When President Obama recently issued new guidelines for reporting and investigating sexual assaults on campus, he signaled his intention to curb violence against women and to confront a toxic culture that is deeply entrenched in higher education.
Triangle readers might view these policies as a delayed response to the Duke lacrosse controversy of 2006, where a racially charged rape allegation made by a stripper against members of the Duke men's lacrosse team later proved unfounded. It remains one of the most prominent and confounding cases of its kind—less for the alleged assault than for a botched prosecution that led to the disbarment of District Attorney Mike Nifong.
William D. Cohan's exhaustive, exhausting new book, The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities, recounts the case with the benefit of some distance. Despite that perspective, it feels rushed and haphazardly constructed. Critics—even Jon Stewart could barely hide his skepticism in a recent Daily Show interview—have not been kind in their assessments, nor should they be: This very long book is short on insight or purpose. Especially considering that the "power of the elite" and "corruption of our great universities" continues unabated, The Price of Silence is a sorely missed opportunity to gauge the full impact of the case.
A Duke alumnus who has written thoughtfully about Washington and Wall Street, Cohan regurgitates seemingly every last shred of information from his files: every note scrawled on a napkin, every press conference muttering and blog post. He indulges in lengthy quotes from his sources, persistently confusing summary with analysis and failing to shape the facts into a coherent or accessible narrative.
The carelessness of Cohan's storytelling is all the more egregious considering that the controversy was based on careless storytelling, from Crystal Mangum's bungled account of the alleged assault and Nifong's preening pronouncements in the media to the lacrosse players' silence about the incident.
Cohan makes clear that he wrote without the input of many key participants, including Duke administrators and lacrosse players. In fact, the only person willing to rehash the case seems to be Nifong, who is perhaps not the most credible witness. Still, he gets multiple opportunities to explain his prosecutorial missteps.
Some have accused Cohan of being overly sympathetic to the man who emerged as the villain of the case. This may be the unintended consequence of the author's lack of access to other testimonies and to his own mishandling of the narrative. Under the guise of objectivity, he interjects his own sympathies and prejudices. But when the reader needs him to sift through an abundance of tedious facts, Cohan bows out of the discussion.
Nifong is portrayed as a man with little inclination for self-reflection. Given the opportunity to speak about the case, he excuses himself tirelessly, as though the years have given him no new perspective. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case with many of the participants here, including Cohan himself.
The Price of Silence adds nothing new to the case or our understanding of it. Eight years later, we're still more or less where we started. Did nobody learn anything from this boondoggle?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Heavy silence."