Rolling Stone and UVA: more than a failure of journalism

The real problem is the unhinged moral panic about rape on campus.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

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A study by the Columbia School of Journalism into the discredited Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia (UVA) concludes that the story represented a ‘journalistic failure that was avoidable’. The report, published on Easter Sunday, said Rolling Stone did not undertake ‘basic, even routine journalistic practice’ to verify details. The author of the Rolling Stone piece, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, took the word of the alleged victim, ‘Jackie’, without even bothering to speak with the accused or Jackie’s friends, says the report. And Rolling Stone’s fact-checkers and editors let it slide.

While damning, the Columbia report was not really surprising. An investigation by the Washington Post late last year had already found Rolling Stone’s journalistic practices to be exceptionally shoddy. The Post could find no evidence that the gang rape took place, and strongly suggested that Jackie had fabricated the story. And in late March, the local Charlottesville police said ‘there is no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article’.

The Columbia report rightly details serious journalistic mistakes, but, in doing so, it gives a misleading impression. From reading it, you could conclude that the Rolling Stone blow-up is an isolated case, and that this discredited story was simply the result of faulty internal procedures. Neither is true. The report’s narrow focus on editorial processes overlooks the wider context: that our society is in the midst of a hysterical panic over an imaginary epidemic of rape on campuses. The Rolling Stone piece is a product of that panic; it is a symptom of a bigger problem. It was a belief in the existence of a rape epidemic, and the desire to convince others of it, that led Rolling Stone to embrace advocacy over fact-finding.

The Columbia report hints at — but doesn’t really develop — this point when it discusses Erdely’s original motive for writing the story: ‘Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now… where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture”.’ In other words, she had already reached her conclusion, and was on the lookout for an extraordinary example that would be ‘emblematic’ of ‘rape culture’.

At Columbia University, which hosts the journalism school, there is a campaign to expel a male student who is accused of rape, simply on the word of the accuser, who carries a mattress around campus in protest. At campus rallies, demonstrators shout ‘I believe!’ to indicate their support for all women who make accusations. Erdely essentially adopted that same outlook in researching the UVA story. Trying to defend her lack of inquisitiveness, she said that Jackie was ‘a person I found credible’ — as if that sufficed, and meant no verification from other sources was needed.

Rolling Stone was essentially giving an ‘I believe!’ evangelist space in its magazine. Moreover, Erdely and the editors were also following the feminist view that it is insensitive to question those who make rape accusations. Erdely said she didn’t ask more questions for fear of ‘re-traumatising’ Jackie.

In response to the Columbia report, Rolling Stone said it accepted the report’s recommendations, but would not overhaul its editorial processes nor sack any one. This led to a chorus of criticisms, especially over the fact that no one would lose their job — even Erdely — for such a major screw-up. But, like the Columbia report, such criticisms were very limited: they assumed that our main concern should be with how Rolling Stone could get its house in order.

But who cares about restoring Rolling Stone’s reputation? The far more important issue raised by the UVA debacle is how to deal with the problem of our unhinged campuses, and the ridiculous belief that rape is as rampant on an Ivy League campus as it is in a war-torn area of the Third World.

In a statement issued after the release of the Columbia report, Erdely offered her apologies to Rolling Stone readers, her colleagues, UVA, and ‘any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article’. Many anti-rape activists on campuses share Erdely’s concern: they say the problem with the discrediting of the Rolling Stone story is that it might deter rape victims from coming forward.

While Erdely and the campus activists express concerns about future victims, they are clearly not bothered about creating a witch-hunt atmosphere and denying due-process rights in the here and now. Erdely notably failed to apologise to those who were the victims of her reporting: the men she falsely accused of rape, and all the fraternities at UVA that she charged with promoting a ‘rape culture’. Thanks to her article, brothers at the accused Phi Kappa Psi fraternity were called rapists as they walked campus. Vandals threw bricks at their windows, and they were forced to move to a motel.

Implied in Erdely’s statement is a claim that her errors were borne of good intentions, of caring. She writes, ‘I must weigh my compassion against my journalistic duty to find the truth’, thus letting us know she is compassionate. Her mistakes were due to ‘my concern for Jackie’s wellbeing, my fear of re-traumatising her, and my confidence in her credibility’. She is essentially saying: I may have got this wrong, but please judge me by my good intentions, which were in service of a larger truth about campus rape culture.

But Erdely’s claim of good intentions is, frankly, bullshit. She is full of prejudices about the UVA fraternities. When asked in a podcast to describe the accused, she replied ‘I don’t want to say much about them as individuals but I’ll just say that this particular fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, it’s really emblematic in a lot of ways of sort of like elitist fraternity culture’. As it happens, she can’t say anything about them ‘as individuals’, because she didn’t bother to speak with any of them. Nor did she treat them ‘as individuals’: she twisted the truth to screw them over, and damaged their reputations; she operated entirely in bad faith.

For the fraud they perpetuated, Erdely and her editors deserve all the criticism they are receiving. But let’s not stop there; let’s also challenge the entire moral panic over rape, of which the Rolling Stone story is just a particularly egregious example.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

Picture by: PA Images.

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Topics USA


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