A “Wildly Misleading” Self-Defense

Selena Roberts, a former New York Times sports columnist, now with Sports Illustrated , is still trying to justify her garbled coverage of the Duke lacrosse case. A Roberts column of March 31, 2006, devoted to pre-judging the lacrosse players, said they had been forced to provide DNA (untrue, they provided DNA and hair samples voluntarily), reported that “According to reported court documents, the accuser in the case has been raped robbed, strangled and made the victim of a hate crime” (there were no such “reported court documents” – Roberts was mistakenly referring to search warrants) and said the victim “was also reportedly treated at a hospital for vaginal and anal injuries consistent with sexual assault and rape” (the hospital records said nothing about “trauma in the victim’s vaginal area” and contained no evidence of rape). Roberts was so certain that the boys were guilty that she complained about the code of silence under which players protected one another (there was no code of silence – the accused talked freely and honestly about what really happened – no attack, no rape). She even suggested that the players were subhuman (“a group of privileged players of fine pedigree entangled in a night that threatens to belie their status as human beings. Whatever the root, there is a common thread: a desire for teammates to exploit the vulnerable without heeding a conscience.”)

In a recent interview on the sports site, The Big Lead, Roberts offered this cleaned-up version of what she wrote in 2006:

“Basically, I wrote that a crime didn’t have to occur for us to inspect the irrefutable evidence of misogyny and race baiting that went on that night. Not a popular stand. I received lots of hate mail, some of it threatening. I think the intense response came from Duke-player supporters who felt threatened when someone, whether it was me or another columnist, started poking at the culture of affluence and entitlement. We’re always dissecting the African-American and Hispanic communities – is it gangs? is it the rap lyrics? – when trouble strikes minority athletes. Obviously, some segments of the Duke lacrosse crowd did not enjoy the scrutiny of their world.”

These remarks are “wildly misleading,” according to K C Johnson, the Brooklyn college professor whose site, Durham-in-Wonderland provided daily accounts, detailed and accurate, for the length of the Duke lacrosse case. The problem wasn’t that “the Duke lacrosse crowd did not enjoy the scrutiny of their world.” It was that the scrutiny by Roberts got almost everything wrong. Johnson, co-author with Stuart Taylor, Jr., of the definitive book on the Duke case, Until Proven Innocent, wrote that “for anyone who followed the lacrosse case closely (Roberts) sacrificed her journalistic credibility in an attempt to advance a preconceived ideological agenda.”


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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3 thoughts on “A “Wildly Misleading” Self-Defense

  1. I am surprised at the lack of discipline amongst the conservative community concerning the Duke case. Here you have a case that so neatly fits the narrative that conservatives have been trying to weave about life on campus. You would think they would take their win and save it away saving the potency of the story to be brought out when it may be used to best effect. But reading postings on conservative sites I have been amazed with uncontrolled outrage that is presented. By constantly dwelling on the case they allow aspects of the story to crystalize that don”t fit with the narrative.
    I have seen many authors fall into the wealthy people as victims narrative. You can’t believe how poorly this plays amongst poorer people. When I was in law school I would listen to endless speaches about how rich people were picked on. They would say just because I am in my early twenties and drive a car worth a 100 000 pounds the police ask me questions when they stop me driving in it while wearing jeans and eating fast food. I can tell you the river of tears I cried for these folks.
    Imagine if the roles had been reversed and the stripper had been a pretty young blond girl and the players had been black do you think the media and the police wouldn’t have run with it.
    Then there is the tendency to go too far in painting the students as victims. Dealing with sex workers is a iffy affair as Gov. Eliot Spitzer found out. You don’t just pick a sex worker from the internet. The sex industry attracts drug users and people with mental disorders who have trouble making it in the more legitimate world.
    That is why when one engages the service of sex professional one seeks the services of an established professional with deep ties to the community who personally vets the workers. A few years back such a lady was killed. Her funeral was attended by most of prominent political figures in Mississippi. The press did not make unwarranted implications that some of those politicians dealt with the lady in a professional capacity.
    The players were stupid and deserved some amount public disapproval for their bad judgment.
    Then conservatives try to make the issues of white verses black conservative verses liberal. But the situation was quite more complex than that. There is always a tension between rich college students and the working class townies. The more one dwells on this case the less black and white it appears.
    Finally conservatives strongest case is that students suffered from politically motivated prosecutorial misconduct. But conservatives weaken their case by projecting the sense that they believe that this is a unique case or that conservatives are especially vulnerable.
    The election of prosecutors ensures politically motivated prosecutions and indeed this part of the point of such a system. The an enormous benefits to a prosecutors political career of winning a huge case provides a huge temptation to engage in misconduct and such misconduct occurs with some degree of regularity. It is important to realize that once a person gives the police a reason for an arrest or investigation the police and prosecutors have enormous powers to bear against them and the press generally follows along virtually unquestioningly with the narrative the police provide.
    Articles such as this actually hurt the points that conservatives are trying to make. Instead of presenting this case as unique abuse of power against the Duke players it highlights features that those who follow such cases recognize as routine and certainly not an example of special bias.
    join the revolution at

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