How the Media Again Failed on the Duke Lacrosse Story

Story Stream
recent articles

More than a dozen major newspapers and magazines have rushed in recent weeks to publish reviews heaping praise on what we have demonstrated -- and will demonstrate again below -- to be a guilt-presuming, fact-challenged new book about the Duke lacrosse rape fraud of 2006.

Meanwhile, author William D. Cohan has ratcheted up his wild claims and misleading innuendoes during at least 10 broadcast and print interviews about the book, even, in some cases, after proof of their falsity had been published by us and others.

Most of the interviewers have been as fawning as most of the reviewers, leaving unchallenged Cohan's evidence-free innuendoes that Duke lacrosse players did something terrible on the night in question.

The notable exception was Jon Stewart's interview of Cohan this week on “The Daily Show.” Stewart repeatedly cut short -- with observations such as "in this case they were exonerated" -- Cohan's efforts to slime the lacrosse players.

All this despite the fact that the 621-page book, “The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities,” adds not a single scrap of new evidence that undermines the well-founded consensus that -- as North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper found in April 2007 -- no Duke lacrosse player committed any crime against the mentally imbalanced accuser, Crystal Mangum.

Since the early hours of March 14, 2006, Mangum has provided more than a dozen dramatically varying versions of her story of being sexually assaulted in a bathroom by (variously) three, four, five, and 20 members of the Duke lacrosse team, who had paid her and another woman to strip at a spring-break team drinking party.

Cohan's main additions to the record are long, tiresome interview transcripts uncritically presenting the self-serving ruminations of disbarred District Attorney Mike Nifong, a convicted liar. Cohan added a jailhouse chat with Mangum, who is now serving an 18-year prison sentence for murdering her boyfriend. Cohan deemed her “rational, thoughtful, articulate” even though her newest story contradicted each of her prior accounts.

From these two discredited and highly compromised sources, Cohan advances two aggressively revisionist theses. First, he contends that “something happened in that bathroom that none of us would be proud of,” citing the Nifong-Mangum claim that a sexual assault in fact occurred despite all the DNA, photographic, physical, medical, and other credible evidence and witness accounts to the contrary.

In our opinion, Cohan has veered into potential slander by speculating in one broadcast interview that the falsely accused former students might have been “very successful at covering it up,” thanks to the “deep pockets” of their parents and attorneys.

Second, Cohan portrays the “honorable” and “quite credible” Nifong as the real victim in the case -- a model prosecutor who was “railroaded” from office for the “red herring” of failing to give defense attorneys DNA test results that “didn’t matter.”                                                                                             

In fact, Nifong's efforts to hide these test results -- showing the DNA of four males who were not Duke lacrosse players on Mangum despite her denials of having recently had sex -- were essential to Nifong’s own publicly stated theory of the case, undermined the credibility of his complaining witness, and violated two separate provisions of North Carolina law. It’s a primary reason the state bar relieved him of his law license.

Cohan, too, breezily wishes away the fact that no lacrosse player's DNA was found on or in Mangum, a fact that all by itself proves that her stories of a long, brutal, three-man beating and gang-rape with no condoms could not possibly be true.

Despite these and many other fatal flaws, Cohan's book has been celebrated uncritically in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, the Daily News, Newsday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Economist, FT Magazine, Salon, and the Daily Beast, and in interviews by MSNBC's “Morning Joe” and “The Cycle,” Diane Rehm New York Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and various public radio stations.

(Brian Lamb gave Cohan an hour on C-SPAN, but Lamb also graciously granted a request by one of us, Stuart Taylor, for an opportunity to respond to his own interview of Cohan.)

The review in the daily New York Times, by Susannah Meadows, was a bit more balanced than most. At least it acknowledged that “Cohan hasn’t unearthed new evidence” and “[t]here is still nothing credible to back up the account of an unreliable witness,” meaning Mangum. But even though these indisputable facts blow up the foundation on which Cohan has rested his book’s credibility, Meadows puffs Cohan's “exhaustive, surprisingly gripping retelling of the episode” as an “extremely impressive feat” that “proves its worthiness.”

Nor did the book's factual errors, internal contradictions, and relentless bias prevent David Shribman, editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, from extolling Cohan's “meticulous research and evenhanded tone” in his review for the Wall Street Journal. Or prevent Simon Akam from praising the book as “laudably even-handed” in The Economist. Or Mark Dent from lauding it as “fair and objective” in Shribman's Post-Gazette.

Meticulous? Even-handed? Fair and objective? Cohan appears to have quoted only five people for the record: Nifong, one of his lawyers, Mangum, former Duke Chairman Robert Steel, and one of the 47 lacrosse team members. (Because Cohan provided neither endnotes nor a list of his interview subjects, we may have missed one or two other on-the-record interviewees, but we doubt it.) Portraying Nifong as a courageous hero “crucified” for a few forgivable “mistakes,” the “even-handed” Cohan did not even attempt to give most of the people he helps Nifong smear a chance to respond.

