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The Virtual Support Team

By day, Mike McCusker is just another suit in midtown Manhattan, a civil lawyer working for a large, faceless firm.

At night, though, he steps into his metaphorical telephone booth and emerges as NDLax84, proprietor of the aptly named "Crystal Mess" blog, which has offered commentary on the Duke lacrosse case since last June.

Posts range from the serious to the sophomoric. One day it's an analysis of Steve Monks' decision to run against Lewis Cheek. Another day it's a heavily edited image of South Park's Eric Cartman in a Duke Lacrosse jersey, screaming "Mike Nifong Sucks Ass!" Or a picture of a clown spinning a top to demonstrate McCusker's opinion of the mainstream media's impartiality.

As national attention to the scandal wanes and The Drudge Report returns to covering Britney's latest stint in rehab, blogs are some of the only places still providing regular commentary on the case. Their writers have become the mini-celebrities of the whole episode, and now they're reaping the benefits, with thousands of daily readers boosting their profiles and a book deal in the works for one prominent commentator.

"I think in the end it's all good for democracy, for a nation that touts itself as a government of the people, by the people and for the people," says McCusker, a Notre Dame alum with a Blue Devil wife. "The rise of the Net-and the blogosphere in general-has so clearly demonstrated how a concerned citizenry intent on ascertaining the truth is ultimately a much more powerful force than the mainstream media."

As a lawyer, McCusker was motivated by the "egregious" conduct of Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong, adding that the indicted players deserve compensation from the city.

"As they press the flesh with people they are coming to meet for the first time, they will always be remembered as the kids who supposedly raped that poor black girl in Durham," he says. "Each and every one of those kids should own 1/3 of Durham County."

But the dean of the lacrosse bloggers is unquestionably KC Johnson, a 39-year-old history professor from low-profile Brooklyn College, whose "Durham-in-Wonderland" website boasts more than 15,000 page views per day-with more than a handful from the Duke campus, according to online readership statistics.

Johnson has become an unlikely hero for those who believe the indicted players have suffered injustice. His last book, on Congress during the Cold War, was considered a massive success because it was one of the top 100,000 books on Amazon.com's sales ranking for a few days, he says.

He's likely to do a little better for his next effort, a book about the lacrosse case he is co-writing with Stuart Taylor of National Journal.

"I continue to view the blog as an academic enterprise," Johnson explains. "I have the freedom to speak on some of the academic issues that someone who is a professor at Duke wouldn't have, because there is very little that the Group of 88 can do to retaliate against me."

Johnson is referring, of course, to the group of much-criticized professors who published an advertisement in The Chronicle last April which featured anonymous quotes from students and asked, "What Does a Social Disaster Look Like?"

It hasn't been a smooth ride since then, as much of the blogging community has made it a mission to hold those professors accountable for their ostensible rush to judgment. Some blog readers have posted vicious comments on online message boards, and several Duke professors have reportedly received racist, threatening e-mails from anonymous strangers.

All of the bloggers interviewed for this story said they delete unconstructive comments and discourage readers from sending hateful e-mails.

But it's a political issue for some, including William Anderson, who writes at lewrockwell.com, which does not have a message board attached directly to its articles.

A self-described Libertarian and a professor at Frostburg State University in Western Maryland, Anderson says he was alarmed by the "storm trooper tactics" occurring in Durham.

"Every single editorial writer in this country, including The News & Observer and The Herald Scum [sic] were all parroting the same thing," Anderson says, adding that he has not sought out personal confrontations with any individual faculty members.

Having written about general issues of crime and justice for many years, Anderson says he became alarmed when he perceived three men on the brink of a prison sentence, with no outcry or support from the public.

"I thought, it's us versus them," Anderson says. "I get fired up about this sort of thing.... Those guys had a lynch mob against them."

And though most of the commentary has been in support of the lacrosse players, the blog "Justice 4 Two Sisters" called for a new focus on the alleged victim before its authors stopped writing Nov. 7, 2006. The author did not respond to a request for comment.

In a late-October post, the blog suggested that the indicted players take advantage of their bully pulpit to speak out against racism.

"I've said from the start of this case, if the public feels these guys have been treated unfairly and stereotyped, well congratulations, you now know what it feels like to be African-American and be prejudiced against," the author wrote.

Regardless of which side they take, for many bloggers on the lacrosse case, it's a labor of love, rather than a means for profit, because they say accepting advertisements would risk their independence.

But LaShawn Barber is different from most of the online commentators, and not only because her site is ringed by advertisements. As a black, female, Christian conservative, Barber naturally attracts attention in a case dominated by issues of race.

She has made a profession out of blogging, spending up to four hours per day on her own site-which receives 4,000 hits per day-and offering her consulting services to others.

"I'm not a feminist, and I don't shout racism at the drop of a hat," Barber says. "I'm very open about my faith and my politics, and that tends to make a lot of people mad-it makes a lot of black readers angry."

With her picture and contact information directly available on the site, Barber stands in contrast to blogs written anonymously, such as John-in-Carolina, who will only identify himself as a Duke alumnus.

McCusker says it is important to him that he stands behinds his words to maintain credibility.

"The bottom line is I'm not really a blogger; I'm a husband, a dad and a lawyer," he explains. "I don't make it my daily waking chore to write because I must."

Indeed, Crystal Mess has been updated infrequently lately, and McCusker says he is feeling the heat.

"I feel like a conscripted slave or employee of my readership, but it's certainly been by-and-large a very rewarding endeavor," he says, noting that he has been in communication with many of the other online commentators.

"I have an amicable and very wry, witty ongoing e-mailing with KC," he adds. "It's nice to know that for each of the ideologues out there like [the Group of 88], there are individuals who will point out the hypocrisy and call them on their lies."

For Johnson, in spite of his book deal and newfound celebrity status, he can only hope that he has made an impact on the indictments handed down last April.

"If the work that I've done ends the case one day earlier than it would have otherwise, I could consider all the work to be worth it," he says.

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