The Corner

Bad Journalism, Even If It Were True

When I was a student at the University of Texas, I served as managing editor of our school paper, the (all hail!) Daily Texan, as a consequence of which I did something that no self-respecting journalist should do: I took a journalism class, media law and ethics, which was a requirement for serving as M.E. For my sins, I drew as my professor the daft left-wing windbag Robert Jensen, whose first lecture consisted of a screed against the presence of sports sections in newspapers, which Professor Jensen considered an ethical problem in that they contributed what he believed to be an unhealthy competitiveness in our society. Naturally, I never went to Professor Jensen’s class again, and got my media law and ethics from the superb Mike Quinn, who also had some interesting observations about JFK conspiracy theories. (Quinn had covered the assassination for the Dallas Morning News.) I learned some useful and practical things, one of which was how to go about preventing myself from publishing lies fed to me by others, a useful skill if you spend time around politicians and political activists. 

Rolling Stone could have used the services of the mighty Quinn.

One does not expect the journalistic home of witless uptown communist Jesse Myerson to be a paragon of journalistic integrity, critical thinking, or good taste, but its getting took by that University of Virginia rape fantasist’s tall tale is an object lesson in journalistic malpractice.

Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who has written for everybody from GQ to Mother Jones, is a practitioner of the Red Queen school of journalism: execution first, trial after. She went out looking for a gonzo campus-rape story and, when she could not find a real one, found a woman willing to supply her with a fake one, an obviously suspicious tale of a vicious gang rape over several hours at the hands of UVA fraternity members, complete with dialog right out of an after-school special — “Don’t you want to be a brother?” “Her reputation will be shot for the next four years” — and inconsistencies that require the active suspension of disbelief. Whether Erdely knew that the story was fake is not entirely beside the point, but ignorance is not an excuse, either — not for her, and not for her editors. She had a positive obligation not to publish the story she had, because the story was insufficient on any responsible journalistic grounds. It was rubbish, she knew it, and Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana damned sure should have known it. This is stuff they teach to freshmen reporters at college newspapers. 

Generally speaking, serious allegations such as the one in question require one of two things: 1. corroborating evidence or documentation; 2. a victim or witness willing to go on the record under his own name. Preferably, both are available, but that is not always the case.

As a small-town newspaper editor, I received all sorts of wild complaints about the local police, the township commissioners, prominent public figures (especially judges), and the like. Some of those turned out to be true, but that truth generally took some digging. If somebody had a story about police misbehavior — and we covered quite a bit of that — but was unwilling to lodge a formal complaint or go on record with the allegations under his own name, then we did not have very much to work with. If the story seemed to us credible enough, we might go looking for evidence or witnesses ourselves, but any good editor knows to be skeptical of anonymous, undocumented complaints.

But that skepticism is insufficient if the editor wants very badly to believe.

Amanda Marcotte, the dim house feminist at Slate, earlier this week complained that skepticism about Lena Dunham’s dubious story about being sexually assaulted by a campus Republican at Oberlin — a story that I believe to be false as presented in her memoir, and perhaps entirely fictitious — is akin to Holocaust denial: “Rape denialism is like Holocaust denialism,” she wrote. That is exactly the sort of sloppy half-thought that passes for analysis among feminists, who represent one of the laziest intellectual tendencies in our public life. To express skepticism that the Holocaust happened is one thing; to express skepticism that a 32-year-old accountant in Portland who has never been outside of the United States but claims to have been imprisoned at Auschwitz is telling the truth is a different thing. The question in that case is not whether the Holocaust happened, but whether this person was a victim of it. “But who would lie about having been raped?” the feminists demand. Lots of people, as it turns out, just as people lie about having been the victims of Nazi atrocities. Questioning whether this rape happened is not the same as questioning whether rape happens.

Rape hoaxes, like the sometimes related hate-crime hoaxes that have become so common on college campuses, do not condense spontaneously out of the ether. The Left is committed to the notion that American colleges are hotbeds of sexual violence, racial bigotry, hatred of homosexuals, etc., because they are committed to the notion that the largely white and male upper echelons of American society — mostly products of those colleges — are secretly but unalterably committed to white supremacy, homophobia, and to using the threat of sexual violence to keep women in their place. 

The evidence suggests otherwise: Far from being an epidemic, sexual assault today happens at a rate about one-third that of 20 years ago, and rape seems to happen less often on college campuses than it does elsewhere. That should not be entirely surprising: Rape, like other crimes, tends to disproportionately affect people who are poor and non-white. As expected, the evidence points to sexual assault’s being more common in poor rural areas, Indian reservations, poor urban areas, etc. It is also more common where people tend to be relatively isolated, with Alaska having the nation’s highest rate of sexual assault.

The political aspect of this is not too hard to see. Campus hate-crime hoaxes, including rape-threat hoaxes, are generally targeted at Republicans and conservatives, and they very often feature comical, cartoonish conservative villains: “That chick that runs her liberal mouth all the time and doesn’t care who knows it,” read the fake rape threat in the University of Wyoming case; those are not words that an angry, knuckle-dragging conservative says about an outspoken feminist — those are words a self-admiring feminist says about herself. In Colorado, the target was a National Guardsman. At Duke, the target was the lacrosse team, while at UVA the target was a fraternity. All of those are engraved, gilt-edged invitations to another one of those tedious conversations about “male privilege” we’re always supposed to be having. Colleges become the locus of these fantasies because, as anybody who has watched one of our missing-blondes-of-the-week sagas knows, there is more juice to be had from the victimization of bright young college women than there is from the victimization of poor single mothers in obscure backwaters. 

In Colorado, Wyoming, and Virginia, all of those stories were lies. 

In truth, the Left does not care if they are lies. The Left believes that lies can serve a greater truth, e.g., Stephen Schneider’s infamous plea in Discover that climate activists mislead the public in the service of bringing them to the right side in the global-warming debate. The people and institutions who ran with Rolling Stone’s fake story — Jamelle Bouie, Sally Kohn, CNN, Amanda Marcotte, Jezebel, etc. — did not err in an ideological vacuum. They are not dupes; they are opportunists.

A responsible critic would have concluded that the Rolling Stone account was a defective piece of journalism as journalism even if every single word of it were true. The reason we have safeguard processes is to ensure that we present reasonably reliable information — that we do not go willy-nilly accusing people of rape based on the say-so of one anonymous person. We know — for a fact — that people sometimes lie about having been raped, just as they lie about all sorts of things. Horrible as it is, that is a fact, and one that cannot simply be set aside for reasons of ideological expedience. If the story had turned out to be true, Sabrina Rubin Erdely would not be a better journalist — she simply would have been lucky. And Rolling Stone would not be a better magazine. It would only be one that had escaped its current embarrassment. 

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