That question was posed by one of my students in a class this morning, and it led to a rather interesting debate.
For some, the answer was clearly yes. Their reasons included: Duke is a nationally-recognized university that enjoys a well-deserved reputation for excellence in athletics and academics, therefore almost anything that happens at such a place will generate national attention; the charge by an African-American woman that she was raped by multiple white men is a microcosm for the racial divide that exists throughout the country; and that because of the saturation of sports (meaning ESPN) this story had a guaranteed daily presence on news and sports.
I found it interesting that no one suggested the story had real value (i.e. no local, state or national policy was being debated) or that the information generated by the event was important to the public at-large. In fact, I asked my students which was more important -- the debate about illegal immigration or the rape accusation. They said illegal immigration. Then I asked them which was more important -- a discussion about when U.S. troops ought to return home from Iraq or the rape accusation. The troops, they said. Finally, I asked them which was more important -- rising gas prices or the rape accusation. Gas prices, without question, they said. So, then why are we talking about the rape accusation in this classroom? I asked. And why are news organizations setting up camp in Durham? Plenty of eyes went from looking at me to looking at the floor, the computer screen, the person in the next seat over, etc.
The argument against this story ever going national can be summarized this way: Rape (sadly and unfortunately) happens every day. Why does this event deserve to be treated any differently? I asked my students if the story would have gone national if the accusations instead had involved men attending a smaller school with little or no national exposure because of athletics. My students laughed and said no.
The triggers for a local story instantly becoming national appeared in this case-- accusation of a crime, well-off (either financially, educationally, or athletically) men taking advantage of a defenseless woman, and an event that either immediately divides a community or highlights a previously divided community, among them. And yet as I have read many of the editorials that have sprung up in recent days no one has suggested that what is taking place in Durham has any real value to the American public. Which, I guess, begs another question -- how can media coverage of the rape accusation be defined, to this point? And what do we expect to see in the upcoming weeks?