Politics & Policy

Fear of Facts: Rolling Stone’s Negligence Is Just Part of a Larger Problem of Media Bias in Sexual-Assault Cases

‘Last July 8, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a writer for Rolling Stone, telephoned Emily Renda, a rape survivor working on sexual-assault issues as a staff member at the University of Virginia.” So opens the Columbia Journalism School’s review of Rolling Stone’s retracted story about the University of Virginia. The piece confirms that it was Renda who informed Erdely about Jackie, the fabulist whose tale became the spine of the Rolling Stone article. Though the CJR labels Renda a “rape survivor,” she appears never to have filed a complaint with the university, much less with the police. As for Jackie with Rolling Stone, for the CJR, Renda’s word about her status as a victim of crime is enough.

Renda appeared in the Monday New York Times’ summary of the Columbia exposé, described not only as a “rape survivor” but “the expert at the university on sexual assault issues.” Now, however, Renda was a critic of Erdely’s work and the decision to highlight Jackie’s story. “Ms. Renda,” reporter Ravi Somaiya wrote, “offered another reason that she felt the Rolling Stone article was flawed: The magazine was drawn toward the most extreme story of a campus rape it could find. The more nuanced accounts, she suggested, seemed somehow ‘not real enough to stand for rape culture. And that is part of the problem.’”

Nowhere in his article did Somaiya reveal that Rolling Stone never would have learned about Jackie but for Renda. Indeed, as Columbia uncovered, the UVA employee had even vouched for the fabulist’s credibility: “Obviously, maybe her memory of [the rape] isn’t perfect,” she said, defending Jackie in advance against worries Erdely might have. Informing Times readers of Renda’s critical connection to the Rolling Stone fiasco might have undermined the Times’ desire to portray her as an expert on the topic of campus sexual assault. Indeed, suggesting that the Rolling Stone hoax could raise doubts about the mainstream media’s obsession with an alleged “rape culture” on campus would have raised significant doubts about the Times’ deeply flawed coverage of this issue.

RELATED: Fighting Against ‘Rape Culture’ Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Readers looking to the Columbia exposé to understand why the article went wrong will find scant information. Such an inquiry would have cut too close to ideas tender to journalists at not only Rolling Stone and (it seems) Columbia, but also the Times, BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, and countless less prominent outlets, which have relentlessly hyped the campus-sexual-assault issue over the past several years. Borrowing language from victims’-rights advocates, for too many in the media, accusers automatically become “survivors,” their tale (and the existence of any criminal act against them, period) beyond question.

Erdely failed, the report notes, because her faith (and that of her editors) in the existence of a campus rape culture led her to decline to question not only Jackie’s alleged attacker, but even the friends whom she had supposedly told about the incident.

As it happens, this journalistic malpractice only differs by degree — if at all – from that of the Times’ Richard Pérez-Peña, who claimed that former Yale quarterback Patrick Witt withdrew his Rhodes Scholarship candidacy because of a sexual-assault allegation — even though the Times not only didn’t speak with Witt before publication, but didn’t even know who the alleged “survivor” was. Soon enough, reporting from the paper’s then-public editor discredited Pérez-Peña’s article.

RELATED: The UVA Frat May Have a Tough Time

A failure of this magnitude should trigger apologies, but — as Scott Greenfield has perceptively noted — the apologies we get reaffirm the guilty’s faith in the agenda-driven journalism that caused the problem in the first place. And so Erdely expressed regret “to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article,” but offered nothing to the fraternity members whom she falsely portrayed as savagely raping a fellow student during an initiation ritual. Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana intoned, “Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.” (As Greenfield observed, Dana provided no citation for his claim about campus sexual assault — it’s simply a matter of faith.) Columbia quoted the editor of Erdely’s story, Sean Woods, as apologetic, but still describing Jackie as a “rape victim.”

UVA president Teresa Sullivan denounced Rolling Stone’s “irresponsible journalism” for having reinforced “the reluctance sexual assault victims already feel about reporting their experience, lest they be doubted or ignored.” Sullivan had no apology for her decision — based solely on Erdely’s reporting — to suspend not only the fraternity where Jackie allegedly was raped, but to suspend all fraternities. In Sullivan’s mind, I suppose, such conduct was not “irresponsible.”

#related#The striking element of these half-hearted apologies (and in Sullivan’s case, non-apology) is the complete unwillingness to reconsider the ideological blinders that existed before the case began. In November: All rape victims are survivors that cannot be questioned — so Jackie’s story must be true. Now, with Jackie’s story discredited — all other rape victims are still survivors, and highlighting Jackie’s duplicity could somehow harm them. In the mind of Rolling Stone journalists or University of Virginia administrators, in other words, there are no other Jackies.

Suzanne Goldberg, one of the architects of Columbia’s sexual-assault policies (in which even students found not guilty of sexual assault can in some cases be punished), took to the pages of the Columbia Journalism Review to reiterate “the consensus amidst the controversy over the Rolling Stone campus rape piece.” Despite the fact that Jackie was a fabulist, and virtually everyone at UVA nonetheless believed her, Goldberg reasoned that “no one can credibly suggest today that concern about sexual assault and other gender-based misconduct on college campuses is unwarranted.” If anything, she maintained, the problem was one of “a dramatic case of underreporting,” at least until very recently. Again, note the utter unwillingness to reconsider preconceived notions in face of conflicting evidence.

The Rolling Stone report had already been undermined by reporting and intellectual challenges from Richard Bradley, Robby Soave, and later from Slate, Washington Post, CNN, and Chuck Ross at the Daily Caller. Given the comprehensiveness of the Post’s coverage – especially its reconstruction of Jackie’s activities with “Haven Monahan,” which came across as an elaborate catfishing scheme — there wasn’t much factual detail Columbia could add, other than to describe, at great length, how incompetently everyone at Rolling Stone handled this affair.

In December, as Erdely’s article began to collapse, Julia Horowitz, a student journalist at UVA, tried to explain why the campus newspaper had been caught flat-footed by the falsity of Jackie’s tale. She conceded that “factual inconsistencies” and “discrepancies” might exist in Erdely’s tale, but, she cautioned, “To let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake.” Horowitz, exponent of this horrifying view of journalism, went on to become editor-in-chief of UVA’s student newspaper. Much of the media has been quick to pillory Rolling Stone, but Horowitz’s fear of allowing facts to overwhelm the narrative would be at home in vast swaths of our media — and government and higher education, too. 

— K. C. Johnson is professor of history at Brooklyn College and blogs on higher-education issues at Minding the Campus.

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