This list includes the judge who sentenced Nifong to a night in jail for lying in court; the wrongly indicted players' five principal defense lawyers; the two North Carolina State Bar prosecutors who presented the case against Nifong; and the three bar disciplinary panel members who did disbar him for egregious prosecutorial misconduct after a five-day public trial in which he had a full opportunity to defend himself. The panel concluded that Nifong hid highly exculpatory DNA evidence and made inflammatory, race-baiting attacks on the accused in the media to help win the black vote in a tight primary election.

Such sins against the most elementary principle of journalistic ethics would “be pathetic mistakes for a daily newspaper story.” Those are the words of Joseph Neff of the Raleigh News & Observer, the journalist who broke more stories on the criminal justice side of the case than any individual reporter. He continues: “For an author spending months or years on a book, it’s a revealing choice to avoid interviews that contradict the revisionist narrative: that Nifong is the victim.”

Yet many interviewers of Cohan have taken their cue from an author who began -- and, from all appearances, ended -- his book with scant understanding of either criminal justice or higher education. (His three previous books dealt with the financial industry.)

Ignoring the mountains of exculpatory evidence in the case, the co-hosts of “Morning Joe,” for example, asked such probing questions as “No good guys here, you say?” and “What are the other details that really surprised and shocked you?” Of the falsely accused students, Leonard Lopate of WNYC wondered, “Is it fair to say they came from privileged backgrounds?” Of Nifong, Lopate sympathetically queried, “Did he feel that he was being railroaded?”

At least two lessons can be gleaned from this disturbing performance by the media.

First, most of the mainstream media have proved incapable of learning from their own egregious mistakes. Eight years ago this spring, in a frenzy of liberal groupthink, they ignored obvious evidence of innocence for months. Meanwhile, they sought to uphold a storyline of a modern-day morality play, with privileged, loutish, white athletes brutally raping a noble African-American working mother.

As Jon Stewart told Cohan, who could not have been happy to hear it: "It is so tailor-made for what our media enjoys more than anything, which is a sensationalized conflict. This is white kids, richer kids, at a privileged university, a woman of lesser privilege, you know, this is, this is the perfect storm for them in terms of generating something. Unfortunately, it didn't work out for them in that she was not a particularly good exemplar of David versus Goliath."

Cohan's revival of the false narrative that Stewart rightly rejected allows the original rush-to-judgment crowd to comfort themselves with the fiction that they were right all along. For his part, Cohan substitutes the hopelessly vague claim that “something happened” in that bathroom. This is quite a retreat from Mangum's initial claim -- which even she has abandoned -- that she was gang-raped in a bathroom. But in fact, no credible evidence exists that any Duke lacrosse player was ever alone with Mangum in any bathroom, for any purpose at all.

Second, it seems that many book reviewers don't do much homework, or even read the books that they are supposed to be evaluating -- at least, not closely enough to notice the numerous contradictions, inconsistencies, and non-sequiturs (as well as false assertions) that litter Cohan's book.

As Radley Balko wrote in a Washington Post blog post, “While Cohan’s book continues to win airy praise in elite outlets from reviewers who have little prior working knowledge of Durham, it’s getting panned by people who have specialized knowledge of Nifong, and of the lacrosse case in particular.” The latter group includes each of us, in reviews published by The New Republic and Commentary, as well as Neff's review in the News & Observer and Peter Berkowitz’s review in RealClearPolitics.

One reason for this discrepancy is that only people with independent knowledge of the facts have easily recognized the false and misleading nature of many Cohan assertions.

The upshot is many reviews by the casually informed, but politically correct, crowd  credulously parrot demonstrably false statements that can most charitably be attributed to Cohan's indifference to the facts and evidence -- amplified by his decision to avoid interviewing people who might challenge his (and Nifong’s) fallacies.

Here are seven such examples:

-- Cohan has presented as plausible Mangum's claim -- for the first time, in a prison interview by him sometime between 2011 and 2013 -- that the lacrosse players “shoved a broomstick up me” during the alleged assault, leaving "wooden pieces" inside her. In fact, that story flatly contradicted both the physical evidence (nothing about wooden pieces) and all of Mangum's more than a dozen prior statements, in 2006, 2007, and for years thereafter. None mentioned being assaulted with a broomstick. The only previous references to a broomstick in the case was the fact that during the four-minute "dance" in the living room, one of the never-indicted players picked up a broom that was leaning against the wall and suggested that the two strippers use it as a sex toy. This angered the other stripper, Kim Roberts, who stopped the performance, yelled curses, and stormed out of the room with the almost incoherent Mangum stumbling behind her.          

-- Cohan has asserted multiple times that he was the first journalist to disclose the findings of sexual assault nurse Tara Levicy's report of her interview of Mangum, and has repeated the claim even after being reminded on April 14 of our own 2007 book's extensive quotations from Levicy's report. That report was also cited in 2006 by CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” at least two major newspapers, several TV stations, and two blogs (including Johnson's) in 2006 and 2007.

