Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Ken Burns' "History" Lesson

[Update, 12 Dec., 2.55pm: Yet more legal commentary from filmmaker Burns, this time on video from an appearance at the 92nd Street Y. The relevant remarks begin at 6:56 on the video.
These comments reveal (in the most charitable possible interpretation of filmmaker Burns) a figure spouting off on a case about which he knows nothing.

First: “We” didn't “fire” Mike Nifong. Nifong was disbarred by the North Carolina State Bar, after a public ethics proceeding that resulted in detailed findings of fact regarding Nifong's ethical misdeeds. If filmmaker Burns has a complaint with the performance of Lane Williamson's panel, he has yet to specify it. It does not appear that, in general, filmmaker Burns believes that unethical prosecutors should go unpunished; why, then, is he apparently so troubled by Nifong's fate?

Second, Burns appears to lament that “we sort of went crazy at how bad we'd been in accusing them.” Again, Burns' use of the royal “we” is puzzling. (To the best of my knowledge, he has never apologized to the lacrosse players.) Many people—the Group of 88, for starters, or entertainers such as Wendy Murphy or Nancy Grace—proudly, even defiantly, refused to apologize for how they mistreated the lacrosse players. Other institutions that rushed to judgment—the New York Times, the Herald-Sun—issued mealy-mouthed apologies trying to shift the blame to other parties, hardly examples of going “crazy” at how “bad” they had been. Still other members of the rush-to-judgment crowd—the likes of Selena Roberts or John Feinstein—tried to avoid apologizing altogether by . . . misremembering . . . what they had said or written in the spring of 2006. Still other commentators—such as the various sportswriters linked here—coupled acknowledgement of the dismissal of charges with continued character assaults against the falsely accused students. The City of Durham, obviously, has never apologized to the falsely accused players. It's true that a handful of people who rushed to judgment—Ruth Sheehan, Jemele Hill—issued what clearly were genuine apologies. But these statements stood out because they were so atypical of the general reaction.

Third, this appearance marks at least the third occasion in which filmmaker Burns described the process of being arrested for a crime that never occurred, suspended from school for two semesters, and seeing a Newsweek cover containing the students' mugshots under the title of “Sex, Lies, and Duke” as being an “inconvenience.” On this occasion, he slightly lengthened the time of the “inconvenience,” from a few weeks to two months.

Finally, note that in the span of 20 seconds, Burns found the time--twice, no less--to identify the falsely accused students' race.]

[Update, 11 Dec., 4.22pm: It turns out that his Phoenix interview wasn’t the first occasion in which Burns had referenced the lacrosse case through the “inconveniencing” lens. Here he was in a November interview with the Collider. Mused the filmmaker,
Do you remember in 2006 the white Duke lacrosse players that somebody had falsely charged?  Remember that?  Do you know what happened?  The prosecutor was fired.  The prosecutor was disbarred.  The prosecutor went to jail for inconveniencing for a few weeks these white kids from Duke.  I rest my case.
It’s not clear to me what “case” Burns was attempting to make. Mike Nifong went to jail (for a day) not for “inconveniencing” anyone. He went to jail, for criminal contempt, because he lied to a judge about material evidence. Does filmmaker Burns believe that prosecutors lying in open court counts merely as an “inconvenience” to a falsely accused suspect, as opposed to an assault on the ideals of justice?

Nor is it clear how filmmaker Burns concluded that Nifong persecuted the lacrosse players “for a few weeks.” Each of the three was indicted. For Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty, the period of indictment lasted just under a year; for Dave Evans, just under 11 months. In what universe does 11-12 months constitute “a few weeks?”

At least, I suppose, Burns should be praised for referring to college students as “kids” rather than “boys.”]

Filmmaker Ken Burns is almost a caricature of the politically correct intellectual, but his comments in a recent interview with the Boston Phoenix nonetheless were jarring.

Burns was speaking of his new film project, a study of the Central Park Five, a group of minority teenagers accused of raping a Central Park jogger in one of the highest-profile cases of the era. Several of the suspects confessed to the crime, and each was convicted and sent to prison. (Those who confessed subsequently retracted their confessions.) In 2002, a prisoner named Matias Reyes confessed to raping the jogger; when his DNA matched that from the rape kit, the Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, voided the Central Park Five’s convictions.

In the Phoenix interview, Burns was asked about the similarities between Central Park and the case of the West Memphis Three. Instead, wholly unprompted, Burns provided this nugget of contextual insight: “You can also compare the Central Park Five to the Duke University lacrosse players, three rich white boys who were mildly inconvenienced by rape charges that proved to be false. In no time the prosecutor of that case was fired, disbarred, and put in jail, and the three ended up getting a huge settlement.

