Columnist Ruth Sheehan
(April 2007)

Ruth Sheehan is a metro columnist for the Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer. Like thousands of U.S. journalists in print, on the internet, on the airwaves and over cable, her reaction to the accusations of rape against three members of the Duke lacrosse team was to condemn the students as spoiled and privileged thugs who had victimized a poor African American woman and were getting their just desserts. Her first column on the matter began, “Members of the men’s Duke lacrosse team: You know. We know you know.” In another, she called for the Duke lacrosse coach to be dismissed. Sheehan, like virtually every other commentator on the sordid story, was absolutely certain that when the facts came out, the story told by Crystal Gail Mangum, the accuser and alleged victim, would be supported by the evidence and lead to three convictions for rape. Duke cancelled its lacrosse season and fired the coach; it suspended the students, Reade Seligman, Collin Finnerty and David Evans. Now Sheehan, like everyone else, “knows” something different than what her column represented as fact. There was no evidence to support the rape accusations, and evidence that undermined the accusations was wrongfully misrepresented and withheld. Mangum was unstable, unreliable, and had a history of making dubious claims. All charges were dropped. The District Attorney, Mike Nifong, had brought an indictment without probable cause, seemingly for reasons related to his campaign for re-election. He violated other ethics rules, and may well be disbarred. He has apologized to the students. The state attorney general has apologized as well.

And now Ruth Sheehan has apologized, unlike her colleagues across the nation.

In her column devoted to accepting responsibility for a rush to judgement, she began, “Members of the men’s Duke lacrosse team: I am sorry. Surely by now you know I am sorry. I am writing these words now, and in this form, as a bookend to 13 months of Duke lacrosse coverage…” Sheehan’s willingness to be accountable for her unfair attacks on the students this might not look so impressive if it were not so rare. Most newspapers and columnists have been content to shift their invective from the Duke players to Nifong. Nancy Grace, who regularly takes the guilt of anyone accused of a crime for granted, did so with special fervor in the Duke case. “I’m so glad they didn’t miss a lacrosse game over a little thing like gang rape,” was one of her more memorable comments. But Grace hasn’t shown any signs of apologizing. For his part, ABC correspondent Terry Moran went to the other extreme, actually suggesting on his blog that there was too much sympathy for the falsely accused athletes. In a post entitled, “Don’t Feel Too Sorry for the Dukies,” Moran observed that…

the outpouring of sympathy for Reade Seligman, Collin Finnerty and David Evans is just a bit misplaced. They got special treatment in the justice system–both negative and positive. The conduct of the lacrosse team of which they were members was not admirable on the night of the incident, to say the least. And there are so many other victims of prosecutorial misconduct in this country who never get the high-priced legal representation and the high-profile, high-minded vindication that it strikes me as just a bit unseemly to heap praise and sympathy on these particular men… As students of Duke University or other elite institutions, these young men will get on with their privileged lives. There is a very large cushion under them–the one that softens the blows of life for most of those who go to Duke or similar places, and have connections through family, friends and school to all kinds of prospects for success. They are very differently situated in life from, say, the young women of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team.

There are other outrageous statements in Moran’s piece, but it isn’t worth the effort to counter all of them, not that it would take much. How could anyone honestly compare the ordeal of three young men being pursued on false charges of rape with the brief indignity visited on Rutgers women’s basketball team, who suffered nothing more than a gross insult by a radio personality, and who were instantly supported by the public? How is it germane to their wrongful prosecution that the conduct of the Duke team may have been less than “admirable”? Citizens wrongly accused of crimes, as well as their associates, are often not candidates for sainthood, and so what? What is Moran trying to say? That we should only feel sorry for people unjustly accused of crimes who only associate with admirable people? That we shouldn’t feel sorry for the wrongly accused students because they were able to avoid prison, and only lost their athletic team, a semester of education and their good names? Moran’s real point, and it is an offensive one, is that we shouldn’t feel sorry for the three Duke students because they are rich and white. This is the core bias that inspired much of the media lynch mob in the first place. He hasn’t learned a thing.

At least Ruth Sheehan has the decency to see that this was wrong and unfair, and the courage and honesty to say she’s sorry. In her profession, that is Ethics Hero territory.

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