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NY Times Reviews New Lax Book, but Overlooks A Lot

Including the role of the Times in persecuting the three players

May 27, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Duke Blue Devils midfielder Myles Jones (15) dodges to the goal against Syracuse Orange midfielder Steve Ianzito (24) during the second quarter of the 2013 NCAA Division I Men's Lacrosse Championship Game at Linco
May 27, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Duke Blue Devils midfielder Myles Jones (15) dodges to the goal against Syracuse Orange midfielder Steve Ianzito (24) during the second quarter of the 2013 NCAA Division I Men's Lacrosse Championship Game at Linco

A reader wrote in and suggested that since we discussed the N&O's review of the new book on the lacrosse case, that it would be fair to discuss that of the New York Times as well.

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The first thing that jumped out at us from the Times review is that there was no acknowledgment of the Grey Lady's journalistic malfeasance in its earlier reporting of the case.

The reviewer, Caitlin Flanagan from the Atlantic, perhaps America's finest magazine, never gets around to mentioning that the Times was as ready to condemn the three lacrosse players as anyone.

But set that aside, as she's reviewing the book, not critiquing the paper's integrity.

There's plenty more to consider.

Flanagan calls this book a "masterpiece of reporting."

We have not read it, nor do we plan to, but a couple of minor points here. First, if it's a serious book, why are there no end notes? Wouldn't you expect a carefully researched book to have end notes? Our research today indicates the author, William D. Cohan (a Duke grad, by the way), chose not to share his sources and citations. Odd.

As far as it goes, though, the N&O's review makes some very hard to escape points: Cohan makes assertions, apparently based on former Durham D.A. Mike Nifong's comments, accepts them, and doesn't bother to verify them with the parties Nifong mentions or accuses.

For instance, Nifong impugns the integrity of Jim Coman, the prosecutor who took the case from him, saying that Coman was "sandbagged" by NC Attorney General Roy Cooper. Actually, he impugns the integrity of both.

Cohan didn't bother to ask Coman to verify.

Nor did he bother to ask Jackie Brown, Nifong's former campaign manager, if Nifong said the case was worth "millions" in free advertising.

Nifong also claims the judge who sent him to jail for a mere day for trying to ruin people's lives had told friends that he would convict Nifong - obviously a major ethical violation for a judge. Shouldn't he have the chance to refute such a charge?

Cohan, again, didn't bother to follow up.

You can't possibly call that a masterpiece. At best, it's sloppy; at worst, it's journalistic malpractice.

Flanagan gets to more interesting material when she discusses what Cohan sees as a conflict between becoming a "world-class" university and having a successful athletics program:

"[The university would] pour a deep river of cash into the athletic program so that Duke would be on par with Stanford and Northwestern: academically elite institutions that could also compete with the meatheads at State. No one in the brain trust seemed to grasp that these two missions were on a crash course. The collision ultimately took place in the aftermath of the lacrosse party that ended in the false accusation."

She also makes these observations:

  • "[Duke] was getting a large group of scholars whose attitudes toward heterosexual white males were at best skeptical."
  • "For years, professors had been sending distress signals to the Duke administration involving the increasing surliness of many of their student-athletes. These were young people forced to miss multiple classes because of game schedules, to travel with their teams even when they were injured, to understand that their sports came before their studies, and who had thus become dismissive of the academic enterprise. One shocking report by a deeply concerned history professor characterized some of the athletes as 'openly hostile' to intellectual endeavor."

Well, if intellectual endeavor starts with the faculty "at best" being skeptical about "heterosexual white males," three conditions which are beyond anyone's control, finds at least one member of the lacrosse team punished with a lower grade than he deserved simply because he was on the team, and ends with members of the faculty publicly rushing to damn the students they are supposed to be educating, you should ask yourself who is really being hostile here?

Honestly, pick a combination of any of the following: race, sexual orientation and gender.

Take, say, a gay South Asian male in one class and a straight black female in another.

You go into those classes and the professor makes it clear that he/she regards people like you with disdain simply for your ethnicity, your genitalia, and to whom you are attracted.

What's more hostile than that? Isn't the idea to move past that sort of thing?

