This is the first of a planned three part series on the so-called Jena 6 case. Part II can be found here. Part III should be up in short order. [UPDATE: Part III here.]
It's now the conventional wisdom -- pretty much conceded -- that the media elites messed up the Duke Lacrosse case, and how. Stuart Taylor and KC Johnson, both of whom have done great work on this case, have an Op-Ed in Today's Washington Post which gives a concise -- and damning -- recapitulation. Their summary dovetails with an article last month by John Leo (via Instapundit). In his article, Leo discusses a number of well-publicized media and academic messups: the Duke Lacrosse case, the New Republic Scott Thomas Beuachamp affair, the coverage of Cindy Sheehan, Rigoberto Menchu' s largely fictional memoir, which helped her pick up a Nobel Prize.
Often, when the facts contradict the media narrative, we get some variation of "fake, but accurate." Leo Quotes Even Thomas of Newsweek as saying "The narrative was right but the facts were wrong." Nor is this the only time we've heard that particular line. As Leo notes, "After the Tawana Brawley hoax was exposed, the Nation magazine ran an article saying that 'in cultural perspective, if not in fact, it doesn't matter whether the crime occurred or not,' since the pattern of whites abusing blacks is true."
In every "big media screwup" case that I can recall, the media found a compelling story that it wanted to believe. The story was so good that nobody bothered to be skeptical about the actual facts. Or at least they didn't bother until pretty late in the game. An earlier example would be the McMartin preschool case, now pretty widely conceded to be an example of sexual abuse hysteria. The whole idea that children were being sexually abused in Satanic rituals was pretty farfetched to start with, but nobody thought of that until quite a few lives were ruined.
So why didn't the media show more skepticism, sooner? I don't think anybody knows, but I suspect that part of it was that really heinous allegations often short-circuit critical judgment. Another part was that they didn't want to be seen as attacking children. There was probably some amount of -- obviously misplaced -- faith in the mental health professionals who pushed such allegations. But I suspect that a big part was that it was just a good story, too good to check.
In the Duke Lacrosse case and the Brawley case, you have a situation in which media and academic elites want desperately to believe a certain thing. They wanted to believe a tale of privileged whites victimizing a black woman because it plays into their liberal presuppositions about how the world works. And inconvenient questions didn't get asked -- at least not initially -- because the story was so appealing.
So what general lessons can be gleaned from Rathergate, the Duke Lacrosse case, the Tawana Brawley case, and the sexual abuse cases of the eighties? Let me suggest that it's not a bad idea to show some healthy skepticism, to ask the hard questions, and to withhold judgment until all the facts are in. This is particularly true when, as in the Duke Lacrosse case, the media narrative conforms closely to the way liberal elites are wont to view the world.
And that leads me to the whole "Jena 6" matter.
I first discovered the whole issue on Radley Balko's blog, where he has mentioned the case a few times. It has started to really get a fair amount of attention -- it's been covered in the Washington Post and now by CNN, and a Google Search for "Jena 6" yields over three million hits, and it goes without saying that they have a Wikipedia Entry. And, so far at least, the views expressed are pretty unanimous -- Radley Balko referred to the case as an example of "racial ugliness;" Jonah Golddberg opined that it sounded like they'd gotten a "raw deal;" other blogs have discussed the case. One blogger characterizes the situation as being "clearly unjust," and most people seem to agree with that sentiment. There's an online petition if you want to sign up!
Now, I'm not ready to say that this is another Duke Lacrosse case, but I do think a bit of skepticism is in order. "Poor innocent black kids railroaded by racist whites" is a position that happens to dovetail quite neatly with the natural inclinations of blogospheric and media elites. So maybe, just maybe, it would be a good idea to show a bit of skepticism here, particularly given the apparent unanimity of opinion.