The moral of Rolling Stone’s unraveling story about gang rape at the University of Virginia should be simple: reporters ought to stop treating rape stories as a unique genre of journalism, exempt from scrutiny.
Modern guidelines for reporting on sexual violence from the Columbia Journalism School, for example, instruct reporters: “Don’t be surprised if accounts only make partial sense.”
Sabrina Rubin Erdely was so unsurprised by a nonsensical story about seven fraternity brothers ambushing and raping a UVA student that she made it the centerpiece of her 9,000-word article about campus sexual assault. Because she did, she will now have a glorious opportunity to seek out a new career in technical writing or public relations.
Critics on the right and left both blame Erdely for not following the rules of journalism. In fact, Erdely follows those rules closely, especially the fashionable ones. Her stories on trans women, for example, use all the right pronouns. And that’s the problem. These rules and restrictions are part of an ideological project, and should hold no authority over reporters.
Many on the right blame Erdely for writing what they call “narrative journalism,” where facts are arranged to tell a pre-conceived story independent of truth. The Wall Street Journal, National Review, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, Hot Air, and others blamed this straw man. It’s a poor choice of phrase, given that “narrative journalism” has, in this Internet age, come to mean any long-form reporting. A better term might be journalism by synecdoche, where a particular anecdote is made to stand for some broad societal truth.
As the Wall Street Journal put it, the problem “is that Ms. Erdely was, by her own admission, looking for a story to fit a pre-existing narrative—in this case, the supposed epidemic of sexual assault at elite universities, along with the presumed indifference of those schools to the problem…. In other words, Ms. Erdely did not construct a story based on facts, but went looking for facts to fit her theory.”
Constructing narratives isn’t some novelty. It’s the essential artifice of journalism. You can fit a day in court or a city council meeting into an 800-word story, but large truths never fit in tiny news holes. The ideal is a reporter who understands the big picture, and who then selects some facts and anecdotes that represent it fairly and bring it to life for readers. Sometimes, as in the question of the prevalence of unreported rapes and false reports, the truth is essentially unknowable.
Erdely’s sin isn’t that she “went looking for facts.” As the novelist Jonathan Lethem writes, “All writing, no matter how avowedly naturalistic or pellucid, consists of artifice, of conjuration, of the manipulation of symbols rather than the ‘opening of a window onto life.’” Her sin is that she ran with a highly implausible story by a single source, Jackie, about getting ambush gang-raped over shards of glass for three hours.
It’s possible Erdely was too biased, too enthralled with the “rape culture” mentality, to notice the implausible elements of Jackie’s story. She may even have believed that the factual truth of Jackie’s story was unimportant next to the societal “truth” it represented. But the only reason she got this made-up story into print was that editorial standards were relaxed out of deference to Jackie’s feelings, as counseled by the bien-pensants.
As Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Dana, explains, the magazine honored “Jackie’s request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment—the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story.”
The result is that a story meant to demonstrate the seriousness of the campus rape problem has become an accidental narrative about lying feminists. The fact that Breitbart News published an investigation casting serious doubt on Lena Dunham’s tale of sexual assault in her memoir the same week just drives the message home.
On the left, some blame Erdely not for the deal she cut with Jackie, but because she didn’t follow enough feminist guidelines on how to cover rape. Others insist Jackie ought to be believed, lies notwithstanding, because she “is still a person,” that is, she’s a female person. If you need proof that modern feminism is basically racism refracted through a personality disorder, there you go.
Sarah Kliff, a former Washington Post reporter best known for dismissing the Kermit Gosnell infanticide scandal as a “local crime” story beneath her notice, attacked Erdely in Vox for not allowing Jackie, who began to feel uneasy about the Rolling Stone story as it neared publication, to take everything back:
Publishing a story about a rape victim against her will is dangerous, and arguably unethical, journalism. It goes completely against the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma, a respected advisory group at Columbia University’s Journalism School, guidelines for how to report on sexual assault. There is an entire section that directs reporters to “respect a potential interviewee’s right to say no.”
“Be fair and realistic. Don’t coerce, cajole, trick or offer remuneration,” the guidelines instruct.
