Tuesday, June 3, 2014

KC Johnson's Masterpiece of Textual Scholarship on William D. Cohan's THE PRICE OF SILENCE


Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Cohan: Side-by-Side

The handful of close readers of the William D. Cohan book (a list that, alas, did not include reviewers from the Economist and Newsday) doubtless noticed an anomaly—minor errors, usually by a page or two, in the index. It was almost as if there were lots of small, last-minute alterations to the book, some of which led to pagination changes that weren’t accurately reflected in the index.
It turns out that the manuscript was reduced by 22 pages. Some of the shift came from modifying the spacing and the margins. Cohan also made minor cuts of little editorial consequence. But myriad alterations better framed the argument, by: eliminating criticism of the book’s protagonist, Mike Nifong; cutting passages that reflected very poorly on Nifong’s conduct or temperament; bolstering the Cohan/Nifong “something happened” thesis; or downplaying positive portrayals of the lacrosse players’ character.

The Cohan book was filled with hundreds of pages of recycled material—paragraph after paragraph, seemingly prepared by a research assistant, blandly summarizing an article by reporter x or the opinions of columnist y. It would not have been difficult to cut 22 (or 222, for that matter) pages of fat, without (as Cohan did) eliminating several items of significant substance.

The Smoking Gun
 . . . comes in, of all places, the acknowledgements. In the book, Cohan thanks a Nifong acquaintance named Pat Devine, who created what the author describes as an “oral history” of the lacrosse case. He remarks that “without Pat and her inspiration, this book would likely not have been possible.” He then moves on to thank other people, leaving the reader to speculate how he ever came across “Pat” and her so-called oral history.
It turns out that a specific individual guided Cohan to Pat: “I would also like to thank especially my friend Peter Wood, the former Duke history professor, who introduced me to Pat, Peter’s former neighbor in Hillsborough, North Carolina.”
This sentence disappeared from the final version. In that version, Cohan treated his “friend” Wood’s analysis of campus events as prescient (without mentioning he was, in fact, praising the work of a “friend”), and offered a passive-aggressive critique of the Duke report (by the Coleman Committee) that undermined his “friend” Wood’s credibility about the lacrosse players’ in-class behavior.
So: at the last minute, Cohan chose to hide from readers that he was a “friend” of perhaps the fiercest critic of the lacrosse playerscharacter on the Duke campus, and that this same “friend” had introduced him to a source without whom the “book likely would not have been possible.”
It’s rather difficult to come up with an innocent explanation for this omission.

Defending Nifong from Himself
Perhaps the most stunning deletion came in the coverage of Nifong’s ethics proceedings, where this full paragraph was cut on what became page 522:
“[Brad] Bannon also described how Nifong lost his temper during a telephone call on October 20. Bannon and Cheshire . . . had written Nifong a letter trying to get additional evidence and information from Nifong. ‘I thought the conversation was cover at that point in time,’ Bannon testified, ‘but Mr. Nifong then brought up a letter that Mr. Cheshire and I had sent to him regarding other discovery issues that had come up in the intervening period of time. And he got extremely upset with me about that letter and said we weren’t acting in good faith as lawyers. He wanted to know why we were always accusing him of withholding information . . . I tried to explain to him what some of our concerns were about the discovery materials being withheld. And he sort of at the end of the exchange, just his volume kept going up and up and up. He wouldn’t let me respond in any way. And he finally hung up the phone on me.’ (A day earlier, Wade Smith had testified about his April 13 meeting with Nifong and two other defense attorneys and said that he had ‘never experienced such behavior in his more than forty years of lawyering’ and that ‘it was clear Mr. Nifong was extraordinarily agitated and upset, and we left.’) Nifong said of Bannon’s testimony that it was ‘snide’ and that Bannon was ‘a little pissant, is what he is, and there’s no cure for that. Quite frankly, whatever career he has, I wouldn’t want.’”
(Well: Nifong got his wish.)
Consider the remarkable content of this paragraph: Nifong lashing out at the attorney who exposed his hide-the-test-results plot; the deeply respected Wade Smith providing historical context for Nifong’s misbehavior; and the recounting of a private vignette that until Bannon’s testimony wasn’t publicly known. It’s hard to imagine any reasonable editorial judgment that would justify its exclusion, especially in a book that contains so much filler material.
But, of course, the material in the paragraph—and especially the last two sentences—was also wholly inconsistent with author Cohan’s portrayal of the Christ-like Nifong, “crucified” for Duke’s sins. Instead, readers would have seen the embittered, egotistical Nifong that so many people affiliated with the case encountered.
The deletion of Nifong’s slur against Bannon wasn’t the only time Cohan used the editor’s blue pencil to save Nifong from himself. Cohan dropped two paragraphs of Nifong sounding delusional, suggesting some sort of conspiracy theory about the Bar complaint: “The unspoken subtext was,” Cohan’s readers didn’t learn Nifong said, “‘We know that you are committed to this case and if we can get anybody else but you involved in the case than the level of commitment would be les,’ and I completely understood that. I don’t think they honestly could deny that was part of their strategy.”
Awhile later (p. 544), Cohan protected Nifong from seeming closed-minded, cutting out two sentences in which the rogue prosecutor discussed the AG’s evidence: “And actually assuming that I had seen the same things that they [the AG’s office] refer to in their report upon her taking the stand in the suppression hearing, I may easily have reached the conclusion at that time. But other than the conclusion not to proceed with the case, I am not sure that I would ever take that next step.” But much of the report wouldn’t have come out at a suppression hearing, and Nifong’s admission that he doubted he could “ever” recognize the players’ innocence, regardless of the evidence, was telling.
Virtually the only new material gathered by Cohan came from the Nifong interviews; the author’s handful of other interviews were far shorter and mostly of little consequence. That Cohan cut such obviously relevant Nifong items from his book’s major primary source shows the passion that he brought to his cause of rehabilitating Nifong’s reputation.

