Guilty by Media

On March 13, ESPN aired their newest 30 for 30 film “Fantastic Lies”. The date at which this program aired carried significance, it was the 10th anniversary of a party hosted by the team at an off campus house  in which a woman by the name of Crystal Mangum had said she was raped by three members of the Duke Men’s Lacrosse team. To give some background on the situation, Magnum along with Kim Roberts, were exotic dancers hired by the team to perform. After a series of events, Ms. Mangum was admitted to the hospital claiming she had been sexually assaulted. After further questioning of Mangum, every member of the team was required to give a sample of the DNA. At this point, no player had been formally charged, but even after the DNA report came back with no evidence of the 41 players sampled District Attorney Mike Nifong continued with the case. Eventually, three players Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty, and David Evans were formally charged with rape after Mangum picked them out of a photo lineup.  According to a report done by 60 Minutes, the next door neighbor to the house at which the events occurred had heard a number of racially charged slurs directed at Mangum including “Tell your Grandpa thanks for my cotton shirt”.

Once the media got a hold of this story, it turned into a firestorm. Before any evidence had been gone through and before any member of the team had been charged, the media swarmed the Duke campus and Lacrosse facility. They swarmed the players’ homes, their dorms, and even the homes of their families. Protests erupted on campus and columnists across the country were declaring them guilty and demanding they come forward and tell the police who the three assailants were. Mike Nifong was constantly on television giving interviews about how the arrogant and privileged were guilty of this assault on a young, African-American single mother. It should also be mentioned that Nifong was in the middle of a highly contested campaign for reelection, in an area that had a very large African-American population. After about a year of protests, threats of violence, the forced resignation of the Lacrosse coach Mike Pressler, the cancellation of the season, and tens of thousand dollars spent on research the three players were found to be innocent. During the trial, an expert witness that had analyzed the DNA report of Ms. Mangum admitted that Mike Nifong had withheld evidence that would have exonerated the players. As a result of this, Nifong was removed from the case, disbarred, and sentenced to 24 hours in jail for lying about sharing the DNA tests. Also, after the trial had concluded Ms. Mangum admitted that she had not been assaulted.

Let me start off by saying any type of sexual assault is horrible. It’s an absolutely heinous crime, second maybe only to actual murder. This incident included nearly every lingering, tension causing issue in society. It was white versus black, privileged versus poor, and man versus women. Putting all that and the fact that a district attorney withheld evidence to forward his own career, the one part of this I want to discuss is how much the media has an influence over society. This incident took place in 2006, and while social media existed in the forms of Myspace and the beginning forms of Facebook and Twitter it was nowhere near what it is today. So I imagine had the incident occurred today it would have been an even larger spectacle.

The point I want to make is how much of a grip the media has on society. The way it was portrayed in the media, the players were guilty. Anywhere you looked on any national news station, they were proclaiming them guilty. News reporters, talk show hosts, and columnists were all publishing their work demanding their expulsion, their arrest, and their sentencing before any evidence had even been processed. Not to mention it was the District Attorney, someone who is sworn to ethically perform their duties and defend the law making headlines on all these shows to get the free media attention. I see this as a huge problem with our society. I’ve had a chance to study politics a lot, and the reason why our founders created an independent judicial system was to keep politics and public opinion away from the courts so they could focus strictly on the law. Why has that changed so much today? Ultimately, the truth came out but based on the evidence the case should have never gone to trial. I think the main reason why the media has such a control on society is because people for some reason believe everything they hear. Why that’s true is a completely different road to go down but it’s clear that even 10 years later this represents a societal problem. No player on that team’s life was the same after that, and that’s especially true for the three players charged. They lost their athletic careers, their chance to earn a Duke degree and the trajectory of their lives was forever altered. I think it’s incidents like these that make the case for the argument as to why investigations should be kept sealed from the public until their completion.

One of the main questions that’s been asked is why did the media play such a role in it? Out of all the circumstances surrounding the story, what made it such a huge deal? Personally, I believe it was the race issue that fueled the fire especially in Durham, but other factors clearly contributed. One other thing I wanted to reiterate was that the actions of many members of the team that night were highly inappropriate and in no way am I condoning the hiring of dancers for a party or what was said by some of the players to the dancers. My main point is that the lives of three young men were destroyed and their names will always be associated with a crime they didn’t commit because the media fueled the fire and made everyone believe they were guilty. And while many in the press who had falsely judged them apologized after the fact, the damage had already been done and there was no reversing it.

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