It's now been 10 years since members of the Duke University lacrosse team hired two strippers for a party and were then accused of rape. The three players who were arrested for the rape were deemed innocent, the district attorney who pursued the case despite evidence to the contrary was disbarred and those in the media that pushed the false narrative looked like fools.
Except, in the decade since the hoax, members of the media have not learned anything when it comes to stories that confirm their pre-existing narratives. That was proven in late 2014, when Rolling Stone published a now-retracted article claiming a woman was gang-raped at a different university. It has been just over a year since that story went to print, but it has been 10 years since the Duke Lacrosse scandal and yet neither hoax has led to the media searching their consciences when it comes to allegations of heinous crimes such as rape.
On Sunday, ESPN aired the latest in their "30 for 30" series, titled "Fantastic Lies." The documentary was about the Duke Lacrosse rape hoax and aired on the anniversary of the day the team members threw that fateful party. The documentary told the story of how the story exploded in the national media and was eventually proven false.
Yet some in the media don't seem to believe the Duke players were victims themselves. Take Slate's Christina Cauterucci, for example. She wrote that "it's a bizarre experience to watch a documentary that expects the viewer to root for a bunch of accused rapists." This highlights exactly the problem with false accusations: Even when someone is proven innocent, they are always somehow guilty of something, because they are "accused rapists."
I was skeptical of the documentary, which spends the first half seemingly making the case that the alleged rape did happen with only tepid quotes from the defense suggesting it was all a lie. The documentary picks up in the second hour when the case is unraveled and we see the accusation for what it was: a hoax.
Yet watching the documentary, I can't help but see similarities to how campus accusations are handled today, not only by the media but also by campus administrators. "Guilty until proven innocent," as occurred in the Duke case, has become the norm on college campuses, with administrators (under pressure from the federal government) playing the role of Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong.
The media's hunger to report on stories like this, without regard for the facts, was summed up perfectly by Dan Okrent, he former public editor of the New York Times, who said in the documentary that the story had all of the preferred narratives, such as "white over black, rich over poor."
"All the things that we know happen in the world, coming together in one place," Okrent said. "And journalists, they start to quiver with a thrill when something like this happens."
Then, even when the accusations become questionable or are proven false, the media covers itself in the way Cauterucci did – by blaming the falsely accused. In the documentary, Selena Roberts, a former sports columnist for the New York Times, editorialized: "There was plenty foul about that night," in reference to the party thrown by the Lacrosse players.
Then comes the spin from those committed to the narrative that "something must have happened," as Jay Bilas, an ESPN analyst and lawyer pointed out.
"I understand people saying [that something happened in the bathroom], there's just no evidence of it. And none of it's credible. In fact, every piece of evidence points to the fact that nothing did and it was impossible for it to have happened," Bilas said. "And if you look at all of the inconsistent statements, the evidence that wasn't there, it's an impossibility."
Ruth Sheehan, a Raleigh News & Observer columnist who had written an article demanding the Lacrosse players turn each other in (for a crime they didn't commit), was the only journalist who appeared to regret what she had done initially. She wrote a column apologizing to the team when the case was over and the boys were cleared.
"I guess we should have tamped our outrage and waited to see what the evidence showed," Sheehan said.
Tony McDevitt, a former Duke player, perfectly summarized the problem with false accusations: "The lasting legacy of false accusations — it's only going to hurt the women who truly are raped, and that's the real sad part of the whole situation."
Another former player, Rob Wellington, summarized Nifong's tactics in the case (which could be applied to the media and campuses today): "I couldn't ever get my head around how someone could so easily throw away the lives of a couple individuals for their own personal gain in a way that these guys would be damaged regardless of the outcome for the rest of their lives."
Perhaps the most tragic indictment of the current system came from one of the falsely accused students, Reade Seligmann, who said in 2007 that the experienced "opened [his] eyes" to injustice.
"If police officers and a district attorney can systematically railroad us with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, I can't imagine what they'd do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves," he said.
The same goes for accused students today, who find themselves railroaded by a media and administration intent on believing accusers. Those who can afford lawyers can sue the universities, but those who can't afford lawyers must accept the injustice and the effect it will have on their lives.
It's been 10 years since the Duke hoax, and the culture surrounding accusations has only gotten worse.
Ashe Schow is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.