Pair of Panels on the Media

January 31, 2007
Questioning the war on terror: national-security panel discusses media access and government transparency since 9/11

Questioning the war on terror: national-security panel discusses media access and government transparency since 9/11. Megan Morr

When the Duke Magazine Editorial Advisory Board and The Chronicle Alumni Network met in late October, the first feature of their joint weekend was a powerful pair of media panels. The panels convened to address two provocative topics: media coverage of rape allegations against three men's lacrosse players and the press' role in covering national-security issues. The events attracted more than a hundred audience members.

Members of the lacrosse panel included law professor James E. Coleman Jr., who co-chaired a committee that investigated the lacrosse team's culture. He told the audience that he didn't think the case—and the resulting media coverage—"would be anything like it turned into." Jay Bilas '86, J.D. '92, a sports analyst with ESPN, said, "There are so many things in this case that have to do with hard-news reporting, but with a twenty-four-hour news cycle, there's also the culture of opinion." He noted that coverage sometimes blurred the lines between facts and opinions. "After the hard-news component, then comes the opinion segments, where the host brings on two different opinions, and they argue. They may come from the same network, but they're very different modes of coverage. That was a big deal at ESPN and many other networks—the different types of coverage and how people absorb that."

Media deliberations: Ashley, top, Drescher, and Coleman Media deliberations: Ashley, top, Drescher, and Coleman
Media deliberations: Ashley, top, Drescher, and Coleman

Media deliberations: Ashley, top, Drescher, and Coleman. Chris Hildreth

Panelists described how the media's angle on the story evolved from covering the initial outrage at the alleged crime to examining weaknesses in the case of Durham District Attorney Michael B. Nifong. Jerrold K. Footlick, a former senior editor of Newsweek and a member of Duke Magazine's Editorial Advisory Board, said the constantly changing dynamics of the story made it hard for the Duke administration to react. "They had no control over the facts. You just didn't know what was true. And that was a serious problem."

Bob Ashley '70, editor of Durham's Herald-Sun, and John Drescher A.M. '88, managing editor of Raleigh's News & Observer, said their newspapers could have been more consistent in characterizing the woman accusing the three players of rape. Drescher said the News & Observer oscillated between the terms "victim" and "accuser." Susannah Meadows '95, a senior writer at Newsweek, who wrote a cover story on the case, defended her magazine's coverage. In response to a pointed question from an audience member about the media's responsibility toward the three indicted players, she said, "I worry about everything. I think about it all the time and wake up nervous. But I wouldn't say that Newsweek, in any way, is responsible for ruining lives."

Audience members had numerous questions for the panelists; some, including a few parents of current lacrosse players, were notably contentious. They accused the media of taking Nifong's public statements at face value and complained about the tendency to view the case through the prisms of class and race. The panel was moderated by Frank Stasio, host of The State of Things, a current-events program on WUNC Radio.

A slightly smaller, decidedly calmer crowd listened to the second panel discuss the post-9/11 tension between national security and the press. Among the panelists were two professors of public policy at Duke: David Schanzer, who directs the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, and Susan Tifft '73, Eugene C. Patterson Professor of the practice of journalism and public-policy studies and a member of the Duke Magazine Editorial Advisory Board.

"This administration has taken advantage of the cloak of secrecy perhaps more than we would want," said Scott Silliman, executive director of the law school's Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security, who was an Air Force military attorney for twenty-five years. "Some of that has to do with the ambiguity of what we're dealing with. There has been no clarity, no precise definition of what this 'war on terrorism' is."

New York Times national-security correspondent Mark Mazzetti '96 noted that embedded reporting has changed the dynamic between the military and the press. "It's certainly a more extreme version of your normal relationships, because you're quite literally relying on your sources to keep you alive," he said. Mazzetti was embedded with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq; he broke the story on a National Intelligence Estimate linking the war in Iraq with a rise in terrorism. "It does distort the normal relationship, and it's imperfect, but you take what you can get. Access is better than no access."

"I am surprised by the resiliency of the administration," said Rebecca Christie '95, a defense reporter for Dow Jones Newswires. "It's sticking by its guns and goals no matter what." Silliman, however, noted that military leaders increasingly are admitting the situation in Iraq has gone sour. "Military leaders who lead men and women are finding ways to call it like it is."

The national-security panel was moderated by John Dancy, a visiting lecturer in public policy and a former NBC News correspondent.

In addition to the panels, the program included recognition of seniors Jeffrey E. Stern and Seyward Darby, recipient and runner-up, respectively, for the 2006 Melcher Family Award for Excellence in Journalism, sponsored by Duke's DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. Stern has written for Duke Magazine; Darby, last year's editor of The Chronicle, was among the participants in the discussion on lacrosse and the media.