COMMENTS: Story Ideas

So what was it about this case that compelled Couric and her team to treat it as headline fare? Part of the explanation is institutional pride: CBS had played a key role in discrediting the prosecution case. The false charge of rape had been leveled by one of a pair of black students from North Carolina Central University who had been hired by Duke's players to perform a striptease for them at their off-campus party. CBS' 60 Minutes obtained the exclusive interview with Kim Roberts, the second stripper, who insisted that her fellow dancer had not been attacked during the night's debauchery: "She obviously was not hurt. She was fine. She would not have gone back into the house if she was hurt."

Apart from pride, CBS' Byron Pitts had Duke law professor James Coleman, who happens to be African-American, explain all the other reasons why the controversy made headlines: it was a "Southern novel, it involved an elite university in the South with a storied history but also with a dark side to that history. It had race. It had sex. It had wealthy white students. It had a prosecutor who claimed that he was the white knight for the black community…that is a pretty big story." Pitts called Coleman "a voice of reason from the beginning." As for life on campus at Duke, CBS' Kelly Wallace found "no obvious signs that the university's reputation has been tarnished" with fundraising and applications as strong as ever.

CBS concluded its coverage with Couric's extended interview with Seligmann's parents, Kathy and Philip. The father stated that his son's life had been "ruined" by a woman who "perpetrated a hoax." The mother was "shocked" that people shut their eyes to "hardcore facts…we had everything going against us except the truth." CBS' Pitts estimated that legal fees paid by the trio's families exceed $3m.

In general, CBS' extended coverage was overblown and uninformative. Here are three story ideas that were not addressed that would have made Decision at Duke more worth the effort.

What about those other falsely-accused defendants that the young Seligmann referred to? CBS' Couric quoted him thus: "This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed. If police officers and a district attorney can systematically railroad us with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, I cannot imagine what they would do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves." Is he right? How many innocents are convicted by the North Carolina criminal justice system? What is Attorney General Cooper doing on their behalf?

What about that original striptease party? How do the exonerated athletes feel about it? Even if it was not illegal, was it crass and boorish? Did they indeed act like hooligans? Or was it good clean fun? Is striptease-for-hire a common practice on college campuses? Is it usually white men paying to see black women naked?

If it is true that DA Nifong pursued the case as vigorously and improperly as he did in order to curry favor among African-American voters resentful at Duke's elitism, is the citizens' resentment justified? How does Duke, as an institution and as a student body, interact with the general population? Which group is more prejudiced: town or gown?

UPDATE: at her Couric & Co blog, CBS' Couric, too, has some ideas of storylines that she did not cover in her Decision at Duke series. Hers are different from ours. She asks: "Why and how did such a rush to accuse take place?"


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