As big news stories go, the Duke University lacrosse team's rape scandal already feels like old news even as its new news breaks.
That's because the defendants are being tried in two courts: the criminal justice system and the COPO, the Court of Public Opinion.
A prosecutor has indicted two members of the team for the alleged rape of one of two young women hired to perform what is delicately called "exotic dance" at an off-campus team party-gone-wild.
If that's all there was to it, this would be a local story, although a sad one for everybody involved.
But add the juicy elements of race (the suspects are white, the victim black), class (the lacrosse guys come from money, the dancer is a working-class single mother from historically black North Carolina Central University) and celebrity (Duke is to universities what Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are to People magazine) and you have our biggest media racial eruption since, say. that fateful night when Kobe Bryant called for room service in Colorado.
In the COPO, old wounds are ripped open along lines of race and class, struggle and privilege, titillation and exploitation. Old fears, resentments and suspicions bloom again that a black woman or white man or (fill in your grievance group) cannot get a fair shake in the (take your pick) "racist," "sexist" or "politically correct" media or court system. These are the elements that draw a circus of cable TV news gabbers and talk radio yakkers, unfettered in their drive to fill air time by anything so trivial as, oh, yes, an absence of facts.
If the Rev. Jesse Jackson or the Rev. Al Sharpton do not parachute in on their own, they will be invited. Rush Limbaugh, for one, openly taunted them to come to town as he called the victim a "ho'," a remark for which he later apologized.
MSNBC talk show host Tucker Carlson challenged the credibility of a "crypto-hooker" who "hires herself out to dance naked" in front of strangers, as if the strangers who hire that dancer are not equally suspect. Ah, what a tangled web tough-on-crime conservatives weave when they try to defend rowdy jocks.
The first casualty of a media circus is the truth. Everything we are hearing about evidence and personal reputations is secondhand, highly selective and carefully spun by high-powered lawyers on both sides.
For example, none of the DNA samples from the team connected any of the players to an attack on the woman, but most rape convictions are made without any DNA match, legal experts say. It is we, the public, who have exaggerated the importance of DNA after watching, say, too many episodes of "CSI" on TV.
Besides, nurses said the woman's injuries were consistent with rape, but the athletes claim someone else must have raped her. Leaked photos suggest that the woman was injured before she came to the party, but other photos suggest she received new injuries while she was there.
Outsiders say race had nothing to do with it, but other accounts differ. For example, a neighbor outside the March 13 party at the Durham, N.C., house rented by three of the four captains of the Duke lacrosse team, says he heard one partygoer yell, "Thank your grandpa for my nice cotton shirt."
And on and on. "Pick your fact," writes Dahlia Lithwick, legal expert for the online magazine Slate, after going over the known evidence. "Each of them can, it seems, be spun both ways." Yes, pick your facts to validate your prejudices or whatever grievance for which you want this case to stand.
Small wonder that a lot of people lose faith in the ability of the courts to bring justice, let alone satisfaction, in such disputes. Think back, for example, to the hearings for Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill or the trials of O. J. Simpson and Michael Jackson or for Tawana Brawley's alleged attacker. How satisfying were those outcomes?
Don't expect much satisfaction in this case, either. Once the opposing sides are dug in around a racial eruption, their heels stay dug in.
But I don't blame the regular courts. I blame the Court of Public Opinion, energized by us, the media. When the COPO goes loco, genuine news turns into a form of pornography and it becomes harder for both the accused and their alleged victims to find justice.