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

Rolling Stone’s journalistic malpractice is not merely a cautionary tale about “confirmation bias.”

The extensive post mortem that Rolling Stone commissioned in the wake of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s now infamous “Rape on Campus” disaster rests upon — and confirms — two salient facts. The first: that Erdely did not receive her story from a source and then contrive to write it up, but instead went looking for a tale that would help her to advance a political narrative. The second: that Rolling Stone’s editorial process broke down almost entirely, thereby permitting her shoddy workmanship to reach the international stage.

The report’s author, Columbia School of Journalism dean Steve Coll, confirms that Erdely 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.” Why? Well, because both she “and her editors had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better.” Meanwhile, Coll writes, “the magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all.” This, Coll suggests, was not the product of institutional poverty or of changes wrought by the age of the Internet, but of essential “methodology.” “The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification,” Coll concludes, “that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie’s position.” Bottom line: They got played, yes; but they probably wanted to be.

With the exception of a brief meditation on the dangers of “confirmation bias,” Coll largely refrains from delving too deeply into the question of why this happened. Given his limited role, this reticence was perhaps appropriate. Nevertheless, that he did not identify the problem does not mean that there is not one. Au contraire: Indeed, there is an obvious reason that Rolling Stone was taken in by a tall tale regarding campus rape, and not, say, changes to the tax structure, and that is that when the matter at hand is “rape culture,” we have all been trained to leave our brains on the floor.

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

The harshest charge that one can level against Erdely and her associates at Rolling Stone is that they knew full well that their story was full of holes, but that they considered their political objectives to be of greater value than were the facts in question. (When Sabrina Erdely proposes bizarrely in her “apology” that her job is to “weigh my compassion against my journalistic duty to find the truth,” she opens herself up to this charge.) The softest assessment, by contrast, is the one that was offered by Coll himself: namely, that the “main fault” of those involved with the deception was that they were “too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault.”

Ostensibly, these options seem to be a world apart; in truth they are merely different sides of the same coin. Even if we suspend our disbelief and give Erdely an extremely generous benefit of the doubt – if we assume, that is, that she made all of her mistakes in a good-faith attempt to spare the feelings of her source – we will still come up against a considerable institutional problem: that being that whether or not they are setting out to deliberately mislead their audiences, journalists writing about claims of rape are operating under rules of engagement that have been set by zealots. Certainly, it is feasible that Erdely is a conscious fabulist, in the mold of her classmate at UPenn, Stephen Glass. It is possible, too, that she was genuinely taken in by Jackie, and that she intended only to do right by her. And yet, here’s the thing: It doesn’t especially matter which one is true. Ultimately, it is downright impossible to divorce Erdely’s conduct from the cultural pathologies that informed it. At UVA, at Rolling Stone, and within the media in general, the malleable specter of “rape culture” is prompting good people to behave like fools.

RELATED: The UVA Frat May Have a Tough Time

Over the last decade or so, we have witnessed the rise of a political movement that hopes to set the investigation and punishment of sexual assault outside of the limitations that are imposed by respect for due process, for rational inquiry, and for common intellectual decency. By and large, this movement is populated by people who despise the truth if it contradicts the narrative; who regard evidence and process as tools of oppression; who interpret skepticism and questioning as acts of hostility; and who, at least as it relates to “rape culture,” consider unthinking credulity as a virtue and not a vice. Think back, if you dare, to the first few weeks of the scandal – more specifically, to the point at which a handful of skeptics began to ask penetrating questions about Sabrina Erdely’s account — and ask yourself what happened to the dissenters. Were they thanked for their contributions, or were they screamed at, mercilessly?  

The answer, sadly, is the latter. In the Washington Post, Zerlina Maxwell argued that “we should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser [of rape] says,” for “the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist.” This view was seconded by the lawyer and journalist Rachel Sklar, who confirmed for posterity that she considers “women who speak of their own experiences” to be automatically “credible,” and anybody who asks questions to be a rape apologist. On Twitter, meanwhile, Slate’s Amanda Marcotte concluded that anybody who has questions about a given account must by definition be engaged in a dastardly attempt to demonstrate that no rape stories are ever true, while CNN’s Sally Kohn grew angry at Jonah Goldberg when he asked for more evidence. Perhaps the best example of the all-zetetics-are-heretics presumption came from the remarkably ungracious Anna Merlan, who rewarded Reason’s Robby Soave for his investigative work by throwing an epithet at him: “idiot.”

#related#Now, none of this is to say that Sabrina Erdely is not responsible for her own mistakes. Clearly, had she and her colleagues followed the established rules of journalism, they would not be in this position. But it is worth noting that, by so steadfastly refusing to do her due diligence, Erdely was in fact behaving exactly as a good portion of the “social justice” Left believes is proper. Her initial instinct — to find and to trump up a story in order to illustrate a supposedly broad problem — was that of the frustrated activist who, irked that his favorite injustice is not getting the attention that he just knows that it deserves, takes it upon himself to invent or to overstate or to falsely peddle a dramatic tale that will garner the requisite amount of attention and change the world for the better. Her methodology — more specifically, her failure to properly investigate her primary source for fear of vexing her or of “discouraging” other victims — has been widely endorsed by a good number of feminist commentators. Even her apology — such as it was — followed a classic path: To wit, “I’m sorry for getting the details wrong, but I hope you won’t think this means it wasn’t true.”

Taking up this lattermost point, the lawyer Scott Greenfield observed today that Erdely has “not only failed to apologize to those she wrongfully smeared in her story, but used it as a vehicle to further promote the very cause that blinded her from truth.” He is correct. Indeed, the most notable feature of this whole saga has been the “rape apology” crowd’s spectacular unwillingness to recognize that there were two potentially bad outcomes here, not just one. It would, of course, have been terrible if Jackie’s story were true but nobody believed her. But it would also have been awful if the charges were untrue and the alleged perpetrators had been unfairly maligned. That it never crossed the minds of the howling mob that their targets may in fact be innocent — and, indeed, that Sabrina Erdely cannot bring herself to apologize to those whose lives she has damaged — is perhaps the most worrying, and illiberal, thing of all.

And so the real casualties are forgotten, and the authors of their misery will live to see another day. Were I among those who were libeled here, I could be forgiven for thinking that I was invisible; for lamenting that the apologies have been half-hearted and half-meant; for observing that the contrition has been hollow and pro-forma; and for concluding that all of these things are true because the real mourning is being done in the name of the smash-hit story that never was, and not in the interests of those who were hurt by its excesses.


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