Since Burns chose to make the comparison—as he expressed hope that the . . . honesty . . . of his work would prompt the NYPD to admit error in the Central Park jogger case and (“from your lips to God’s ear”) win him an Oscar—his remarks deserve consideration.

“The Duke University lacrosse players, three rich white boys”: Imagine the outrage from people like filmmaker Burns if a prominent filmmaker had publicly referred to three African-American college students as “boys.”

“ . . . were mildly inconvenienced by rape charges that proved to be false.” Presumably, filmmaker Burns has never been arrested for a crime he didn’t commit (much less a crime that didn’t occur). Nor, I suspect, was filmmaker Burns ever suspended two semesters from college for a crime he didn’t commit (much less a crime that didn’t occur). Nor, I suspect, did filmmaker Burns see his mugshot plastered on the cover of a national newsmagazine—or heard himself compared to Hitler, or his parents to child molesters—for a crime he didn’t commit (much less a crime that didn’t occur). Yet to filmmaker Burns, these experiences (and more) constituted a mild inconvenience. I wonder what filmmaker Burns would consider a major inconvenience, much less something more significant than an inconvenience.

“In no time the prosecutor of that case . . .” Actually, Mike Nifong was re-nominated and re-elected, in large part because of his handling of the fabricated claims. He didn’t suffer professional difficulties for nearly a year after his misconduct. To filmmaker Burns, perhaps, nine months constitutes “no time.” But I would think that someone who makes his living in part through use of words would be more accurate in his description.

“ . . . the prosecutor of that case was fired, disbarred, and put in jail.” It’s not clear exactly what filmmaker Burns’ complaint on this front is. Does he believe that Nifong should not have been fired or disbarred for his myriad, and massive, ethical violations? Does he believe that if a prosecutor lies outright to judges on materially important matters, the prosecutor shouldn’t be held in contempt of court? Or is he suggesting that the prosecutors in Morgenthau’s office committed prosecutorial misconduct and should have been fired and disbarred? If so, what evidence does he have to substantiate such an inflammatory claim?

“ . . . the three ended up getting a huge settlement.” Currently, the falsely-accused players are awaiting a ruling from the 4th Circuit; they have received no settlement from Durham or Nifong at all. They have, obviously, received a settlement from Duke, for an undisclosed amount. Does filmmaker Burns have information that the amount was “huge”? If so, from whom did he obtain this information: has Duke violated the settlement’s confidentiality clause?

Apart from the obvious difference—in the Central Park case, a crime occurred; in the Duke lacrosse case, the only crime was the filing of a false police report—there was one intriguing point of comparison between the two cases. In the Central Park case, as events were unfolding, the African-American press, most prominently the Amsterdam News, did not shield the identity of the woman who was raped, Trisha Meili. The News argued—not unreasonably—that since the suspect’s identities were revealed, giving the accuser anonymity tilted the scales against the accused.

In the lacrosse case, of course, the News joined other publications of the black press (and all major newspapers and TV stations) in shielding Crystal Mangum’s identity until the attorney general branded her charges false. (Even then, the Herald-Sun and the New York Times resisted naming Mangum for several months.)

Burns doesn’t appear eager to explore this obvious hypocrisy in his film, however: shining a harsh light on publications like the Amsterdam News wouldn’t fit his agenda.


skwilli said...

This is only one of several topics Burns has bizarrely commented on recently. The more he talks, the more bizarre it gets. Which probably means he'll get a talk show soon on PBS. In other words, I'll be helping pay his salary. Another affront to anyone opposed to ill-researched propaganda. At least I have your blog for when I want opinions backed to the hilt with well-researched and written facts. It is still a gem even after these few years! Thanks KC

Puddler said...

By branding the wrongly accused ex-Duke lacrosse players "three rich white boys," Burns trivializes their victimization and ham-handedly implies that they did not suffer because of their gender, race, and class. Ironically, Burns is buying into the gender-class-race meme that was at the heart of the rush to judgment in the lacrosse case and that Prof. Johnson has so ably exposed. Sadly, Ken Burns -- who makes a nice living chronicling history -- has learned nothing from this sad chapter of our history. Actually, it's worse than that: he's got it exactly backwards. I will be watching Burns' films more critically from now on.

Anonymous said...

I used to have respect for this guy. Now? I'm not so sure. I didnt realize he approves of false rape.

Anonymous said...

