Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Duke lacrosse: Why you can’t trust what you read in the papers

There’s a new book on the Duke lacrosse case. In keeping with our Orwellian age, the publishers tout The Price of Silence as a comprehensive re-examination of the case which brings new information to light. As is often the case, what is new is not to be trusted. Cohan, in a triumph of perverse contrarianism, has decided to make Mike Nifong the victim of his tale.

KC Johnson has been demolishing Cohan’s book over at Durham in Wonderland. As always, he is the indispensable resource on the case.

Two recent reviews of the book deserve to be read together. David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is largely laudatory in the Wall Street Journal. He inexplicably praises Cohan for “his meticulous research and even-handed tone.” He takes the author at his word that this book is a serious look at the case in all its complexity.

Jeff Neff of the Raleigh News-Observer brings a completely different perspective. As an investigative journalist who helped uncover DA Nifong’s abuse of power, Neff knows more about the case than any other working reporter. Where Shribman sees “meticulous research”, Neff shows us that Cohan failed to talk to many of the most important actors and sources in the drama. Moreover, Cohan’s omissions seem to reflect an agenda. The people he did not interview could (and did) demolish Mike Nifong’s self-exculpatory whining--said whining being the whole basis for Cohan’s revisionist narrative. Shribman is a respected journalist yet his ignorance--the unavoidable condition of most journalists on most stories--left him looking stupid, naïve, and/or biased.

I'm a jounalist whose job it is to explain to others things he does't understand himself.
Scott Shane, New York Times reporter

I am a journalist and so am vastly ignorant of many things, but because I am a journalist I write and talk about them all.
G. K. Chesterton

The problem of journalism in America proceeds from a simple but inescapable bind: journalists are rarely, if ever, in a position to establish the truth about an issue for themselves, and they are, therefore, almost entirely dependent on self-interested 'sources' for the versions of reality that they report.
Edward Jay Epstein, Between Fact and Fiction (1975)
As a reporter stumbles through the inevitable fog of ignorance, there is a powerful temptation to seize on those facts and interpretations that conform to the journalist’s ideological and cultural predilections. Add a measure of knowingness and the ignorance becomes, not a temporary state, but a hard protective shell. Put that journalist in the ideological monoculture that is the modern newsroom and the entire newspaper or network falls prey to folly and error.

Shribman’s review is a near perfect example of this tendency. He uses Cohan’s flawed narrative to ride his pet hobbyhorse--the over-emphasis of athletics on the modern campus. For instance, he and Cohan criticize Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski:

Moreover, his astonishment at the silence of basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski is clearthe revered Duke coach, often outspoken, was virtually absent from the debate about the lacrosse-team episode.
Shribman apparently sees no contradiction between this Coach K. bashing and the genesis of the scandal:

the predictable groups behaving predictably, the loudest advocates for social justice often too impatient to let legal justice take its course, the voices of reason drowned out by the clatter of cliché.
Duke would have been much better off if the Gang of 88 had emulated Coach K’s reticence.

Shribman’s ideological blinders and agenda-driven concern-trolling are evident in his concluding paragraph:

Do you suppose that a similar contretemps among members of Duke's Collegium Musicum would have gripped the nation? If the bad boys had been members of the Duke Players, who perform in Shaefer Theater, rather than the players of the Duke lacrosse team, who perform in Koskinen Stadium, would anyone beyond the Duke campus care? Would Mr. Cohan have written more than 600 pages? To ask the question is to answer itand to see what the real scandal on campus is today.
After I read that I wanted to ask Shribman, “What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?”.

He wants us to believe that the Duke scandal or the Penn State scandal drew attention because athletics have out-sized importance on campus. It would follow, then, that the MSM’s muted response to crimes and possible crimes in the entertainment industry reflects the low cultural importance of movies, music and TV.


This, of course, is absurd.

It is much more likely that the MSM’s divergent response to the Bryan Singer story vs. the lacrosse case or Roman Polanski vs. Jerry Sandusky reflects the mores of the journalistic Guild. The Guild, after all, esteems Robert Lipsyte the sportswriter who hates sports. ESPN has “Outside the Lines” which investigates sports scandals and pseudo-scandals. Hollywood scandal-mongering, however, is something respectable newspapers leave to the checkout line tabloids and info-tainment shows.

One last point, after North Carolina AG Roy Cooper exonerated the players in 2007, the MSM immediately announced that it was time for everyone to “move on” and to put the story behind us. For six years there has been scant interest in revisiting the case, or Durham’s justice system, or the media’s malpractice in abetting an out of control prosecutor. Yet, with Cohan’s book, the “let’s move on” media has become interested in the lacrosse case once again.

They are like Captain Ahab in search of their preferred narrative.


Duke lacrosse: Auto de fe

I think this medieval custom explains a lot about the MSM’s poor performance in Durham. They cared little about the crime per se: respectable journalists and highly paid pundits don’t do crime stories. The case just provided a setting-a publicity hook-where they could deliver their sermons on racism, sexism, privilege, the sins of white athletes, and the need for change.

Changing Minds

Knowing this, it is easy to see why "60 Minutes" was so easily outdistanced by bloggers. Further, Gardner's work suggests that the MSM will suffer more such embarrassment at the hands of new media voices.

Journalists like to say they write the first draft of history, but as noted here, they are peculiarly resistant to revising that draft. They work in a professional echo chamber where their peers agree with them on almost all the big issues and they are unaccustomed to sharing "explanation space" with dissident voices. It is a milieu that does not weed out absolutist personalities. Moreover, their work is so public that admitting mistakes is very hard. In the case of television, so much work, time, and money get invested in a story that emotional commitment is almost inevitable.


Hershel Parker said...

Craig, I am a former English professor who got caught up in the Duke-Durham mistreatment of the lacrosse coach, team, and the families and have stayed up-to-date on reviews of Cohan as well as commenting myself on Amazon. Your piece is exemplary. Congratulations!
Hershel Parker

Quasimodo said...

The above poster is too modest; he is also the world's foremost Melville scholar; and he knows something about "meticulous research" sorting through thousands of documents, and writing "definitive" works--abilities which Cohan judging from his current work appears to lack.

Dick Stanley said...

Indeed, editors hate corrections. Get too many of them and you could wind up writing wedding announcements.

And reporters have long had a tendency to suck up to lawyers, cops and politicians to the detriment of everyone else.

craig said...

"Source management" is one of the worst drovers of bias. Esp. in criminal justice stories where cops and prosecutors must be coddled by reporters looking for scoops.