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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Duke Case — Corpulent Weasel Communicator, John Burness, Was No Chubby Choirboy

John Burness: Corpulent Weasel CommunicatorToday's editorial by Duke's student newspaper, The Chronicle, is dead wrong when it wrote that Duke's "John Burness will go down in the books as something like the Brett Favre of college communications."

That is an insult to Brett Favre. Because, John Burness, Duke's senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, will instead go down in the history books like the Rafael Palmeiro of college communications — a person of dubious character and integrity.

Rafael Palmeiro was the Major League Baseball player with a career spanning 20 years, who ruined his reputation and potential hall of fame career by lying before Congress about his use of steroids. And when he was caught taking steroids he tried to blame another teammate. Nice guy.

The Chronicle's notion that Burness will be remembered as a guaranteed hall-of-famer, like Favre, does not square with the truth about his slimy actions during the eighteen month long Duke lacrosse scandal.

KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor documented some of Burness's lying and character assassination about the Duke lacrosse team in their book Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case.

page 68: The parents had already been infuriated by John Burness's comments on local television stations the night before [in late March '06] to the effect that if the rape charges were true it would be deplorable - without much emphasis on the possibility that the charges were lies. "I said, 'You have to shut up Burness,'" Bruce Thompson [lacrosse parent] recalled later. "This guy is a disaster. He's out there just ripping into us.'"

page 71: Lacrosse parents also circulated reports of a succession of negative comments about their son's characters over the ensuing months by Burness, and by Duke board chairman Bob Steel, in private conversations with people at Duke and elsewhere. Burness also ran down the lacrosse players in off-the-record comments to news reporters. (Some of the reporters repeated these comments to others, who in turn repeated them to the authors; there were striking similarities in the Burness language reported by these different sources.) Bruce Thompson, father of cocaptain Bret Thompson, quoted one such journalist saying that Burness had motioned him to turn off his tape recorder and then launched into an attack on the team, saying: "These are bad guys, be careful about them," while offering no specifics beyond the usual compaints about lacrosse players being big drinkers and loud partyers with what some other students saw as an arrogant swagger.

pg 132: In early April, a lacrosse team parent called John Burness and offered a briefing in which defense lawyers would tell Burness and others at Duke everything they knew, including an already substantial body of exculpatory photos, timelines, witness statements, and more. This evidence, the parent told Burness, would show all team members to be innocent and Duke should see it before doing anything rash. The parent, who took notes, recalled Burness rejecting the offer out of hand, saying that "I know everything I need to know" and launching into a "diatribe" against the team by asserting that what had happened was all their fault and that their bad behavior over the years had made people believe the charges. When the parent said the "bad behavior" involved things like open beer can violations, Burnesss said (according to the parent) that this was not true and there were "two or three real bad actors on that team." Burness provided no specifics. Not then. Not ever.

page 289: Burness repeatedly stressed to reporters that the players "were not choirboys" and cautioned against portraying them in an unduly favorable light.

page 350: As the attorney general pondered what to say in dismissing the charges Duke took one more shot at the lacrosse players. In a lengthy interview with Newsday's Steven Marcus that appeared on the paper's Web site Monday afternoon, April 9, John Burness and an unnamed senior administrator attacked the players' character, implied that Mike Pressler had condoned bad behavior, and vowed that Duke would never apologize for its handling of the case. People had asked him, Burness noted, whether anyone at Duke would say they were sorry. "I said," Burness replied, "'For what?'" A senior administrator added that Evan, Finnerty, and Seligmann were "no choirboys." And Marcus added approvingly, that "Duke as an institution has a reputation to repair and that is paramount over clearing the names of the players involved in last spring's party."
Like Palmeiro, Burness's entire career is now placed in question, capped off by his woeful lacrosse scandal behavior. Burness's vile denigration of the lacrosse team and their former coach went on for over a year. John Burness really deserves to go into a Hall of Shame.

Editorial / Duke Chronicle:
A loss, looking beyond John Burness -- Now that everything is almost said and done, John Burness will go down in the books as something like the Brett Favre of college communications.

During his soon-to-expire 16-year stint at the University, Duke's gray-haired senior vice president for public affairs and government relations has dazzled us with his footwork, thrown a remarkable number of touchdown passes and-most recently in the Duke lacrosse case-tossed his fair share of interceptions as well.

Now, Burness says he'll finally be able to smoke a few good cigars and put his feet up. It will be a much-deserved break. [...]

Chronicle comments:
Duke Alum: Are we putting the cart before the horse here? Did Burness make Duke great or did the caliber of students and most of its faculty and its renown from its basketball team? Seems to me he was lucky to be at the University when he was. Not a tough job until the Duke Lacrosse hoax.

What exactly were the accomplishments developed and guided by Burness? Setting up committees without any identifiable effects is hardly an accomplishment. Certainly it is fairly evident that the Duke/Durham committee did little good in relations when Duke could exact no influence in curbing racist behavior against its own students.

Excuse me for asking for the details, but it would appear that his position would require one to have handled the Duke Lacrosse travesty with aplomb, not like a bungling .... "Behind the scenes" activities by Burness during a period of relative peace and prosperity by the University apparently had little effect during the crisis and is hardly worth congratulations.

He failed the big test whether because of an unwillingness to buck the Trustees and Brodhead or an inherent inability to deal with crisis.
roper: Burness may be responsible for many fine accomplishments during his tenure at Duke. But in my opinion he betrayed a serious character flaw when he chose, apparently, to put protection of the Duke "brand" ahead of a much needed defense of the civil liberties of Duke students, members all of the Duke community.
LieStoppers forum comments about Burness:
Baldo: What an ass! He is consistent to the end. There is a story going around of him sitting in a cafe last summer overheard telling of how he wants to write a book about the Lacrosse case and that the girls around the Lacrosse were lacrosstitutes, as he said.

He just can't say these guys were prosecuted for a crime that didn't happen.

Haunches: I cannot recall a single instance of Burness having a kind word to say about anyone except his bosses. He was a master at attack PR; a lucrative skill, I suppose but amoral to the bone. It was pretty well known that if a reporter wanted negative information about the lacrosse players, Burness was the go-to guy. Duke treated the hoax as a public affairs nightmare, nothing more, and Burness would say anything to try to get better press in the next news cycle; concepts like truth, justice, honesty, and accuracy meant were only relevant insofar as it got him through the next news cycle.

As an alum, I am hopeful that this is the first of several quiet retirements leading to a major housecleaning.

duke09parent: He failed miserably in crisis management, though. The other admins failed, too, but he should have been the leader, or at least the best at it if he wasn't respected, in this aspect. Turns out he was one of the worst. He took personally the damage those rascal lacrosse team did to the image of Duke he helped create. He evidently forgot, as many others did, that Duke was (or should be) in the kid business.
Michael J. Pressler, Plaintiff, v. Duke University, Defendant. [TJN]
Duke Case — More on Mike Pressler's lawsuit against Duke University [TJN]
Duke Case — Flotsam and Jetsam [TJN]

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