The first time I read the Rolling Stone story on an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, I was appalled.
That was the point of course. Readers were supposed to be appalled by the story of a brutal, dehumanizing gang rape of a college freshman that goes unaddressed by a callous university bureaucracy; they were also supposed to extrapolate the mishandling of that crime into a broader indictment of how universities everywhere handle the problem of campus rape, and indeed how society in general approaches the issue.
Personally, though, I was appalled for a different reason. Even on a first reading of the piece, the glaring deficiencies in basic journalism immediately called into question everything else about it, including the larger conclusions that readers were being asked to draw. Yes, events could have unfolded exactly as the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, claimed.
But there were also a lot of obvious reasons to doubt it:
— The piece describes three friends in whom the victim, identified as “Jackie”, confided on the morning after the attack. These witnesses allegedly saw her bloodied and beaten. They heard her give an emotional, immediate account of the crime and supposedly counseled her not to report it. If interviewed, such witnesses could have provided crucial, immediate verification of the victim’s account, but in the article, Erdely provides no hint that she had ever tried to contact them. That failure is almost inconceivable in a major investigative piece of this type.
— Based on the evidence in the article, the reporter also made no attempt to contact the alleged leader of the gang rape or any other of the young men alleged to have taken part, even though the victim told the reporter that she has seen them around campus. In the absence of any other corroborating evidence — no police reports, etc. — and the gravity of the charge, that too seemed bizarre. Erdely and Rolling Stone editors initially explained that failure on grounds that they were honoring a request from “Jackie,” but that doesn’t begin to justify it. Journalists have an ironic term for it: a story too good to check.
— The failure was particularly grievous given that the article provides enough information about the alleged organizer of the gang rape — describing him as a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity who also worked at the university’s aquatics center that term — that it basically identified him by all but name. The subset of UVA students who were both members of that frat and working at the aquatics center in that time frame would be quite small — one or maybe two people at most. (The real number turned out to be zero — nobody at that fraternity worked at the aquatics center that year.)
Had that person actually existed, and in this world of social media and crowd-sourcing, he would have been identified almost immediately and hoisted upon the national stage accused of a brutal crime based on nothing but the unverified claims of a single person. How the attorneys for Rolling Stone let that come to pass, I have no idea.
Subsequent reporting by other news outlets has exposed other problems with the story as well, leading Rolling Stone to issue an apology and at least partial retraction late last week. That in turn has spawned spinoff controversies, from claims of media irresponsibility and media agendas to the impact that the story might have on real-life rape victims who may now be more reluctant to report the crime. Unfortunately, it also may make people more reluctant to believe those reports. (The ongoing saga with the sorded Bill Cosby rape allegations offers another kalaidoscope through which to view such issues.)
It is absolutely true of course that the Rolling Stone piece was journalism with an agenda, but that in itself is not the issue. When performed well and clearly presented as such, agenda journalism has a valuable role to play. However, “performed well” requires at a minimum that you get the basic facts right. Rolling Stone clearly did not, and while “Jackie” and Erdely both can be blamed for their own failures, the main failure was that of the magazine’s editors, as they themselves now acknowledge.
Given the state of affairs, it’s probably inevitable that the debate has also devolved into a battle of blue vs. red, conservative vs. liberal. Conservative critics have pointed out that one reason the editors of Rolling Stone failed to verify the story is that it conformed to their pre-existing liberal belief that rape is under-reported, that fraternities are misogynistic and that society as a whole is too accepting of violence against women. (See here and here.
Frankly, there’s probably some truth to that criticism. Human nature being what it is, we are all more likely to suspend healthy skepticism when a story conforms to and confirms our pre-existing beliefs. Psychologists call it “confirmation bias”: Once you buy into a larger narrative, you instinctively start looking for evidence to support it.
That’s apparently what happened when “Jackie” told her story to the sympathetic reporter, again when the reporter submitted her story to a sympathetic Rolling Stone, and finally when Rolling Stone told the story to its readers, many of whom took it as gospel and a few of whom viciously attacked those who questioned it. (See also here.)
To be accurate, though, this was a failure of one outlet, Rolling Stone, not of the media in general. Other media outlets, including Reason magazine, the New Republic, Slate, the Washington Post, and most notably the personal blog of Richard Bradley, the editor in chief of Worth magazine, publicly questioned, investigated and finally exposed the flimsiness of the piece. They did the work that Rolling Stone itself should have done, even if it meant challenging some larger narrative.
Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped conservatives such as Matthew Continetti of the Washington Free Beacon from ranting about a liberal predilection for “just-so stories, extravagant assertions, heated denunciations, empty gestures, moral posturing that increases in intensity the further removed it is from the truth.”
It’s interesting, though: As I read words such as “moral posturing that increases in intensity the further removed it is from the truth,” they bring to my mind things such as Benghazi, the IRS scandal, Obama’s birth certificate and the insistence that the great Sarah Palin was perfectly qualified to serve as the leader of the free world but was brought down by an unfair media**.
In fact, I see the tendency to cling to a “politically driven narrative” even in the face of contrary facts as a much more serious problem among conservatives than liberals. Obviously, that may be my own confirmation bias at work.
The larger point is that none of us is immune to the seductiveness of being right. We may tell ourselves that we are more interested in the truth than in buttressing our own tribal loyalties and the narratives that support it, but right there, in that reassuring story that we tell ourselves about ourselves, is where skepticism should begin.
**Continetti himself has made that latter argument, and at length, in his aptly title book “The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star.”