Duke lacrosse, the alt-right and me

Viv Bernstein
Apr 24, 2017 · 5 min read

I have watched the rise of the alt-right movement in this country with a mix of shock, anguish and fear. And now, suddenly, a pang of guilt.

Could I have played some small role in galvanizing the white rage that now seems to have taken over half the population and, along with it, the West Wing of the White House? After reading The Duke Lacrosse Scandal and the Birth of the Alt-Right in New York magazine, I can’t help but wonder.

The article chronicles the rise of the alt-right movement and its roots on the Duke University campus in Durham, N.C., in 2006. That was the year a black woman claimed she had been raped by three white lacrosse players at Duke. The accusation had enraged the community, with larger issues of race and gender inequality that had simmered below the surface suddenly boiling over.

According to the New York article, both Richard Spencer, then a Ph.D. student in Duke’s history department, and Stephen Miller, a Duke senior at the time, had publicly lashed out at the university faculty for being too quick to take sides and criticize the athletes. The players were ultimately exonerated after the accuser’s story fell apart. The charges were dropped and the local prosecutor was eventually disbarred for misconduct in the case.

Spencer went on to become the leader of the white nationalist movement that empowers the Republican Party today. Miller, who had chastised the faculty in the student newspaper and steadfastly defended the athletes from the start, is now a senior White House advisor in the Trump administration.

“In this funny chain of events, the Duke lacrosse case changed the course of my career,” Spencer said in the New York magazine story. “My life would not have taken the direction it did absent the Duke lacrosse case.”

But would the Duke lacrosse case have been that platform for Spencer and Miller, and a significant moment in the rise of the nationalist movement, had it not become a national story when it appeared on the front page of The New York Times? That’s the question I have been asking myself since reading the New York magazine story.

Here’s a bit of the backstory on how Rape Allegation Against Athletes is Roiling Duke wound up on Page One of The New York Times on March 29, 2006 — and ignited that national media frenzy. I was the reporter who was in Durham that day and shared the byline on that story with Joe Drape.

At the time, I was a regular contributor to Times as a freelance journalist based in Charlotte, N.C. Most of my coverage over 13 years as a stringer was focused on sports in the Southeast, from college basketball and football to the NFL and NASCAR, although I reported on news as well and assisted in reporting during the Democratic National Convention here in 2012. I had over 1,000 bylines and reporting credits in the Times.

As a freelancer, my income depended on pitching stories that would interest the editors of the Times. So I was always looking for the next idea that might lead to another byline.

Back in March, 2006, I was coming off NCAA Tournament coverage followed by a weekend of NASCAR reporting at Bristol Motor Speedway when I called an editor in the sports department and pitched a story I had been following in the local paper. I had been reading snippets about a rape accusation involving the Duke lacrosse team for over a week, but it wasn’t a front page story here — I don’t recall it even being on the sports front daily. But I thought the Times might want a piece. After all, Duke University’s sports teams not only generated a national following, they were of particular interest to the Times because there is a large contingent of alumni in the New York area. And this was not just a sports story anymore. The campus was in an uproar.

Yes, the Times was interested. So I drove two hours to Durham that day and went to the house where the rape had allegedly occurred. I talked to a neighbor who had heard a commotion that night and then interviewed students about the mood on campus following the accusation.

Timing is everything. As it turned out, the day I pitched the story to the Times sports department and was sent to Durham was also the day Duke president Richard H. Brodhead called a press conference and announced the nationally ranked team would have its season suspended while the investigation was ongoing.

Suddenly, what started out as a sports pitch that morning now had two elements for Page One consideration: A breaking news hook and a reporter on site for the press conference. Yes, I was told, the news editors wanted the story on A1.

This all happened very quickly. Despite what many might assume, I believe there was no larger social or political agenda to the story play that day.

As the Times often dictates national coverage decisions for other media outlets, putting the Duke lacrosse story on Page One that following morning turned a mostly local story into a national firestorm. I returned to Durham many times in the days and weeks after that to continue coverage. On the first day, there were no reporters at the house where the party took place. When I returned, there were national news reporters everywhere.

Miller and Spencer benefited from that newfound national focus. As New York magazine reports, Miller made appearances on Fox News to jump-start his career. Spencer was hired by a conservative publication and later became the founder of the movement he coined the “alt-right.”

Much has been made about the tone of coverage by the Times, which has received criticism over the years. My reporting focused specifically on breaking news; I have no insight and can’t comment on any coverage decisions beyond that. I can say my relationship with Duke officials remained professional and amicable after that.

When the truth came out, the very real issues of race and gender inequality in that community that could have been addressed quickly disappeared from headlines. Instead, the white nationalist movement emerged. Then again, that movement was probably inevitable — I have no doubt it would have found some other outlet to gain notoriety in time. I certainly don’t take any blame for that emergence.

But that doesn’t ease the sinking feeling in my gut that I may have inadvertently added kindling to a hidden, smoldering fire.


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