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Digging at Duke

January 22, 2007

Last spring, I must have spent more hours with the family of the accuser in the Duke case than any other print journalist. Believe me, the view from inside is nothing like what Americans are being fed by the mostly myopic broadcast outlets. The story of the young woman at the center of the Duke rape scandal is far more complicated than we have been allowed to say on television, because most cable and broadcast news outfits are simply not interested in investigative reporting or deep thinking. To investigate is to study a situation carefully, formally, and systematically. It is not the lost art of punditry (a term that actually requires a “learned” expert). And it is certainly not about spewing vitriolic sound bites. At its best, journalism is a revelatory process that begins from the inside of homes and hearts; not standing at the top of courtroom steps. It’s about digging for facts with the right tools and some serious shoe leather. It's more than hair, makeup, lights and cameras. If members of the media had truly done this work, they would have discovered, as I did in reporting several breaking news stories for ESSENCE magazine, that the accuser is more than just a cardboard image of a “stripper,” as the talking heads remind us over and over and over again. In fact, by now she has been reduced not just to a stripper, but to a lying, scheming black stripper at that.  And one who should herself be “put in jail” as Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, a syndicated radio host and president of the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, actually proposed on a recent CNN Paula Zahn special, in which I was also a (stunned) guest panelist. If this “commentator” had been an actual working journalist even remotely connected to reporting this case, he would have known that the accuser was, and still is, a complicated and conflicted human being. As are we all. Although no member of the media has ever spoken with her directly—she was kept sequestered by District Attorney Mike Nifong in an undisclosed location during the early months of the case—I learned much about the young woman during time spent with her parents, brother and ex-husband. They revealed many details that, to this day, have never been publicly reported or, at the most, mentioned in passing.  For example, here’s something you probably haven’t heard: In addition to working as an exotic dancer, the 28-year-old woman had held a variety of other jobs while putting herself through college and raising two small children (she now has a third). She had sold cars at a local dealership, worked in an automobile assembly plant, and lifted and bathed elderly patients in a nursing home. She had to give up the latter after injuring her back on the job. She knew how to drive a forklift too, said her father with obvious pride. When pieced together, these details began to make the puzzle somewhat clearer as they shed light on one woman’s attempts to hold it all together, despite a history of prior sexual violence and depression. As we first reported in ESSENCE, at age 18, the accuser reported a rape to her mother and to police that she said occurred when she was 14. The assault involved her then-boyfriend and some of his friends, she said, in an isolated location in Creedmoor, North Carolina. My editors and I decided that it was important to share this story, after her mother shared it with me one morning, because the defense had been gearing up to launch an attack the woman’s credibility that week: they implied in the press that she was insane (read: receiving professional counseling) and on drugs (read: taking prescription medication for depression caused in part by prior sexual trauma). To be a responsible journalist is a noble thing. We are entrusted with the responsibility of listening—really listening—to ordinary people, and doing our best to honor their experiences. I wish more of us had done this work with the young woman who remains silent. If only they had made the effort to look more closely. The blurred image that emerged for me was both lovely and tragic. It was the face, simply, of a human being. Kristal Brent Zook is a contributing writer at ESSENCE magazine and author of Black Women’s Lives: Stories of Power and Pain.
Tags: Media