So here’s my question: Why would a conscientious citizen ever again trust anything published in Rolling Stone? To me, the diligent professors at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism went too easy on the magazine’s reporters and editors.
Rolling Stone’s doomed article about a make-believe gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house was more than “a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable.” The magazine and its editors made themselves willing, if not downright eager, parties to a hoax — and not a terribly sophisticated hoax at that.
Frankly, it’s getting to where the cultural left’s credulousness about melodramatic tales of victimization quite matches the conspiracy mongering of the right.
But hold that thought.
That nobody’s resigning or getting fired strikes me as the death knell for Rolling Stone’s reputation. More than that, its editors profess themselves “unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems.” They even insist that the article’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, will write for them again.
I’ll believe that when I see it. Perhaps she can write captions for cute kitten photos or an astrology column. Have I mentioned that Erdely teaches journalism classes at the University of Pennsylvania?
Anyway, to hear them tell it, the editors’ biggest mistake was bending over backward to protect the tender sensibilities of the “survivor of a terrible sexual assault.” One confessed that “ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting. We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”
Noble sentiments. However, what rape victim? After a four-month probe, the Charlottesville police department concluded there was no credible evidence to support Rolling Stone’s melodramatic narrative. None whatsoever. Although the police chief — clearly pandering to campus political sentiments — conceded that his investigation didn’t prove nothing bad ever happened to “Jackie,” the magazine’s one and only source.
Of course no investigation can ever prove such a thing. Only that not a single verifiable element of Jackie’s story checked out. There wasn’t even a frat party on the night of the supposed drunken gang bang.
Of the many falsehoods Jackie spun for the enraptured Erdely, my personal favorite is “Haven Monahan.” That’s the name of the handsome classmate Jackie told friends escorted her to the imaginary party. The friends were unable to confirm that the fellow was enrolled at UVA, possibly because — and what are the odds? — there appears to be nobody by that name living anywhere in the United States of America.
Erdely told the Columbia sleuths she began to harbor doubts about Jackie’s trustworthiness when she wasn’t sure how to spell her betrayer’s name. Alas, her Rolling Stone piece was already in print; she’d been touting it all over MSNBC and CNN. The Journalism School team politely pretended to believe this improbable tale.
Because until then, see, neither Erdely, her editors, Rolling Stone’s fact checkers, nor even — astonishing to me — the magazine’s libel lawyers had done a single bit of journalistic due diligence regarding Jackie’s tale of woe. They’d swallowed it whole, making no effort to contact the three pseudonymous friends whom the magazine “quoted” as warning Jackie that reporting the crime would make her a campus pariah. They’d taken Jackie’s word for it.
It was the same with the alleged perps. Erdely took no serious steps to contact them. Even the failure of Jackie’s mother to return phone calls failed to clue in the enraptured reporter that something might be fishy. Her editors played right along.
Actually, there’s a psychiatric term called “folie à deux” in which two closely allied persons come to share the same delusional belief. However, it’s impossible to know Jackie’s state of mind, since she’s gone into hiding. By her own account, Erdely arrived in Charlottesville with strong convictions about campus “rape culture” and the wickedness of WASP fraternity boys — particularly Southern ones.
She let the theme determine the facts, an elementary blunder. “Those failures were so profound and so basic that it’s hard to know how we can even look at this as a teachable moment,” writes Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy on his “Media Nation” blog. “The lesson is ‘don’t do any of this.’”
Writing in The Daily Beast, Columbia University linguist John McWhorter challenges what he sees as the self-delusions of the sentimental left: “The whole sordid affair has been about something much larger: the idea that the pursuit of justice can be separated from facts; that metaphorical truth can be more important than literal truth.”
That is, that because some girls get mauled at fraternity parties, all self-proclaimed “survivors” should be depicted as martyrs. To dissent is seen as symptomatic of bad faith or worse. Resisting such thinking, whether in Charlottesville or Ferguson, Missouri, can be hard.
Even so, it’s a journalist’s most important job.
Photo: University of Virginia (Adam Fagen/Flickr)