-- In an April 25 radio interview, Cohan falsified the details of Levicy's report by asserting that the nurse “found evidence that [Mangum] had been brutalized and that she had been hurt very badly.” The report indicated nothing of the kind. Neither Levicy nor any of the other three doctors and four nurses who examined Mangum found any physical evidence of an alleged attack. Cohan has dismissed critics (including Taylor, directly) of such falsehoods as "haters" without indicating what he thinks they hate.

-- Cohan has hyped his book with wildly inflated assertions that the case cost Duke over $100 million, including payments of $20 million to each of the wrongly indicted players in 2007 to settle their claims against the university. The settlement also covered the more than 100 professors and administrators -- from Steel and Duke President Richard Brodhead on down -- who joined in trashing the lacrosse players in their hour of peril.

The settlements were actually about one-third of what Cohan asserts, as authoritative North Carolina journalist Bernie Reeves reported in July 2007 and as both of us have confirmed. The basis for Cohan’s estimate appears to be ill-informed gossip, which he calls “the consensus around Duke and Durham.”

-- Cohan's book, which repeatedly launches character assaults against the defendants, cites Nifong to assert that the wrongly indicted Reade Seligmann and his parents never paid his first two defense lawyers a dime. But Phil Seligmann, Reade's father, denounced the Cohan-Nifong claim as “patently false” in an interview with Taylor, saying that he had paid the two lawyers “hundreds of thousands of dollars” for all their work.

-- James Coman, the veteran prosecutor who led Attorney General Cooper's reinvestigation of the case, has denounced as “figments of [Nifong's] imagination” the former DA's assertion in Cohan’s book that Cooper “sandbagged” Coman and his colleague Mary Winstead by declaring the indicted lacrosse players innocent.

In fact, Coman told the N&O’s Neff that he and Winstead insisted that Cooper declare the students innocent. Cohan never called Coman or Winstead to check the accuracy of Nifong's self-serving speculation. (Cooper refused to talk to Cohan, as did the three defendants, apparently sensing Cohan's bias.)

-- Robert Steel, who in 2006 chaired Duke's Board of Trustees and whom Cohan praises as a key source, contradicted in an April 9 email to Taylor Cohan's claim that Steel agrees with Cohan and Nifong that “something happened in that bathroom that none of us would be proud of.”

While the pro-Cohan news outlets studiously ignore such problems with the book, the New York Times -- ignoring its own embarrassingly discredited reporting on the case in 2006 -- has once again led the way.

It followed the April 6 Meadows review with the even more uncritical piece by Caitlin Flanagan, calling Cohan's book "a masterwork of reporting" in the April 24 Sunday Book Review. Neither review mentioned the paper’s inglorious role in 2006. Cohan gushed in a tweet, “The brilliant Caitlin Flanagan totally gets it.”

Yet this media praise has coincided with a disinclination even of most sympathetic reviewers and interviewers to embrace Cohan’s innuendo -- central to his book – that some kind of assault did take place and that Nifong was the victim of a “kangaroo court,” the bar disciplinary panel.

(One notable, but not noble, exception is Karen R. Long, in Newsday, who does appear to accept the “something happened” claim in a brief review containing three factual errors about the evidence. Newsday has declined to correct them; and Long has refused comment.)

More typically, reviewers have glossed over or simply ignored the indefensible claims at the heart of this book, while hailing Cohan’s skill as a narrator -- his “intriguing recap of a courthouse battle,” in the words of Nick Anderson's somewhat mixed review in the Washington Post -- and focusing on his exhaustive recitation of the well-known facts that binge drinking and related bad behavior are endemic at universities and that big-time athletics often eclipse scholarly pursuits.

The book ends with a note from Nifong to Cohan saying he hoped one day Cohan could meet Nifong’s son. The author has reciprocated the sentiment: In a recent interview, he said with some passion that of all the characters in the drama, “I certainly feel sorry for Mike Nifong, the prosecutor, whose life was ruined because of this.”

Cohan's sympathy for a rogue prosecutor did not faze the sympathetic reviewers and interviewers. But how deferential would they have been to Cohan if Crystal Mangum had been a mentally unbalanced, white sorority sister moonlighting as a prostitute (as did the real Mangum) who had hurled wildly implausible rape charges at three football players from a mostly black school?

And if in that context Cohan had glorified a prosecutor who had used race-baiting pre-trial publicity to rally the white vote in a racially polarized primary, and then concealed exculpatory evidence in the hopes of sending innocent people to jail for 30 years?

That question answers itself. The question that lingers is: When will they ever learn?


KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Stuart Taylor Jr. is a Washington writer and Brookings Institution nonresident senior fellow. They co-authored the 2007 book “Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case.”

Show commentsHide Comments