Removing Sharply Negative Comments about Nifong
Several last-minute cuts applied to sharp criticisms of Nifong, items that had been accurately offered in the penultimate version of the text, presumably from material prepared by his research assistant. For instance, on what became p. 253, a strong attack on Nifong by the third candidate in the DA’s primary, Keith Bishop, ultimately didn’t see the light of day. “I would have been very certain of the facts before I jumped out in the media and virtually guaranteed an arrest,” Cohan’s readers ultimately wouldn’t learn that Bishop said about the book’s protagonist. Bishop added in the deleted passage that Nifong “wants to win so badly that he will do anything and will say anything. It reflects political immaturity. He thinks that simply pandering to race will get him the breakout he needs.”
Cohan eliminated a paragraph (p. 272) containing Reade Seligmann’s reaction to learning from Kirk Osborn that Nifong wouldn’t drop the case. “I don’t know much about the law,” Seligmann said but Cohan’s readers never learned, “but you hear the word ‘alibi’ and that’s one of the first things that you think a prosecutor would want to have . . .  you don’t charge an innocent person and an innocent person won’t go to jail.”
Cohan also (p. 369) chopped a paragraph quoting from Duke Law graduate Karen Bethea-Shields, who had represented a black defendant in a racially charged 1975 murder case. Bethea-Shields, Cohan’s readers ultimately didn’t learn, was “’appalled’ that Nifong had given so many interviews during the early weeks of the case, and irritated that Nifong had made race such a big factor.” Nifong’s pre-primary publicity spree, Bethea-Shields wondered, forced people to pose the question: “Why was [race] important to bring up? You don’t go leaking a little bit here and a little bit there and get the community all riled.”
It’s easy to see why someone as passionate in his defense of Nifong wouldn’t want those passages to appear in his final product.

The “Something-Happened” Thesis
In addition to rehabilitating Nifong, Cohan aggressively (as his publicity tour demonstrated) advanced a “something-happened” thesis. Perhaps the clearest example of this argument guiding his decision to eliminate material came on p. 513, when he cut a quote from Inv. Ben Himan: “Himan said that during Cooper’s investigation, he became aware of evidence he did not even know existed. ‘They had numerous, numerous accounts of pictures, documents, alibis, receipts. It was unbelievable how much stuff they actually turned over to the Attorney General’s Office.” [emphasis added]
It’s easy to see how an author who proclaimed to CNN that an “incredible amount of evidence” exists of a crime would want to keep out his “definitive, magisterial” account such an assertion. Even Cohan couldn’t try to include Himan in what the author has portrayed as a wide-ranging conspiracy to block the truth from coming out.
The “something happened” thesis also required bolstering the credibility of murderess Crystal Mangum, a task to which Cohan took with gusto, both in the book and in his press appearances. Indeed, even as he needed to cut material, Cohan added 22 lines (at p. 39) from the report of UNC doctor Yvonne Lai, who examined Mangum on the day after the part (15 March). The fresh items included such passages as “the doctor noted that Mangum had suffered an ‘assault last night,’” that she had “new neck pain,” and felt “wobbly.” The added passages also mentioned that Mangum was “plugged into a rape support group” and that her boyfriend (unclear exactly who) was “very upset with her currently because of this rape.”

