It was a tiny item in the New York Times -- a brief at the bottom of page B14 of Tuesday's sports section, under Lacrosse: “Crystal Mangum, who falsely accused three Duke players of raping her in 2006, was charged with murder in the death of her boyfriend.” The man died two weeks after Mangum stabbed him, and Mangum has now been charged with murder.
The Times may prefer to forget that name, but it was far more interested in Crystal Mangum back in 2006. More than any other media outlet, the Times trumpeted her rape accusations against three Duke lacrosse players, accusations that quickly fell apart in a mass of contradictions and shifting stories.
Yet even as the case fell apart and other liberal media outlets were backing away, the Times issued a now-notorious, error-riddled 5,000-word lead story by Duff Wilson on August 25, 2006, concluding that there was enough evidence against the players for Michael Nifong, the soon-to-be-disgraced-and-jailed local prosecutor, to bring the case to trial:
By disclosing pieces of evidence favorable to the defendants, the defense has created an image of a case heading for the rocks. But an examination of the entire 1,850 pages of evidence gathered by the prosecution in the four months after the accusation yields a more ambiguous picture. It shows that while there are big weaknesses in Mr. Nifong's case, there is also a body of evidence to support his decision to take the matter to a jury.
Perhaps most atrocious was former columnist Selena Roberts, who made a habit of slurring the innocent Duke lacrosse players. Even after the players had been all but formally cleared of the sexual assault, she continued to blame white privilege: “Don't mess with Duke, though. To shine a light on its integrity has been treated by the irrational mighty as a threat to white privilege. Feel free to excoriate the African-American basketball stars and football behemoths for the misdeeds of all athletes, but lay off the lacrosse pipeline to Wall Street, excuse the khaki-pants crowd of SAT wonder kids.”
Even one of the paper’s overly respectful public editors, Barney Calame, tore a few polite holes into his paper’s coverage in an April 2007 column after the players were officially declared innocent.
But blogger KC Johnson, a history professor and expert on the case, lambasted Wilson's error-riddled article and Calame's half-defense of it:
Calame, in short, appears unable or unwilling to consider how the Times' failure in the lacrosse case -- and having the thesis of a paper's major article publicly dismissed as untrue surely constitutes a failure -- was attributable to reporters and editors allowing their worldviews to distort the facts....Calame avoids mentioning that Wilson's article contained four factual errors -- each of which made Nifong's case appear stronger than it actually was. To date, the Times has left three of these errors entirely uncorrected, and the fourth corrected in a misleading fashion.
The Times's sorry coverage was a focus of much media debate. Another former Times public editor, Daniel Okrent, called the paper’s coverage “heartbreaking”: “I think The Times's coverage was heartbreaking. 'I understand why they jumped on the story when they did, but it showed everything that's wrong with American journalism.'"