Accuracy in Media

Everything that is wrong with higher education, and, for that matter, most major media, was on stunning display for the past two years as the district attorney in Durham, North Carolina attempted to prosecute a bogus rape case against three Duke lacrosse players. All of the figures of authority at Duke who could have set the record straight and ended the persecution of a trio of lacrosse players tilted to the side of the ethically challenged DA.

That record is laid out to a fare-thee-well in the book Until Proven Innocent by Stuart Taylor Jr. and K. C. Johnson. Taylor, a reporter for the National Journal, and Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College, lay out the evidence on the case and show that, even before the DA reluctantly admitted that the player’s DNA did not match anything found on their accuser, nearly everything that we were told about the case was wrong.

For, example, when the state attorney general finally declared the lads innocent, the academic and media figures who aided and abetted Durham DA Mike Nifong continued to insist that the former suspects were “no choir boys.” A reporter from the Christian Science Monitor tried to push this one on me in an interview in which he questioned yours truly about the aftermath of the controversy.

As it turns out, compared to their peers, these Duke students lived a nearly monastic existence. “They studied hard,” the authors note. “They got good grades, among the best of any other lacrosse team in the Atlantic Coast conference.”

“Every member of the Class of 2006 graduated with a grade point average above 3.0.” And they didn’t pick the easiest subjects either.

In fact, the only way that they would meet the faculty members who tormented them was by taking the less academically rigorous courses that the school boxes undergraduates into enrolling in to fill out their degree requirements. “They enrolled in the same kinds of classes as most Duke students,” Taylor and Johnson write. “Of the seniors, two majored in economics, two in engineering, one in public policy, and five in history.”

“Five of the squad’s ten seniors made the honor roll in each of their four years at Duke: captains Dave Evans, Matt Zash, and Bret Thompson, and Erik Henkelman and Glenn Nick.” Evans, by the way, was one member of the trio identified by exotic dancer Crystal Mangum?the would-be wronged woman. Mangum’s own record showed her to be more wronging than wronged.

Yet, even in the year that the “pole dancer” put the crew on the front page, “The team’s graduation rate was 100 percent,” Taylor and Johnson report. Well, you might say, maybe they worked hard and played hard. On the field, yes, they did, but off of it, partying was about the one area where they trailed their classmates.

“More recent data from Duke’s Judicial Affairs Office are telling,” the authors observe. Indeed, they are. As presented by the authors, these data show that:

  • “In the six academic years ending in 2006, there were a total of 377 reported incidents of academic dishonesty (such as cheating and plagiarism) by Duke students;

  • “46 reported incidents of physical abuse, fighting and endangerment;

  • “171 alcohol-related medical calls; and

  • “96 incidents of drug-related misconduct.”

“None of these involved lacrosse players, excepting one accursed of smoking pot in his room in 2001.”

There was the stripper they ordered up, as Duke administrators and professors would ceaselessly remind us disapprovingly. As it happens, the young men were behind that curve too, no pun intended..

“Over the 2005-2006 academic year, fraternities, sororities, and athletic teams hired strippers for more than 20 parties,” Taylor and Johnson reveal. “This tally, never challenged by Duke, was compiled by a lacrosse player’s father after the players had been trashed by their university and held up to national scorn in the media for hiring strippers.”

“The father did some old-fashioned investigative reporting that none of the hundreds of professional journalists covering the story ever thought to do.” Wait till you hear this one.

“He opened the yellow pages, found four ‘escort’ agencies, called them up, and asked what services they offered and what experience they had with Duke parties,” Taylor and Johnson write. “Plenty, it turned out.”

Taylor is a veteran journalist with three decades of experience. Johnson is an academic who transformed himself into a police beat reporter while trying to follow this story.

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