Duke v. Iraq, an Exercise in News Judgment

The cable channels refuse to surprise in choosing which stories to play up.

Last Wednesday afternoon, the crack staff here at CJR Daily was busily pecking away at our keyboards when the news broke that all charges against the three Duke lacrosse players accused of raping a stripper had been dropped.

About the same time, the news that the Pentagon was extending the tours of all active duty military personnel in Iraq from twelve to fifteen months hit the wires. So we turned to cable news to get the latest, and found that both CNN and FOX were covering the Duke press conference live, with nary a nod to the hugely important Pentagon announcement that will put even more strain on an American military already groaning under the weight of multiple deployments.

Now, we all know, and grudgingly accept, that the media (especially the teleprompter addicts that populate cable news) will run with a splashy Duke-style story to the exclusion of all else — at least until the ratings tell them otherwise — but watching the lawyer for one of the Duke players prattle on, while waiting for the scroll at the bottom to mention the longer Iraq deployment, felt like an exercise in up is down.

Friend and former colleague Brian Montopoli noted as much on Friday on CBS’ the Public Eye, pointing to the comments of Gregory Papadatos, an Army medic and Iraq vet who feels much the same way: “Somebody please tell me why that one incident, which caused no bleeding or dying, is getting more radio air time than the fact that [a medic friend of his] — along with about 100,000 of her closest friends and colleagues — has just been told she has to spend three extra months in a combat zone.”

Of course, we can point to any number of reasons reporters would likely give as to why the Duke case blew up the way it did: it involved the thorny issues of race, class, and sexuality all mixed up into one combustible package that made it irresistible for cable news networks.

But in the end, while rape is a heinous act and accusations of it are never to be taken lightly, the case involved a relative handful of people in North Carolina, as opposed to the 150,000 troops currently in Iraq — and their families — and the tens of thousands yet to deploy, and their families.

And journalism wonders why people say it’s becoming irrelevant.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.