These additions cemented an impression that Mangum had experienced some sort of physical injury at the party—a useful editorial approach for someone committed to the “something happened” thesis.
A further bolstering of Mangum appeared on p. 513, when Cohan eliminated one of the two paragraphs (reducing the section from 27 lines to 12) in which Himan explained why he had concluded that Mangum had lied. In addition to the material already mentioned, Cohan’s readers didn’t learn that Himan recounted, “On multiple, multiple times, she was contradicted with indisputable evidence, with her time lines and pictures and stuff like that . . . Even when she said that the two people who assaulted her brought her out to the vehicle, they have pictures of people putting her into the vehicle, and it’s not David Evans, and it’s not Collin Finnerty, and it’s not Reade Seligmann.” [emphasis added]

Seven pages(!!) after this passage disappeared from the book, Cohan included an uncorrected assertion from Mangum, in her jailhouse interview with him, falsely asserting that Reade Seligmann carried her to the car. Cohan had mentioned the photos, accurately, hundreds of pages before, but only the most careful reader would have recalled such information in evaluating Mangum’s tall tale. But it’s easy to see how an author passionately committed to the “something happened” thesis would remove a neutral, factual assertion from Himan that would prompt readers to understand that his “victim” was lying through her teeth.

Heightening a Negative View of the Lacrosse Players’ Character
Cohan eliminated (p. 218) several sentences describing a spring 2006 Chronicle editorial in which the paper’s editors argued quite strongly that the lacrosse team should be viewed as typical Duke students, for good or ill. He also cut (p. 372) two paragraphs from a largely sympathetic view in ESPN magazine about the unindicted players’ experiences. And he chopped (p. 560) an entire paragraph from David Evans, Sr., reflecting on how his “son has led the way in handling this outrageous situation well, looking out not only for himself but for his teammates and his friends.”
The boldest shifts, however, came in one reduction and one addition. On what became p. 388, Cohan made a two-page deletion (the longest of the entire last-minute editorial process) to omit all mention of the fantastic summer 2006 Chronicle article by John Taddei, featuring interviews with Bo Carrington, Tony McDevitt, Rob Wellington, and John Walsh. As with much else in this section of the book, the material clearly came from Cohan’s research assistant, and faithfully summarized the article, which humanized the lacrosse players and provided remarkable insight into their on-campus negative experiences in spring 2006. Indeed, the article was one of the most important media pieces in the case, representing as it did the first time that multiple members of the team spoke on the record about their experiences in the spring 2006.
As the interview with team members vanished, Cohan added material attacking the players’ character—through a lengthy three-paragraph insertion (almost two pages) from his unidentified “friend,” Peter Wood. On pp. 179-180, readers now heard from “friend” Wood about how lacrosse players in his class were part of a culture “occasionally tinged with defiance, belligerence, and even antisocial racism.” Wood purported to have confirmation of his criticism of the players from other, unnamed professors (the Coleman Committee, of course, found otherwise), and the added material also featured Wood affirming that he had “heard plenty of confirmation from undergraduate remarks regarding the unsavory reputation of the team in social matters on and around campus.” (Why a professor was gossiping with his students about other students’ “social matters” Cohan did not reveal.) The inserted passage concluded with the lengthy e-mail from Group of 88’er Susan Thorne to Wood, which I profiled previously.
A largely sympathetic portrayal of members of the team, from one of the best media sources on the case: out. A character assault from the author’s “friend”: in.
The only change to the final manuscript that seemed to rebut Cohan’s thesis came on p. 538; Cohan added a paragraph summarizing the portion of the Cooper report describing the DNA transference theory. This change, ironically, suggests that Cohan was well aware of the transference theory—even as he went on talk show after talk show never once mentioning it, even bizarrely suggesting that defense attorneys claimed that the possible DNA match came from Dave Evans picking up the fingernails from the floor.
Cohan’s book, and his many guilt-presuming public appearances, speak for themselves. Even if he had made no cuts, the book’s biases would have been self-evident. But the last-minute editorial changes—the removal of clearly significant items (the “pissant” comment, Himan’s first-hand recollection of the evidence), coupled with the deception regarding both Cohan’s relationship with Peter Wood and Wood’s role in jump-starting the entire project—gives a sense of just how deeply committed Cohan was to his effort to rehabilitate Nifong.
A final note: Cohan’s original list of media-type sources (p. 619 of the book) ended with a discussion of WRAL’s online archive. But in his final version, he added the names of a few specific figures. One such addition: “K.C. [sic] Johnson,” who author Cohan described as exhibiting an “obvious bias.”

Glad to know I was in his thoughts.

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