This nonsense from Ken Burns reminds me of what appears to be a simple fact-- so many who are steeped in political correctness still view the Duke Lacrosse hoax as a real rape of a poor black woman by rich, privileged white guys who got away with it. Or some fuzzy-minded variation of "something bad happened."

Additionally, most everyone of our due process trashers (a few exceptions like Nifong and Cline) are still in place and have been rewarded for the efforts to castigate and railroad the "boys."

As amazing as this may sound, and in spite of the excellent work by KC and others exposing the facts, this leads some of us who live in Durham to conclude that this will happen again. And why not? All the basic ingredients are still in place. Give it time...

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

William L. Anderson said...

If Ken Burns were falsely accused of rape, had his mug on Newsweek, and was facing death threats on a daily basis, I doubt seriously that he would claim to being merely "inconvenienced."

I will be writing on this, as this screams for a response. Thanks, K.C., for once again exposing the PC intellectuals for what they are. I am glad to see that there is at least one honest man in academe!!

And I also will add that no one -- No One! -- can successfully challenge K.C. Johnson's integrity, and I mean every word of what I have written. An honest person stands out, especially in the sewer that has become modern academics.

No Justice, No Peace said...

I'm reminded when my father-in-law lambasted Burn's presentation of the Civil War. It turns out many of the photos aligned with the stories are misrepresented - the wrong battlefield for the relevant storyline. Those with a relatively minor interest in the war would notice the misrepresentations.

At the time, I discounted the grievances and made the case that the series would get more, younger people interested in our history.
My father-in-law and his contemporaries were splitting hairs.

Through Burn's messed-up understanding about the Duke lacrosse hoax I now better understand my father-in-laws position. Minor, intentional misrepresentations, coming from an "authority" have a stickiness that will distort history in ways unknown.

His error in understanding the facts, either intentional or unintentional are egregious for one who puts himself forth as a professional who documents our history. It's dangerous.

He must be trying to raise money for his next project. Smart people don't make unforced errors like this one.

Chris Halkides said...

If he is homing in on race, then Mr. Burns is misguided in this instance. There are two bigger differences between the Central Park case and the Duke lacrosse case than race, but there is also at least one similarity. One is that the falsely accused men of the former gave confessions whereas the falsely accused men of the latter did not. Confessions are huge; people sometimes believe them even when DNA evidence suggests that they are gibberish, as in the Billy Wayne Cope case in South Carolina.

Two is that mounting a good defense against a serious charge costs lots of money. I know almost nothing about the competency of the defense in the Central Park case, but it does not sound as if it were a robust effort. I can think of several instances where poor defendants obtained incompetent (or worse) defenses. On the other hand the three defendants in the Duke lacrosse case paid large sums for what is generally agreed to be a highly competent and motivated defense effort. On rare occasions a rich firm will provide far more in legal service than a poor or middle class family can afford, as happened in the Frank Esposito arson case.

There appears to have been serious police wrongdoing on both cases. I read one account in which it was alleged that the police attempted to get Kharey Wise to deposit DNA
at the crime scene after the fact. The misconduct of Officer Gottlieb is well known to readers here. Had Mr. Burns focused on the surprising frequency of false confessions, the troubling lack of outrage at police misconduct, and on the problems of defending the indigent, he would have been on firmer ground IMO.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Ken Burns is one of those celebrities who thought convicted child rapist Roman Polanski deserved a pass rather than accountability for his crime.

Anonymous said...

Comments for the 92Y video can be left here: http://92yamericanconversation.org/ken-burns-on-race-and-the-central-park-five-a-kind-of-collective-tragedy/

William L. Anderson said...

There is something else that needs to be mentioned, and that is the lack of even decent fact-gathering on the part of Ken Burns. Since he spoke about the issue twice, and since he is known for his documentaries, then he also should know that when he makes a statement, people expect that he has done research.

It is clear in this case that he did NO research at all. I only can wonder if that applies to everything else he does.

Chris Halkides said...

It is also a shame that Mr. Burns did not draw attention to other similarities in the two cases. The narrative of the Duke lacrosse case was that privileged, white, thuggish athletes had raped an underprivileged single black mother. Mr. Burns implied that the narrative in the Central Park Jogger case was that a black wolfpack went wilding and raped a woman. Why do we buy into narratives that have little or no truth? Why do these narratives linger on, even when the prosecution’s cases have been reduced to smoldering rubble? I wish Mr. Burns had asked and attempted to answer those questions.

