A federal jury has ruled that Sabrina Erdely’s Rolling Stone story about a sexual assault by members of a University of Virginia fraternity had defamed a former university administrator. The November 2014 story was a hoax. The Charlottesville police found that the events the alleged victim “Jackie” described to Erdely never took place, and after a lengthy delay the magazine apologized and retracted the story.
But advocacy media heralded “A Rape on Campus” anyway as a social justice success. The Associated Press said that “Despite its flaws, the article heightened scrutiny of campus sexual assaults amid a campaign by President Barack Obama,” and The New York Times commented that the story “in the end, raised awareness and probably done the school, and the nation, some good.”
“A Rape on Campus” and socially aware media’s acceptance of mythical storytelling represent the practice of “benign fabrication,” a cognitive persuasive device first outlined by Erving Goffman in his seminal book “Frame Analysis.”
Making Up Stories to Prove Political Points
In “A Rape on Campus” Erdely described Jackie—she only used first names, supposedly to protect anonymity—and her claim she was gang-raped by members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity during a chapter house party in 2012 as part of a hazing ceremony.
Jackie said she went to the party after a date with “Drew,” a member of the fraternity and a junior at UVA, Erdeley reported. Drew brought her to a dark bedroom upstairs where, the article said, a big man brought her down to the floor, another man covered her mouth with his hand, and a third knelt on her hair. For the next three hours, according to Erdely, she was repeatedly raped and beaten, with Drew and another upperclassman calling out instructions to the pledges.
The story said Jackie was allowed to leave the house around 3 a.m., allegedly with bruises and in blood-stained clothes, and although she wanted to go to the hospital her friends discouraged her to protect her reputation and her friends who wanted to become fraternity members.
Erdely told PBS NewsHour she came into the project intending to show that a rape culture exists at America’s elite colleges. She was uninterested in hearing facts to the contrary; she never contacted Drew and never asked Jackie the identities of the alleged rapists. When asked by a Washington Post reporter why she never did these things, Erdely simply said she had an agreement with Jackie not to divulge that information.
Rolling Stone afterward said in a statement that “(t)hrough our extensive reporting and fact-checking, we found Jackie to be entirely credible and courageous and we are proud to have given her disturbing story the attention it deserves.”
Some of Erdely’s other narrative-making includes articles about undercover cops entrapping autistic kids as drug dealers, “the military’s culture of sex abuse, denial and cover-up,” and nefarious FBI plots against the Occupy movement. Her stories assume that socially conscious premises are true on their face, and don’t have to be scrutinized, but need only to be passed forward as though they are real.
This Is Textbook Benign Fabrication
Goffman was a renowned Canadian-American sociologist who taught at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania. Benign fabrication, Goffman said in his classic book, refers to the practice of socially acceptable hoaxing, or hoaxing that the socially conscious opinion-maker can engage in because it makes his community better. A benign fabrication is “one claimed to be engineered in the interest of the person contained by (it), or, if not quite in his interest and for his benefit, then at least not done against his interest.”
Goffman said examples of benign fabrication include “playful deceits,” such as pranks, and “experimental hoaxing,” or ruses undertaken in the spirit of human progress. He also talked about “paternal constructions,” or hoaxing that “is felt to be in the dupe’s best interests, but which he might reject, at least at the beginning, were he to discover what was really happening.” Benign fabrications are harmless, Goffman holds, because they are perpetrated with the private interests of the target subject in mind, “here defining ‘private interests’ as the community might.”
Goffman notes the legal and moral strictures on fabrication, and points out that if the subject becomes aware that he is a target of a fabrication, he’ll become suspicious of the fabricating agent and his agenda. The fabrications don’t represent reality, and the fabricator knows this but continues with them nevertheless, because he believes they can imitate the real, and that in any event by raising awareness they will result in a greater good.
Erdely and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner explicitly made such arguments to the jury weighing Nicole Eramo’s case against them: “I’ve suffered as much as you have,” Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner told Eramo, “I hope that this whole thing hadn’t happened, but it is (sic), and it’s what we have to live with.”
Lying Doesn’t Help, It Hurts
Eramo, a former UVA dean of students, had sued Rolling Stone, claiming the magazine defamed her by painting her as a “chief villain.” “I want to show the real impact of something like this in one’s life,” she said. Rolling Stone “made me into something they wanted me to be for their own narrative.” The jury, which rendered its verdict on November 4, decided Erdely and the magazine had indeed defamed Eramo with actual malice, a legally actionable offense. The jury subsequently awarded Eramo $3 million.
Writers at Rolling Stone, the Associated Press, The New York Times and other progressive outlets have said or implied that portraying the social ideal as though it is real infuses them with a greater enlightenment. To presume widespread sexism and sexual depredations at the nation’s universities, and to relate them in graphic, vivid terms, brings about a more compassionate society and nation, based on the cooperative ideal and under the guidance of the “right”—i.e., the socially aware—caste of leaders.
Advocates know their premises and narratives aren’t real even as they continue to posit them. There is no chance Erdely or Rolling Stone will campaign against politically correct ills exhibited in the media, the entertainment industry, or the Democrat Party elite. What is puzzling is that many observers never seem to catch on to benign fabrication. More often than not, when hoaxes and nonevents—at election time they are called “October Surprises”—are tossed their way, they still take them as though they are real.