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Why the Media Keep Publishing Fiction
I once taught a whole college seminar on how Rolling Stone got took.
And now Rolling Stone has done it again. Maybe I’ll expand that seminar to a full semester — because the lessons of the journalistic crimes of Rolling Stone are applicable to much more than Rolling Stone.
The venerable pop-music magazine, which not long ago had to retract a splashy story about a vicious gang rape that never happened, has now been obliged to issue a correction — this should be a prelude to retraction — for a story about how gunshot victims wheeled into hospitals in rural Oklahoma are being left to bleed and groan in agony because the emergency rooms are overrun by cases of ivermectin poisoning. As with the infamous rape case, this is a culturally electric event that . . . did not actually happen: “Rolling Stone,” the correction reads, “has been unable to independently verify any such cases as of the time of this update.” There is a reason Rolling Stone has been unable to independently identify any such cases: There are no such cases.
More from the correction:
The National Poison Data System states there were 459 reported cases of ivermectin overdose in the United States in August. Oklahoma-specific ivermectin overdose figures are not available, but the count is unlikely to be a significant factor in hospital bed availability in a state that, per the CDC, currently has a 7-day average of 1,528 Covid-19 hospitalizations.
The most important word in this story is not “ivermectin” — it is “Oklahoma.” Because you know who lives in Oklahoma — Joe Rogan fans.
The story turns out to have been based on the claims of one doctor — claims that Rolling Stone never checked. Why? Because the story is about (1) ivermectin, and, more important, (2) Oklahoma.
The doctor is affiliated with a medical staffing group that serves multiple hospitals in Oklahoma. Following widespread publication of his statements, one hospital that the doctor’s group serves, NHS Sequoyah, said its ER has not treated any ivermectin overdoses and that it has not had to turn away anyone seeking care.
Another journalistic Hindenburg goes down in flames at Rolling Stone — oh, the buffoonery.
In 2015, I taught a journalism seminar at Hillsdale College, the subject of which was Sabrina Erdely’s 2014 Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus,” which related the story of a horrifying, brutal sexual assault at the University of Virginia, a crime that — and this part still matters! — did not happen. The story was a fantasy, a concoction, and a libel — and Rolling Stone’s report was, in the words of Erik Wemple at the Washington Post, a “complete crock.”
A crock of what precisely, though?
Like most of the phony hate crimes and fabricated racial and sexual insults that have for years been an epidemic among young Americans, especially on college campuses, the Rolling Stone rape hoax was a neurotic casserole of familiar ingredients: social and romantic disappointment, weaponized envy, prejudice, mental-health problems, and a progressive-activist culture in which the effort to discredit and abominate cultural enemies — more often than not dishonest — takes the place of argument.
These things follow a pattern: When Lena Dunham made up a story about being raped while a student at Oberlin, her fictitious villain was not a member of the chess team or the president of the campus Sierra Club chapter but a swaggering College Republican; when North Carolina Central University student Crystal Mangum made up a story about being gang-raped, the malefactors were the Duke lacrosse team; the UVA hoax author, Jackie Coakley, falsely claimed that she was gang-raped by members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity as part of an initiation ritual. When feminist activist Judy Munro-Leighton made up a story about being raped, she chose as her assailant Brett Kavanaugh, who was at the time a Supreme Court nominee in confirmation hearings. Jussie Smollett alleged that he was assaulted in the wee hours by . . . weirdly bitey Trump-loving Empire fans who just happened to have a length of rope and a quantity of bleach on their persons as they roamed the freezing streets of Chicago on an early January morning.
In all of these cases, the story wasn’t about what the story was about.
None of those fabricated rapes was presented as a mere crime of sexual violence — a crime that happens every day in these United States, disproportionately affecting not college women (who are, in fact, less likely to suffer rape than are women the same age who are not in college) or well-heeled activists but poor women in isolated urban and rural communities, women with little education, women on Indian reservations, illegal immigrants, etc. The stories and the data associated with some of these places are shocking.
