Learning Nothing From Duke Debacle, NYT Smears Another College Athlete With Assault Allegation

Did the New York Times learn nothing about rushing to judgement and presumption of innocence from its Duke lacrosse 'rape' hoax debacle?

More than any other media outlet, in 2006 the Times trumpeted black stripper's Crystal Mangum's rape accusations against three white Duke lacrosse players, accusations that quickly fell apart in a mass of contradictions and shifting stories.

Yet even as the case fell apart and other liberal media outlets backed away, the Times issued a now-notorious, error-riddled 5,000-word lead story by Duff Wilson, concluding that there was enough evidence against the players for Michael Nifong, the soon-to-be-disgraced-and-jailed local prosecutor, to bring the case to trial.

Perhaps most atrocious was former columnist Selena Roberts, who continued to smear the innocent Duke lacrosse players even after they had been all but formally cleared of assault.

Now, the Times has another college sports expose from another bastion of privilege, Yale University. Richard Perez-Pena's Friday bombshell, based on anonymous sources speaking on confidential complaints, involves an informal campus accusation of sexual assault against Yale quarterback Patrick Witt, who made good-news headlines last fall for turning down the chance to becoming a Rhodes scholar to play against Yale's arch-rival Harvard in "The Game."

On Nov. 13, Patrick J. Witt, Yale University's star quarterback, announced that he had withdrawn his Rhodes scholarship application and would instead play against Harvard six days later, at the very time of the required Rhodes interview. His apparent choice of team fealty over individual honor capped weeks of admiring national attention on this accomplished student and his quandary.

But Witt was no longer a contender for the Rhodes, a rare honor reserved for those who excel in academics, activities and character. Several days earlier, according to people involved on both sides of the process, the Rhodes Trust had learned through unofficial channels that a fellow student had accused Witt of sexual assault. The Rhodes Trust informed Yale and Witt that his candidacy was suspended unless the university decided to re-endorse it.

Witt's accuser has not gone to the police, nor filed what Yale considers a formal complaint. The New York Times has not spoken with her and does not know her name.

After waiting (as columnist Kathleen Parker notes) until paragraph 11 to note the accusations are anonymous, and paragraph 14 to admit 'Many aspects of the situation remain unknown,' Perez-Pena used Witt's membership in a controversial frat as part of the character assassination: 'Last year, Yale overhauled its systems for handling such complaints and imposed a five-year ban on campus activities by a fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, whose members and pledges had engaged in highly publicized episodes of sexual harassment. Witt was a member of that fraternity and lived in its off-campus house.'

As part of the smear Perez-Pena even added 'two minor arrests' on Witt's record, one for creating a public disturbance and the other for entering a residence hall without permission, nightly occurrences in college towns. (In similar fashion, the Times slimed the entire Duke lacrosse team for such chilling crimes as public urination and violating noise ordinances.)

Brooklyn College history professor K.C. Johnson, who led the charge in spotlighting the Times' disgraceful treatment of the innocent Duke University lacrosse, has condemned Perez-Pena's reporting, which he calls character assassination, in a series of articles at Minding the Campus. Johnson wrote: 'In an ideal world, Richard Perez-Pena and the New York Times would have been subjected to widespread condemnation, even shame, for the character-assassination frame the paper gave to the Patrick Witt story.'

An earlier Johnson post revealed what he considered the story's smear strategy.

Will the paper ever get around to giving former Yale quarterback Patrick Witt an apology? With a few days perspective, it's become clear that the Times' mishandling of the Witt story was, in two specific ways, even worse than originally believed.

First, Times reporter Richard Pérez-Peña strongly implied (though he carefully avoided ever coming out and saying so specifically) that Witt had withdrawn from Yale. In fact, according to a statement issued by a representative of the student, Witt has finished all academic requirements except for his senior thesis, and is off-campus this semester training for the NFL draft, as are many talented college football seniors.

Second, in what could only be deemed a deliberate attempt to smear Witt's character, Pérez-Peña devoted more than eight percent of his article (163 of 1956 words) to discussing what he termed "two minor arrests" in Witt's past. But the paper didn't even attempt to claim that these matters had any bearing on the article's ostensible topic-the suspension of Witt's Rhodes application. Negative insinuations, it seems, were all the news that was fit to print.

Witt's camp responded via email the day the story appeared denying a connection between his Rhodes scholarship withdrawal and the assault accusation.