When the lacrosse case first broke, politically correct members of the media (such as Selena Roberts) and race/class/gender faculty ideologues (most spectacularly the Group of 88) rushed to exploit it. And then the case to which they had attached their reputations imploded. It’s not hard to imagine Caitlin Flanagan speaking for them in the January Atlantic, as she seethed, “The [falsely] accused players’ improbable turn as victimized solid citizens was the most unpleasant result of the D.A.’s bungled case.”
Yet the lacrosse case was not the ostensible subject of Flanagan’s article. Instead, in an effort that has attracted widespread condemnation, Flanagan sought to apply a Group of 88-style race/class/gender analysis to the Karen Owen “thesis.” (In the words of the Chronicle’s arts and entertainment supplement editor, “Flanagan’s a hack and the worst kind of pundit; after years of her hysterical essays, this is common knowledge. But that doesn’t excuse The Atlantic for having printed pages of what is essentially deception, unprofessionalism and, in at least one instance, outright lies.”) Indeed, the piece was so poorly argued that even the Group of 88’s resident apologist, Prof. Robert Zimmerman, felt compelled to—albeit somewhat gently—criticize Flanagan.
One item in the article offers a particular insight into the almost malicious manner in which Flanagan approached her task—and in the process raises some troubling questions about standards at The Atlantic.
In an article ostensibly about Karen Owen’s “thesis,” Flanagan devoted 11.9 percent of her words to a very negative portrayal of members of the 2006 Duke lacrosse team. Of that total, 472 words focused in some way on thesis “Subject 1,” a lacrosse player. Here’s how Flanagan described him: “His blandly handsome face and powerfully built body had taken on the cast of a thug rapist and then of a hapless sex partner who couldn’t even keep it up long enough to satisfy an inexperienced co-ed.”
I e-mailed Atlantic editor James Bennet to ask why The Atlantic (which I regularly read) allowed one of its authors to include such a gratuitously insulting passage about anyone, much less a then-college student. Literary editor and national editor Benjamin Schwarz, who supervised the production of Flanagan’s article, replied that he didn’t consider the item above to be insulting(!), in part because The Atlantic didn’t identify “Subject 1.” In the internet era, finding Subject 1’s identity takes less than a minute; Schwarz’s rationalization doesn’t pass the laugh test.
More problematic is why Flanagan devoted any attention to Subject 1, or any of his teammates. (She wrote that it was “impossible” for her not to do so—an argument by assertion.) By Flanagan’s own admission, the turning point in Owen’s experience came when Subject 2, a tennis player, allegedly treated Owen shabbily. Yet Flanagan’s article gave no sign that the author conducted any additional research into the personal background of Subject 2. (Flanagan didn’t specifically mention any of Owen’s other subjects at all.) About Subject 1, on the other hand, she tracked down references in police reports of the lacrosse case. Here’s what Flanagan wrote:
In fact, the man identified as Subject 1 in Owen’s PowerPoint was a member of that very team, present and accounted for at the ugly party and named in several of the police reports garnered about the night. Player Dan Flannery said that when he “tried to apologize and reason with” one of the strippers in a bedroom of the house, Subject 1 may have been with him, and David Evans told police that Subject 1 at one point followed the women out into the street.
This passage is peculiar for a couple of reasons. First, most reasonable people would deem what the reports say about Subject 1’s conduct (at a party he played absolutely no role in organizing) to be basically commendable: he tried to soothe Kim Roberts’ anger after another team member treated Roberts crassly; and he helped transport the mentally imbalanced and possibly drug-addled Crystal Mangum to Roberts’ car. Yet Flanagan managed to insinuate, without saying anything concrete, that Subject 1 might have behaved inappropriately. Second, Flanagan tossed out references to other lacrosse players (Flannery, Evans) who had no relationship of any type to the Owen affair and who were mentioned nowhere else in Flanagan’s article. To Benjamin Schwarz, I wondered what possible rationale could exist for their inclusion; he responded that I could write a letter to the editor.
Since Flanagan seemed so intent on researching Subject 1’s background, it’s curious that her extended coverage of him neglected to include any of the positive references to his character available in the public record: that he was a strong student; that he showed considerable courage in speaking out publicly, before the tide turned, on behalf of his falsely accused teammates; and that in fall 2006 he spent considerable time registering voters in Durham and volunteering in the campaign to oust rogue prosecutor Mike Nifong. These items, of course, didn’t conform to Flanagan’s negative portrayal of Subject 1, so Atlantic readers never found out about them.
It’s not as if Flanagan is a neo-Puritan, determined to condemn anyone whose behavior on sexual matters would be out of place at BYU or Liberty University. She oozes sympathy for false accuser Mangum, whom she describes as one of “two desperately poor women, one of them a mother of two, both with lives shaped around more sorrow and misery than the average Duke lacrosse player could begin to imagine.”
We know that Flanagan pored through lacrosse-case police files in her research about Subject 1. Therefore, the Atlantic writer was exposed to several items about Mangum’s economic status: that she (allegedly) was a full-time student at a local university; that she had two private drivers to ferry her to and from work and, it seems, to other appointments; and that she had regular access to a doctor and to prescription drugs, suggesting that Mangum (unlike tens of millions of Americans) probably had some form of health insurance. I suspect that few, if any, Atlantic readers would consider an (allegedly) full-time student with personal drivers and health insurance to be “desperately” poor.
There are ways to portray Mangum as a victim (chiefly by suggesting that she fell through the cracks of the nation’s mental health system, perhaps by noting that she seemed to have problems with alcohol or prescription drugs), but neither of those narratives would have advanced the class-based argument about the lacrosse players that Flanagan wanted to make. So Mangum was described as desperately poor despite the conflicting evidence, and Atlantic fact-checkers either didn’t care or looked the other way.
But by far the most disturbing aspect of Flanagan’s article involved a basic issue of journalistic ethics. Flanagan’s entire assault upon the character of Subject 1 hinged upon one verifiable item: that Owen and the lacrosse player actually hooked up. If not, the player was the victim of not one but two cruel hoaxes—one solely on his character (Owen), the other briefly alleging criminal behavior (Mangum).
Based on the PowerPoint’s details, it seems to me likelier than not that Owen and Subject 1 did hook up (the details of the affair, of course, could very well be a product of Owen’s imagination). Yet I always had assumed that magazines like The Atlantic attempted to verify facts when possible, rather than simply going on hunches. So I asked both Bennet and Schwarz why the magazine—and again, The Atlantic isn’t a tabloid; it purports to have high journalistic standards—did not have someone contact Subject 1, if not to give him a chance to respond to Flanagan’s character assault then only to confirm that he in fact knew Owen.
Bennet didn’t respond; Schwarz (twice) declined to answer the question. So the magazine refused to explain why its representatives never even attempted to confirm what turned out to be a critical item in Flanagan’s article. For Flanagan and The Atlantic, it seems, this aspect of Owen’s story was too good not to be true—journalistic ethics be damned.
The Atlantic is one of the two magazines (National Journal is the other) whose articles I often have assigned in my classes. Having been exposed first-hand to the publication’s lax editorial standards, I certainly won’t repeat that mistake.