But here’s the thing: Nobody cares about those women.
Not really. Of course, they’ll say they do. In reality, the kind of women our newspaper editors and magazine publishers care about are college students, white tourists abroad, and celebrities. But the most important variable in these hoaxes is not any of the personal qualities of the fictitious victims but the cultural resonance of the fictitious attackers. If you want to see a Native American leading the nightly news, put him in front of some white high-school kids wearing MAGA hats.
Magazines such as Rolling Stone, the major newspapers, the academic establishment, and the professional-activist class are not staffed in the main by people who grew up on Indian reservations or in dysfunctional mountain villages, people who dropped out of high school, people who have been incarcerated, or other people from the margins. You may find one or two or those at any given media property, but you’ll find a lot more Oberlin and UVA graduates. Their interests, anxieties, and obsessions are those associated with their class. They don’t know — or care — what’s happening at Pine Ridge or in Owsley County. But they do know what sort of class-adjacent people they like and don’t like, they do know what sort of lifestyles and cultural affiliations they disapprove of, they do remember being snubbed or insulted (even if they only imagined it) by some frat goofus at UVA, and they do know what sort of people they resent.
They don’t know much, but they know what they hate.
And so these made-up rape stories are not stories about rape — they are indictments of fraternity culture, or jock culture, or Southern institutions, or Republicans, or anybody else who wanders into the cultural crosshairs of the hoax artists. The Oklahoma ivermectin story works in the same way, fitting into a prefab politico-cultural narrative that is not strictly speaking connected to the facts of the case at hand. Stephen Glass’s fictitious report from CPAC is another example of the same thing at work. No one questions tales of victimization involving people they assume to be, always and everywhere, victims. No one questions tales of depravity discrediting people they believe to be depraved. Joe Rogan can’t be a half-bright meathead who sometimes says things Professor Plum doesn’t like — he has to be a monster, responsible for the deaths of hundreds or thousands of people. Of course the corpses of those rubes in Oklahoma are piling up like cordwood — Joe Rogan has to be stopped!
(Joe Rogan is a genuine crackpot about ivermectin and much else — maybe don’t take medical advice from the Fear Factor guy.)
This reflexive prejudice deforms journalism in ways that are not limited to seeing the occasional work of pure fiction published as news. As I have written before, this same tendency is why the same media kingpins who claim to be the tribunes of the poor and the forgotten will publish about 53 articles on the admissions policies at Harvard or the University of Texas law school for every one article they put out about the high-school dropout rate in Milwaukee. Harvard applicants matter, elite law schools matter, and Milwaukee high-school dropouts don’t matter.
Dead hicks in Oklahoma matter only because Joe Rogan matters.
Rolling Stone is not alone in this. Writing about the problems of the unionized public-sector work force in big Democrat-run cities does not push the right buttons for your average Washington Post reporter or editor — it does not lower the status of a perceived enemy but instead threatens a perceived ally. But, beyond that, the situation in Milwaukee’s troubled public schools (or Baltimore’s, or Dallas’s) simply does not have any personal resonance for media decisionmakers, speaking in most cases neither to their own experiences nor — more important — to their social aspirations. The people who edit the Washington Post are the sort of people who care intensely about who gets into Harvard and what’s happening at Georgetown. Only a minority of Americans are college graduates, but the people who run Rolling Stone and the rest of the major media are in large part people who have powerful emotional connections to campus life.
School choice for poor black kids in Philadelphia isn’t even a blip on NPR-listening Democrats’ radar – but forgiving college loans sure as hell is. Why? It is obvious enough.
For progressives who see those who do not share their political priorities not as having different views but as enemies, publishing a made-up story about deranged gang-rapists at UVA pushes all the right buttons: white privilege, rich-jerk privilege, male privilege, Southern brutality, maybe even Christian hypocrisy if you can figure out a way to shoehorn it in there.