For an ex-Post reporter to endorse ex post facto forgetfulness shows how staggeringly ill-informed she is about the basic rules of journalism; she also misinterprets guidelines written in plain English. There is no principle in journalism that requires anybody to unlearn anything. If you’ve got something on the record, it’s yours to use. The DART Center guidelines, for what they’re worth, counsel reporters not to coerce “a potential interviewee.” Jackie had already sat for interviews.
Further, there are plenty of good reasons not to invent some new right of sources to take back whatever they want; one is to prevent manipulation. That Erdely felt compelled to negotiate with Jackie to use material she already had might explain why she made an agreement not to try to contact the accused.
After the fact, when the story begin to unwind, that agreement struck many reporters as insane, but Erdely did not actually violate a principle here, despite what you’ve heard about always seeking comment from the other side. Newspapers routinely publish criminal accusations without getting comment from the accused. In every paper, every day, there will be stories based solely on information from the district attorney or the police. The accused is unreachable in jail, usually without a lawyer, and reporters feel no great responsibility to get his side. Sometimes, the prosecutors’ account of events turns out to be as fanciful as Jackie’s, but nobody minds.
This brings us to the self-imposed ban on naming the accusers in these kinds of stories. The Society of Professional Journalists counsels reporters to “Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with… victims of sex crimes,” and over the years, this has hardened into something like a blanket prohibition on identifying women who allege they’ve been raped. This is taken for an absolute principle by many in the profession, but of course it’s no such thing.
If a rape case goes to trial, the accuser will have to face the accused in public. Reporters covering the trial will certainly report her name then. If officials determine that the accuser made up allegations—perhaps even charge the woman with filing a false report—reporters will use her name. (Sometimes, as in the case of Crystal Gail Mangum, the stripper in the Duke lacrosse case, her name won’t show up in the papers until years later, when she’s accused and convicted of murder.)
So it’s a conditional rule at best, and the condition is usually that officials haven’t made the name public. The de facto rule reporters follow is, “Don’t identify the victim until somebody important does.” That’s no moral principle.
The media has heaped all of the blame for this story on Rolling Stone, sparing Jackie, despite the fact that the Washington Post demolished many key details of her story, and quoted her friends flatly contradicting her version. Since nobody has proven a negative—that Jackie was never raped—reporters continue to afford her the same confidentiality they grant others. This is unserious. Nobody can prove that Jackie has never been raped; we can only disprove the story she told Erdely. If she wants to tell another, very different story, it might be the truth. But no one is obligated to respect her anonymity on the basis of a story so filled with lies it took journalist T. Rees Shapiro thousands of words to catalogue them all.
That doesn’t mean we should rush out and name accusers; it’s still a matter for judgment and discretion. But if the truth matters, we can’t declare certain truths to be off-limits. Feminism does exactly that. Until recently, men and women were understood to have a certain ambiguity to their sexual desires. Men were supposed to be eager for sex, yet exercise some chivalric restraint. Women had their desires, too, of course, but modesty required they not be acknowledged. Feminists take modesty to be mere convention, and their whole project is predicated on its denial.
Diminished as it may be, there are still times when modesty asserts its existence. At Hofstra, there was a case a few years back where a freshman who had sex with five young men in a dorm bathroom maintained she was raped until she was confronted with a cell phone video of the whole consensual incident. The reaction at Jezebel was outrage at the commentary, particularly the “all too common… assumption that a woman ‘cheapens’ herself by having group sex…”
If all consensual sex, even group sex, is so unproblematic, then why does the memory of certain acts still cause shivers of shame years later? The problem must be one of consent. This is the only explanation allowed to the modern woman, the only ambiguity that feminism hasn’t yet resolved.
This is why conservatives are troubled by all the campus rape activism, why they think this gospel is bound to cause a multiplication of false reports, and why the case for anonymity and other journalistic restrictions has grown so weak.
The problem, philosopher Allan Bloom once wrote, is that modern students are simply unequipped to trace their problems “back to any moral ambiguity in man’s sexual nature. That was, of course, what was erroneously done in the past.”