On the Rolling Stone debacle

The cautionary tale of the Duke lacrosse scandal has been routinely dismissed by far too many media outlets, and in increasingly alarming fashion, since it first unfolded eight years ago.

The scandal there, as I have written elsewhere, was the duplicity of the media — and not just any old media but the likes of The New York Times — in falling for an irresistible narrative.

But even after the rape accuser’s story proved to be a complete hoax, and a district attorney was disbarred for prosecuting based on the narrative, the hysteria over “rape culture” in America has reached a fever pitch.

So the admission on Friday by the editor of Rolling Stone magazine that key parts of its bombshell gang rape allegation piece, entitled “A Rape on Campus,” don’t add up shouldn’t be terribly surprising.

What’s deeply troubling is the admission by the freelance writer of the piece, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, that she chose not to contact the accused fraternity members at the request of the accuser.

Erdely unfurled a 9,000-word narrative based on the story of a single female accuser with no corroborating reporting, and her editors let it sail through to publication. The power of narrative, indeed.

Even more troubling is another admission by Erdely, that she scoured a number of elite college campuses looking to find the perfect case study for this continuing narrative of rape epidemic on campuses. The UVa fraternity culture has gained an especially notorious reputation over the years, and even as her story was unraveling, Erdely tried to make the case that it was that broader issue that was the subject of her investigation.

So the details don’t matter?

This is a cardinal sin of journalism, and yet as in the Duke lacrosse story, it’s a sin that’s committed far too frequently when it comes to reporting about sexual violence, especially in American college life.

The narrative of this story — based on claims by a UVa student named “Jackie” that she was repeatedly assaulted on a bed of broken glass by a series of men for several hours — was just too good to be true.

And so it may be.

And now certain feminists who insist that the woman should ALWAYS be believed are upset because Erdely not only believed the woman, but incorporated that premise into the heart of her work.

As Amanda Taub wrote at Vox, the failure to check the stories of rape accusers doesn’t protect them, but makes them even more vulnerable.

Yes, this backtracking by Rolling Stone will make things more difficult for rape victims to speak up, and that’s difficult enough. Hanna Rosin of Slate, whose podcast interview with Erdely raised some serious questions about this story early on, wondered late Friday if “maybe we’ve reached a point where we hold stories about rape to a lower standard.”

Well, yes. Who doesn’t want to believe a rape accuser? Who wanted to believe something so terrible as what Jackie claims could be made up? Or Crystal Mangum, the Duke lacrosse accuser, who said she was gang raped at a team party where had been hired to perform?

In the eight years since Duke, mainstream media outlets have not only ignored those journalistic blunders (and the fact that Mangum is now in prison for murdering her boyfriend), they’ve happily jumped on the “rape culture” bandwagon, especially when the claims involve athletes, and football players in particular. As the Obama Administration is demanding tougher crackdowns on alleged sex assault on campuses, there’s an uncritical willingness to believe statistics about college rape that are hardly empirical.

The full story about what may have happened to Jackie at UVa still hasn’t been revealed, and Rolling Stone wasn’t clear about what the “discrepancies” are that it is still investigating. So whether this is a hoax or not can’t be determined at this time. We just don’t know what, if anything, transpired, or if it happened the way Jackie told Erdely.

The Washington Post did its own reporting that details some of the apparent inconsistencies, but what triggered the inquiry was an outside party. Former George editor Richard Bradley, who once worked with the disgraced Stephen Glass, wondered on his personal blog if the story was true.

He was roundly vilified for raising such a question, including the predictable snarky comeback from Jezebel. “A giant ball of shit” is how a Columbia j-school grad described his claim. So classy.

Brooklyn College professor K.C. Johnson got the same treatment for his work questioning the story in the Duke case, even as his Durham in Wonderland blog was regularly revealing the media and academic dishonesty that kept perpetuating a dubious narrative.

Bradley and Johnson are in a sense proxy ombudsmen for mainstream media institutions that are falling hard for catnip narratives. In his summation post on Saturday, Bradley concluded that “Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story does not establish any larger truths about the University of Virginia.”

Perhaps this will become the cautionary tale that will be finally heeded:

” ‘A Rape on Campus’ is an irresponsible patchwork of personal politics, sloppy reporting and preconceived conclusions by a writer who lamented that the University of Virginia has no ‘radical feminist culture seeking to upend the patriarchy’—and took it upon herself to do just that.”

More good insight from smart female commentators here: Megan McArdleJudith Levine and Cathy Young. This embodies what feminist opinion-writing can be, once raw emotion is ditched in favor of intellectual and journalistic rigor.

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