You can be sure that if someone had come forward with an unsubstantiated, loosey-goosey story about having been gang-raped by the staff of Rolling Stone, that claim would have received a good deal more scrutiny — not only at Rolling Stone, but at any mainstream-media outlet. Not because they are personally connected to Rolling Stone staffers, but because they live in the same world as Rolling Stone staffers. Southern fraternity members and college athletes are natural bogeymen to the media-staffer demographic, and so claims about them, however outrageous, are treated sympathetically. Oklahoma, on the other hand, inspires more fear among big-city progressives than the terrifying prospect of . . . being made to pay their own property taxes.
The Rolling Stone story got picked apart in about five minutes as soon as it encountered the lightest skepticism. The Duke lacrosse story required a criminal investigation. Lena Dunham’s made-up story fell apart as soon as one curious reporter — in this case, me — spent five minutes on Google and made one telephone call. That wasn’t exactly hardcore investigative journalism, and I don’t write that to be modest: The students I taught at Hillsdale were undergraduates, not professional magazine editors, but they were able to see the problems with Rolling Stone’s reporting and its agenda-driven narrative pretty easily. Which is to say: These stories don’t get published because nobody knows how to prevent that from happening — these stories get published because nobody cares, because these stories serve the purposes of a particular narrow cultural agenda and flatter the prejudices of a particular narrow set of educated and generally affluent American professionals.
(It is worth bearing in mind that the captains of our ruling classes are so greedy that they are willing to rob the poor and the oppressed even of their suffering, which is why you so often find cases like those of Edward Said, whose hardscrabble Palestinian childhood was an invention, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the daughter of an architect who was raised in affluent Westchester County and invented a “working-class” background for herself. These people simply must have the best of everything, including the pleasure of congratulating themselves on how far they have come and the adversity they have overcome. That is the emotional foundation of our victimization Olympics.)
This is a problem of political bias, but political bias is part of a larger cultural bias, a particular social orientation. Rolling Stone has always been left-leaning, but it also was for many years the home of great writing from conservatives, notably P. J. O’Rourke and Tom Wolfe. But we have closed ranks, socially, in recent years, for a variety of reasons, many of them just blisteringly stupid. This has coincided with certain social and economic changes that have undermined the quality of American journalism. It is not that we do not know how to get it right, or even that we do not have the resources to get it right — it is that our petty hatreds and cultural tribalism have led us to believe that it does not matter if we get it right, that lies and misrepresentations about cultural enemies are virtuous in that they serve a “greater truth.” And this is not an exclusively left-wing phenomenon: Donald Trump’s lies, and the distortions and misrepresentations of right-wing talk radio and cable news, are excused and even celebrated on the same grounds.
The test of a political claim in our time is not whether it is true or false but whether it raises or lowers the status of our enemies.
It is, of course, a little bit amusing that those at the commanding heights of our media are so blinded by prejudice that they cannot see the plain evidence that they are blinded by prejudice. Class prejudice is a bigger part of that than is generally appreciated, but there are other kinds of prejudice at play. (It is complicated, because many other kinds of prejudice are intertwined with class prejudice: religious prejudice, notably, but also racial prejudice and linguistic prejudice.) Making our media even more of a monoculture — more intellectually and politically homogeneous — is going to make this even worse. You do not have to be of a certain background to write about people from that background, and you do not have to have personal experience with any particular social situation to write intelligently about it. But you have to do the work, which is a lot more difficult and a lot less enjoyable than simply indulging your own prejudices and hatreds.
Unhappily, our so-called journalists are by the day less willing to do that work — and have fewer incentives to do it — which is why they keep getting snookered by interchangeable lies from a cast of interchangeable liars.
A note to our progressive friends: This is your version of Q-Anon — falling for obvious, ridiculous lies because you want to believe the worst about people you hate.
In Other News . . .
Writing about cancel culture, Anne Applebaum turns up her nose at “anyone who tries to shoehorn these stories into a right-left political framework.”
Writing in the Atlantic, she was.
Now, where did I leave that shoehorn?
