive Editor Melanie Sill and News Editor Linda Williams. “Yee Haa girl friend. We just got handed THE story that will make us both famous.” It sorta did, but not like Melanie and Linda planned back in April 2006. Many other N&O reporters, writers, columnists, and senior staff would leave their DNA all over this journalistic nightmare in the days, weeks, months to come ….. but Melanie and Linda were the ringmistresses of the circus.
Ruth The Columnist was mortified at the details of the incident as described in the Durham PD report. Herself a victim of an assault, Ruth knows the horror of such ….. if it actually occurs. She wanted justice for the poor victim. She wanted those “rich white boys” punished. She wrote “the column” for which she will forever be linked. “Why Don’t The Rest Of You Step Up And Tell The Truth About What Your Teammates Did?” …… KABOOM!
Ruth bought into Crystal’s drug-addled fantasy hook, line and broomstick. Ruth had not visited the crime scene nor ever met Crystal Mangum or any Duke Lacrosse player. Ruth did not know what “exotic dancer” was a euphemism for. Ruth’s emotional empathy went into overdrive. Every N&O staffer covering the developing story fell in-line, memorized the script and went looking for “evil rich white boy” angles to exploit.
Melanie Sill and Linda Williams danced jigs and began speculating where to hang that Pulitzer they KNEW was coming their way.
“Honor student and single mother of two ……” – Linda Williams wrote that infamous description and DEMANDED it be used with every mention of poor poor Crystal …… and that Crystal ALWAYS be referred to as “an exotic dancer” and never any insinuation of her actual occupation as a bargain basement prostitute. Linda Williams micro-managed “the news” the way her deeply-seeded prejudices demanded it had to be. Linda Williams and Crystal Gale Mangum are both African-American.
You know the rest. The first 90 days was non-stop pillorying of the rich white boys led by The N&O. Except for a handful of us who had kept those other two options on our table. ….. the stench of multiple lies began to seep thru the media cover-up. The Nifongian Conspiracy began to unravel.
At the 9 months stage, the utter absurdity of the N&O “Rush To Injustice” was clear to every living being on Earth. So what to do? Make Ruth The Columnist the face of all the N&O’s gross misdeeds. So they did.
Ruth Sheehan wrote her mea culpa apology. Ruth acknowledged her hasty assumptions and false allegations. She publicly apologized. Another N&O columnist, Barry “Sportin’ Life” Saunders, had also written several similar incendiary columns. Barry …. he said nuthin’.
Melanie Sill was quietly josephined out of Raleigh to McClatchy’s Sacramento office. Linda Williams is still News Editor at The N&O (well, NOT QUITE! – see NOTE below. ) There is an empty space on Linda’s wall for that Pulitzer that never arrived.
March 13, 2010 – to date Ruth Sheehan is THE ONLY News & Observer employee to ever publicly apologize for the Greatest Journalism Travesty Of The New Millenium. Ruth still gets nasty letters about it. She is repentant. The only N&O employee with the character and integrity to be so.
Longtime (former) N&O owner/publisher, Frank Daniels Jr., had a saying ….. “If we ever admit all of our mistakes, it might affect our credibility.” …… what credibility ?