I had been mildly skeptical of the Rolling Stone story about a flamboyantly evil gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. It seemed more than a little too good to be true. You could not have invented a story that would better validate every single feminist claim about the supposed “rape epidemic” on college campuses and the “rape culture” that supposedly supports it. It didn’t hurt that the story also played perfectly into elite intellectuals’ natural prejudice against frat boys. So I withheld judgment until the story faced a little scrutiny and could be verified by more than just one report in one magazine.
It turns out that it couldn’t be, and the whole story is falling apart. The Federalist‘s Mollie Hemingway sums up the breaking developments, in which Rolling Stone has basically retracted the story. The accused fraternity has also issued a statement in which they refute several key factual claims from the article.
This is an ugly story in which everybody loses—well, almost everybody, but we’ll get to that at the end. Let’s start by looking at who has been damaged by this story.
1) Actual victims of rape.
The point of stories like the Rolling Stone report is supposed to be to prevent rapists from attacking more victims, right? And the best way to do that is to make it easier for victims of rape to come forward and report the crime, so that justice can be done and rapists can be sent to jail. But a very prominent false allegation of rape is likely to have the opposite effect, discouraging the reporting of rape because the victim fears she won’t be believed.
2) Advocates for rape victims.
They put their credibility on the line, particularly at the University of Virginia, to back up the accuser in this case, so far only identified by the pseudonym “Jackie.” In fact, “Jackie” got her start by telling her story to local rape victim advocate groups at the University, who then brought her to the attention of Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Erdely.
They just got burned. Now they will have to institute some kind of safeguards to make sure that they aren’t spreading false accusations that could discredit them. Then again, maybe they should have been doing that all along.
I’m assuming that “Jackie” will eventually be identified, whether she likes it or not. At this point, anything we say about her is pure speculation. Maybe a frat boy took advantage of her, and she decided to extravagantly embellish the story to get revenge. Maybe she found herself failing at school and invented a story of trauma to excuse it. (The Rolling Stone story says she didn’t reveal her rape until an administrator asked her why she was failing her classes.) Maybe she is mentally unhinged and can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Maybe she was simply seeking attention. Never underestimate the appeal of being a fake victim, which confers all the attention, sympathy, and moral authority without any of the actual trauma. (Hence all of those fake Holocaust memoirs.)
Whatever kind of help “Jackie” needs, she isn’t going to get it any time soon. Instead, Rolling Stone threw her under the bus and tried to put all the blame on her for making the unverified claims they chose to report. Their defense, when this inevitably ends up in court, will be to blame their source for deceiving them. As @Popehat puts it, “I don’t know what happened to Jackie at UVA. But I do know what Rolling Stone’s lawyers will do to her when [a law]suit’s filed. That’s sad, too.”
4) Rolling Stone
A magazine that was somewhat desperately trying to regain relevance in national politics has instead destroyed its credibility and probably eviscerated its staff.
They broke the most basic rules of journalism. As the old saying goes: if your mother says she loves you, get a second source. But if someone makes a spectacular claim about gang rape used as a fraternity initiation at a respected university? Nah, one source will do. No need to interview anybody else.
Everyone involved with this story, up the whole chain of command, needs to be fired and replaced. I hear most of the staff of The New Republic is suddenly available, though I doubt they’ll be eager to leave one sinking ship for another.
5) Sabrina Rubin Erdely
Where did this reporter learn the rules of journalism? That might actually be a legitimate question. It turns out she was a classmate of serial fabulist Stephen Glass. What were they teaching in that class?
So now, like Glass, she gets to never work again in respectable journalism.
6) The media in general.
The mainstream media spent a week uncritically repeating the Rolling Stone story, and many spent another week defending it and discouraging any questions about the story “Jackie” told. As the story has fallen apart, some are still refusing to retract their support for it. My favorite response is from Sally Kohn, who took to task two other mainstream commentators for issuing apologies: “Really @MarinCogin @jbouie? So we have to independently fact check every story before we believe/share it?”
Well, no, you don’t. But somebody does. That’s one of the cornerstones of journalism: looking for additional sources and independent confirmation of facts. At the very least, you have to exercise reasonable skepticism about extraordinary claims, and if you’re wrong, you have to take responsibility for it.
This kind of reaction highlights how the Rolling Stone story got published in the first place. If Erdely and her editors broke the rules of journalism, they were encouraged to think they could get away with it because they were confirming popular prejudices among their peers. They thought they could get away with being “fake but accurate.” And so the mainstream media let Rolling Stone drag down everybody’s credibility.
