So Now It's the Lacrosse Murder

The American public loves stories. It loves stories better than explicated truth, because stories entertain better. Ask Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Ask the Hofstra lads.  And when the media gets something wrong, don't expect apologies or hand-wringing; there's just a rush to get on with the next story; because the truth would require so much explanation it would bore people and lose the audience.

Now we have a murder committed in Virginia. Alcohol played a part. But too many people enjoy alcohol to focus on that; and besides, the media wouldn't want to come across as prudes. The defendant was a student -- but that's too broad a category to be meaningful. How about describing him as a lacrosse player?  That suits.  It reads better that way. The story has more of a tabloid flavor. 

  • "Virginia Lacrosse Murder Trial goes to jury"-- Reuters
  • "UVA Lacrosse Murder Trial: Guilty Verdict" -- ABC
  • "UVA Lacrosse Murder" -- CBS
  • "The Lacrosse Murder ..." -- TIME essay

It  brings up associations in our minds created by the very same press a couple of years ago -- lacrosse, Duke, rape -- something like that. The public doesn't have long memories; facts become blurry. 

So it's the lacrosse murder. And we love our stereotypes -- neat categories that preclude the necessity for us to do any hard thinking. 

When the Duke players were first accused (falsely), the media had a field day telling us how the wealthy white prep-school graduates had wantonly abused and then raped a poor working woman of color. There was no in-between to this fable, no degree of uncertainty, not even the slightest space between pure good and pure evil in the accounting  of spoiled  males sunk in depravity and their innocent (and very politically correct) victim. 

It was only grudgingly that the media finally admitted that they might have a few facts wrong; but by then the impressions had sunk in. That the father of one of the accused had been raised by a black family; that the father of another grew up poor but after he made his fortune used a chunk of it for black education and for building medical clinics in Africa, somehow never made it into print. That would have disrupted the pure morality tale. And it didn't matter anyway; as Evan Thomas of Newsweek explained his magazine's
hyping of the story: "The facts were wrong, but the narrative was right."

That the Coleman Report noted the Duke team was among the best behaved and best academically of Duke teams; that some were teetotalers and even devout Christians; contradicted too much of the accepted mythology. The counter-story was so effective that even the clergy ran away from the accused; they couldn't risk getting their robes dirty by associating with such persons as the defendants were presumed to be.

Indeed, the  best show in town was put on by the clergy at a church rally, where 1200 of Durham's finest citizens gathered to hear two Black Panthers denounce lacrosse players, whites, and especially Jews. No matter that many of the congregants were holding bibles -- books written by Jews; or that a depiction of the Jew Jesus in Gethsemane looked down upon them all. It was such a comforting yarn. It affirmed so much.  It permitted those present to revel in their own superior righteousness and to embrace their myth of oppression at the hands of the white power structure.

In 2007 there was a rape in Durham at an off-campus party
hosted by a Duke fraternity. The accused was neither a lacrosse player nor white nor rich nor privileged. Newsweek didn't find the event worth hand-wringing. There were no candlelight vigils held and no moral aphorisms delivered by Duke President Brodhead (who had waxed so eloquent in his condemnations of his lacrosse team even before they were officially charged). The victim -- herself a Duke student -- was shunted to one side. 

In writing fiction, an author has to keep the reader from being sidetracked. Peripheral characters and plots must be discarded. The rapist of 2007 was released on low bail, and then and then proceeded to rape another victim.  This side story completely evaded sermonizing in the editorial columns and by the talking heads.

Eventually another lacrosse player will run afoul of the law; and we can be certain we will then see the old themes resurrected; moral certainties about lacrosse players (or the rich, or the privileged, or the prep-school grads) will be recycled. (If there was truth in them, then there should also be truth in the assertion that an absence of wealth and lacrosse must result in a corresponding decrease in crime.) 

But we will not care; the story will be familiar; it will not require thought on our part; it can be digested as easily as American Idol, or just another episode of the latest crime show. The most important thing is that, facts or not, it will be entertaining. And isn't that what the media is all about?

R. B. Parrish is the author of "The Duke Lacrosse Case: A Documentary History and Analysis of the Modern Scottsboro."