Words about Words
Where I come from, a shoehorn is not a shoehorn — it is a shoe spoon. But, depending on where you are, it may be a shoehorse, shoespooner, shoe schlipp, or shoe tongue.
It is a damned interesting word: Shoe horn in its literal sense dates back to at least the 15th century, but its modern metaphorical sense goes back only to the 19th century.
For some period of time between the coining of the word and the emergence of the modern metaphorical senses, shoehorn had a different metaphorical sense: cuckold.
My guess is that the horn part explains that. The connection between horns and sex has been around a lot longer than English has, and the popular tradition connecting horns and cuckolds goes way back into the history, and the pre-history, of the British isles. The Charlton Horn fair, with its obvious pagan survivals, was held at a site known as “Cuckold’s Point,” and, according to legend, it was instituted by King John in recompense to a man whose wife he had seduced. It probably predates King John’s reign by some time.
But the connection is not exclusive to the Western world: Horns have been used for centuries in folk medicine as aphrodisiacs — as the rhinoceros horn still is in China, among other places.
More Words about Words
From the New York Times, writing about Billy Bob Thornton’s series “Goliath”:
Once again, an ace supporting cast (including the series regular Nina Arianda and the newcomers Bruce Dern, Jena Malone, J.K. Simmons and Elias Koteas) works magnificently to deliver a moody and complex mystery with juicy twists.
I understand the use of the word newcomers here, meaning “newcomers to the series,” but it is jarring to see the word newcomer applied in any context to 85-year-old Bruce Dern, who was appearing on stage when Billy Bob Thornton was appearing in diapers.
(Literally, Mr. President. Literally.)
I am reminded of the opening credits for Robert Rodriguez’s Machete: “Starring Danny Trejo, Steven Seagal, Michelle Rodriguez . . . and . . . introducing . . . Don Johnson.” Johnson, who was an enormous celebrity in the Miami Vice era, had been dormant for a while before appearing as the villain in that 2010 film. Introducing was a little joke, but also an announcement of his intention of reviving his career. Which he did.
An old friend of mine who got by for some years as a semi-professional golf hustler said he used to caddy for Don Johnson, who was, according to my source, a gentleman and an excellent tipper.
Writing in Slate about Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite-internet company, Claire Park notes: “Incumbent satellite providers like Viasat and HughesNet currently offer median download speeds 10 times slower and upload speeds 20 times slower than median speeds available through an at-home, fixed broadband connection.”
Do not do this. If you do, your prose will be . . . 100 times less readable.
“Times slower” is a variation of “times less,” which is a clumsy formulation. Times should go with more or with things that go in the direction of more, in the direction of increase: “The CEO earns 300 times more than the lowest-paid employee.” While it is true that you can get less through multiplication (multiplying by a number less than 1) times by its nature wants to point in the direction of increase. Better to write: “One-twentieth the speed of a fixed broadband connection,” or “The lowest-paid employee earns 1/300th what the CEO is paid.”
The same story mentions “fast-speed affordable internet.” Why not “fast, affordable internet”? I can’t think of a context in which the adjective “fast” does not refer to speed, either literal (Literal, Mr. President!) or metaphorical.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
News from Hollywood?
Home and Away
We are going to have vaccine mandates, at least narrowly tailored ones for medical personnel and those in similar work. So, we are going to need a secure and reliable system for monitoring vaccinations. The one we have is kind of a joke. More in the New York Post.
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I am writing this on Labor Day, which is, in my view, kind of a disreputable pinko holiday, even if it originally was instituted to preempt the deeper red festivities of May 1. Oh, I know, we conservatives are supposed to be building the Populist Right-Wing Farmer-Labor Party these days, but I do not think that I have very much to contribute to that particular project. That being said, I do have a little sentimental attachment to Labor Day because it marks the anniversary of my first association with National Review, back in 2007, which led to the best job I’ve ever had or could imagine having. I am inexpressibly grateful to the friends and readers who have made that possible, something I do not say nearly often enough.
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