Mr. Burns also said, “The real wilding was the press. They’re the ones that acted as a wolf pack.” I agree that the press should have been more skeptical, but there was at least some reason to think that the Central Park Five were guilty at first. On the other hand Newsweek ran a cover story on the Duke lacrosse case, and the New York Times ran over one hundred stories. The initial DNA reports came out roughly four weeks after the party, and yet the stories kept getting written.

Finally, suppose that the Central Park Five sat down with the Duke Three. My guess is that they would have at least as intelligent and productive a conversation as either group would have with Mr. Burns.

Anonymous said...

per Dr. Anderson (12/12/12 at 3:43):

My guess is that his personal research habits are either sloppy or non-existent. He has a team of researchers who have helped him with his various productions. Perhaps he should have used his team before opining on the Duke Case - or at the very least, perused DIW or Liestoppers.

Anonymous said...

Rich is the key word in Burn's comments. Rich. White. Boys. Dog whistles all to the PC racists who think that justice should never be color blind.

Jim In San Diego said...

Wow, not Ken Burns, too.

I have greatly enjoyed his deep, well-researched, creatively presented histories.

At least, I thought they were deep, well-researched, and created from historical facts. Now I have to go back and take another look.

Just goes to show you can pass a lifetime of increasing skepticism and never become skeptical enough.

(Question to KC: Did you email Mr. Burns a copy of this blog article? Has he responded?)

Jim Peterson

C. S. P. Schofield said...

Ken Burns is a Prat. His histories, though popular, are full of questionable assertions supported by little more than Burns' prejudices. He combines the biases of Wholly-Odd and Academia, and it is frankly astonishing that he can express coherent thoughts at all.

Chris Halkides said...

In his review in SFGate of Burns' film, Mick LaSalle wrote, "The investment in their guilt became emotional, and citywide. If these were middle- or upper-middle-class kids, any one of them might have stepped up to the microphones and said, "OK, we didn't do this, and I'll tell you why." But these were poor kids, tongue-tied, sullen and persecuted, and so they walked past reporters in stone silence, looking like the guiltiest people in America." Mr. LaSalle may be referencing David Evans' address on the steps of the courthouse. However, it is a continual problem for defendants everywhere that no matter how one acts, some will always interpret it as guilt

Chris Halkides said...

Huffingtonpost's Janell Ross commented on the fact that NYC has sued to obtain outtakes from Burns's film Ross goes on to say, "Earlier this month, city lawyers filed additional documents claiming that Ken Burns and his colleagues are not journalists and therefore aren’t entitled to invoke legal privileges to protect their work product."

Anonymous said...

Is Gregory a Communist?

Anonymous said...

Inconvenienced? wow, when a Duke faculty member tells a LAX mother she has given birth to a farm animal and GETS AWAY WITH IT....an inconvenience? accused of kidnap, rape, assault, and god knows what else....a piddling little annoyance? Forever linked to the hoax on internet search engines....no more troublesome than swatting away a bug? Losing a coaching job....ah, no big deal. Well, as the Dukies would say, "It's not about the truth".....that's for damn sure.

Unknown said...

For those commenting to the effect that they have until now appreciated Ken Burns' "thoughtful" or "well-researched" documentaries, I recommend an exposition of Mr. Burns' modus operandi by Nat Hentoff in

Jewish World Review,
March 27, 2000,
The censoring of feminist history


This piece revealed how even when Mr. Burns does know the truth, he will ignore it with the flimsiest of excuses if it does not suit his goals as a propagandist who markets himself as an educator.

Kindest regards,
Tom Wiswell

Anonymous said...

I've always given a side eye to Burns. Something just didn't smell right. Now I know why. What an intellectually dishonest hack. No wonder the media loves him- he's one their own!

"Inconvenience?" Like another poster suggested, I'd like to see him falsely accused of rape and then pictured on the cover of Time magazine.

Anonymous said...

I know just the subject for Burns' next film. The torture-murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom in Knoxville, Tennessee are a compelling story with numerous twists and turns. In a few days, it will be six years since the murders occured.

Because of the crooked judge originally on the case, the story is still ongoing. People of Burns' ilk have been somewhat reluctant to pay attention to the Christian-Newsom case. Anybody care to guess why?

David In TN

Chris Halkides said...

I just saw the film in question, and it is powerful and insightful. Burns' ill-chosen words about the DL case are like fingers on a chalkboard in comparison: annoying but tolerable. Saul Kassin's discussion of false confessions alone make it worth one's time to see it. The unwillingness of most of the people n authority to admit their mistake is the other central theme to emerge, and it is a thread running through many false convictions.