7) Radical feminists.
Radical feminists created the theory that made this fraud possible. They were the ones who pushed the importance of “believing in women”—which is to say that women never lie about rape and must be automatically believed, and that it is inherently sexist to ask questions or require evidence. In effect, they are philosophically opposed to fact-checking a report like this one.
As the fact-checking comes in, Jessica Valenti’s response is to declare, “I trust women,” and then go on to blame Rolling Stone for “throwing this young woman under the bus.” Amanda Marcotte blames the collapse of the story on “rape apologists” who “think that if they can ‘discredit’ one rape story, that means no other rape stories can be true, either”—a position held, so far as anyone can tell, by no one.
But feminist blogger Melissa McEwan gets the top prize for this M.C. Escher drawing of a thought: “I can’t state this more emphatically: If Jackie’s story is partially or wholly untrue, it doesn’t validate the reasons for disbelieving her.”
A few feminists have issued a prompt and unreserved apology. The rest are going down with this ship.
8) Lena Dunham.
Guess who else may have fabricated a story about campus rape? In her memoir, media darling Lena Dunham describes how, at Oberlin College, she and several other women were sexually assaulted by a prominent campus conservative named “Barry.” So Breitbart launched a search for “Barry the Republican” and pronounced him a “ghost.” None of the details in Dunham’s memoir corresponded to anything anyone recalls. This was at a relatively small school with relatively few conservatives, not many years ago. But it turns out that there is one “Barry” who has been fingered by Dunham’s fans as her attacker, despite not fitting key parts of her description. He now lives under the shadow of an accusation that Dunham has not quite made nor retracted.
The key line from this story is a college administrator’s explanation for why she wouldn’t cooperate with John Nolte’s investigation: “Asking whether or not a victim is telling the truth is irrelevant. It’s just not important if they are telling the truth.” Well, that explains a lot.
Dunham has already been criticized for her public obsession with her own exaggerated neuroses. Now she may be revealed as someone who sought attention by defaming an innocent man and devaluing the stories of actual rape victims.
9) UVA President Teresa Sullivan.
When a single author in a single magazine made an inflammatory charge, how should the University of Virginia’s president, Teresa Sullivan, have responded? She might have responded by declaring how seriously she regarded the accusation but refusing to take drastic action until its truth could be actually be confirmed. She could have responded with calm, caution, and mature leadership.
Instead, she pretty much panicked, immediately shutting down all activities at all fraternities and sororities.
In light of Rolling Stone‘s retraction, she is neither changing course nor offering any kind of apology. In a new statement, she declares: “Over the past two weeks, our community has been more focused than ever on one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses. Today’s news must not alter this focus.”
In other words: the facts will not alter her course of action. Sullivan doesn’t seem to realize that it is also her responsibility to protect the young men at her university. And that leads us to the last big loser.
10) The men who were accused in this case.
Sure, the young men of Phi Kappa Psi might have their names cleared. But we all know how this works. They will be forever known as men “accused of rape.” There will always be those who heard the accusations but never heard the retraction—and as we’ve seen above, there will be those die-hard ideological fanatics who persist in believing the accusations even after they are no longer credible.
It’s better to be vindicated than not. But imagine if that was one of your sons who was publicly branded as a brutal felon and sexual predator. These young men have suffered from a public defamation that will follow them around for a long time.
So this is a big disaster for everyone, brought to you by the “narrative journalism” of the mainstream media, which doesn’t like the facts to get in the way of a good story.
Yet there is one overlooked winner from this case. And it’s interesting that no one has talked about this yet.
1) Men falsely accused of rape.
For some time, feminists have been trying to promote the dogma that women never lie about rape and that the first responsibility of those who respond to an alleged sexual assault is to believe the story the woman tells. Yet this implies that men accused of rape are to be considered guilty until proven innocent. Or that they should just be considered guilty, period.
That notion was never very plausible in the first place. Needless to say, it has been shattered by the collapse of the Rolling Stone story.
There is a very good reason to be careful when examining an accusation of rape. False accusations are relatively rare, and for a real victim, an overly rough and adversarial cross-examination can seem like a whole new form of trauma. So investigating rape is a delicate business.
But regard for the feelings of genuine victims does not eliminate the rights of the accused or the need for due process. It doesn’t justify destroying the lives of innocent men or sacrificing the sanctity of individual facts in the name of a questionable “wider truth.”
That lesson is the only good thing to be salvaged from this journalistic disaster.
Follow Robert on Twitter.