The great tragedy of American higher education is that intolerance has become so commonplace. Take Sandra Korn, a student at Harvard.

Korn's intolerance of intellectual diversity has reached this extreme:

In its oft-cited Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the American Association of University Professors declares that "Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results." In principle, this policy seems sound: It would not do for academics to have their research restricted by the political whims of the moment.

Yet the liberal obsession with "academic freedom" seems a bit misplaced to me. After all, no one ever has "full freedom" in research and publication. Which research proposals receive funding and what papers are accepted for publication are always contingent on political priorities. The words used to articulate a research question can have implications for its outcome. No academic question is ever "free" from political realities. If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of "academic freedom"?

Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of "academic justice." When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.

What Korn essentially suggests is to bring the techniques of the Cultural Revolution and the Nazis to Harvard. That she herself is Jewish, that these very techniques were used in Germany in the 1930s to purge Jews from German universities doesn't seem to occur to her.

Perhaps the Harvard history department doesn't discuss such things anymore.

Back to Flanagan: she herself makes some missteps, such as when she incorrectly accuses former Duke lacrosse player Collin Finnerty of a "gay bashing" incident in Washington.

The other party, first, was not gay, and did not feel that Finnerty thought he was gay either.

It was a stupid, drunken squabble between young men out drinking. Nothing particularly new there.

Flanagan also relates that members of the lacrosse team "took courses in African-American and Native American history, although not, apparently, because of a shared allegiance to the Howard Zinn school of scholarship."

Are they obliged to? Is anyone? It might be interesting to know why they took those classes. Did Cohan bother to find out? Flanagan doesn't tell us.

Flanagan goes on to quote Cohan's figure of $60 million paid to the lacrosse players in a confidential settlement with Duke.

Sources close to the players suggest a figure closer to a third of that. Cohan couldn't possibly cite a source for that figure, since the settlement was confidential, but his reportage, as mentioned above, is clearly questionable. Is there any reason to accept this figure?

Speaking of money, Flanagan also is distressed that then-coach Mike Pressler came to practice before spring break with $10,000 dollars to distribute for meals and such. But listen to how she describes it:

"At the beginning of the week, the coach came to practice with some $10,000 in cash, which he passed out to the players in fat wads. The absurd amount was ostensibly for meals, although many of the players were sons of wealthy families and could afford to buy their own chow."

Just a small point here: if you're on the team and on scholarship, your meals are paid for. There's no sliding scale for wealthier players. Either you get it or you don't. You're on scholarship or you're not.

But as imposing as those "fat wads" sound, the current lacrosse team has 43 members. Given a week for spring break, as Flanagan suggests, that works out to $33.22 per day per player, or $11 per meal.

It's not exactly five star dining, least of all for players who are in training and have specific dietary plans and nutritional needs and who, we might add, eat more than most people (and need to).

Flanagan concedes the player's innocence, but like many people before her, implies they had it coming, that they deserved it.

Cohan, as you may have gathered, has a revisionist view of Nifong. Yet the lacrosse case wasn't the first time Nifong's ethics were questioned.

We refer you to the case of Darrell Howard, who was convicted of murder in 1991. We won't detail everything that was wrong with that prosecution, but you can (and really should) read this link from the Washington Post.

He was, in our opinion, railroaded. The prosecutor? Mike Nifong.

The Durham D.A.'s office, most unfortunately, has a history of disgraceful prosecutions. Very few of them (the lax players and the novelist Mike Peterson being notable exceptions) had the resources to fight back.

Howard has rotted in prison for nearly 20 years for something most fair minded people would agree he did not do.

How many more people has the Durham's D.A. office throw away on trumped-up evidence?
That's something Cohan never got around to looking at, something Flanagan never considered and something that was totally lost in the tirades against "white heterosexual males." The next time you hear someone say the prosecutor set him up or screwed him, don't dismiss it out of hand.

Anyone who wants to write a powerful and necessary book should seriously consider looking at how justice is dispensed in Durham. That's the lesson in the lacrosse mess, and it's already been forgotten. The price is being paid not by rich college students, but by poor people with scant resources, and we don't see Cohan, Flanagan, or many well-paid academics, for that matter, giving a damn about them.