By Martha Nichols
Before I read Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus”, by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, I read several opinion pieces about it. “The Missing Men,” by Allison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin, certainly hooked me with its blurb of “Why didn’t a Rolling Stone writer talk to the alleged perpetrators of a gang rape at the University of Virginia?” From the tone and content of such articles, I assumed the whole piece was a narrative from the point of view of Jackie, the victim (or alleged victim).
In fact, the article is not just Jackie’s story, even though you might get that impression if you haven’t read Erdely’s entire, 9,000-word feature. Once I did, I suspected a backlash.
To be sure, Jackie’s tale of being raped at a frat party is the article’s now-infamous opening anecdote. But from the start, I read “A Rape on Campus” as a work of advocacy journalism. It includes quotes from other UVA students, victims’ rights advocates, scholarly studies, and the president of the university. It weaves in historical background on campus culture and fraternities—even damning lyrics from “Rugby Road,” a decades-old college song that was banned at football games in 2010, Erdely reports, but that is “still performed on campus by UVA’s oldest a cappella group, the Virginia Gentlemen.” (“He’ll take you to his fraternity house and fill you full of beer, and soon you’ll be the mother of a bastard Cavalier!”) She inserts her own observations of walking along the actual Rugby Road on a Friday night with several student guides:
The women rattle off which one is known as the “roofie frat,” where supposedly four girls have been drugged and raped, and at which house a friend had a recent “bad experience,” the Wahoo [UVA student] euphemism for sexual assault.
Since the article was first published on November 19, it’s become clear that Erdely and the magazine made mistakes in their version of Jackie’s story—and an apology from RS editor Will Dana now prefaces the article online. The magazine has rightly been criticized for opening the exposé with the dramatic narrative of Jackie’s travails. The piece should have provided a context for the story and corroborated key facts, especially the responses of three of Jackie’s friends.
Some feminist writers have already apologized for leaping in early to support the Rolling Stone account. “I initially defended the story, and for that I was wrong,” Jezebel’s Anna Merlan has written. But I’m not going there yet, at least not until a thorough investigation has revealed what happened and why. I’m sick of the mea culpas, as if a traumatized young woman’s inconsistent story proves that all rape victims have faulty memories or even lie.
There’s still a mighty big backlash going on, fueled by more than the public’s supposed hunger for journalistic integrity. In “Feminism Can Handle the Truth,” a commentary by Judith Levine in Boston Review, she rips into supporters of the Rolling Stone story by opining that “[i]f their goal is to lock up campus rapists, mainstream feminists are winning.” Never mind that it’s not obvious what a “mainstream feminist” is, or why locking up rapists would be a bad goal; Levine focuses on “girl-on-girl cannibalism,” as if the real problem is politically correct feminists going on the defensive against any female writers who disagree. Sure, it’s a problem, especially in the hothouse of Twitter rants and on blogs, but that’s minor compared to the media bias against women on display everywhere in the discussion of Jackie’s rape story.
The current breast-beating, by both male and female journalists, about the hallowed goal of objectivity is like a bunch of people shouting, “the world is flat!” as they stare at a curving horizon. They’re in denial. The social-media melee over the Rolling Stone story—aka the “journalistic train wreck” or the “great campus rape hoax” or the “shitstorm”—has generated the depressing spectacle of a crowd of reporters scrambling to prove what good journalists they are, proclaiming they’d never be so naïve or dumb or cavalier with the facts and insisting there are clear-cut journalistic rules for investigative muckraking. It would be laughable if the topic weren’t so serious.
During the same period as the Rolling Stone pile-on, for instance, the New York Times, among many other media outlets, reported that Pope Francis had declared, while comforting a boy who’d lost his pet, that animals go to heaven. This about face in Catholic doctrine delighted Humane Society chapters and vegans around the world, but as it turned out, the pope didn’t say it and there was no bereaved child. As the NYT’s correction notes, “The Times should have verified the quotations with the Vatican.”
Granted, potentially criminal (and defamatory) charges in print are far more of an ethical problem than fake quotes from the pope. Yet, the online bashing of Rolling Stone reeks of both evangelical fury and the desperation of journalists who have lost their professional role. In “When Reporters Value ‘Justice’ over Accuracy, Journalism Loses,” Jeff Jacoby, the Boston Globe’s conservative columnist, sententiously asks, “Has the time come to give up on the ideal of objective, unbiased journalism? Would media bias openly acknowledged be an improvement over news media that only pretend not to take sides?”
Well, yes, actually. I’ve believed that for thirty years, although I doubt Jacoby’s rhetorical questions were meant for a feminist journalist like me. Not so long ago, there were very few female editors or writers at major newspapers and magazines. The annual VIDA count shows only marginal improvements. But beyond the lack of female bylines, there’s the millenia-old tradition of viewing women as second-class citizens (or chattel). Feminist critics—from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Gloria Steinem to Caryl Rivers to Susan Faludi to young women currently on college campuses like UVA—have long argued that the patriarchy controls the way women are depicted, silencing their stories.
As a journalist, I value facts, and I’ve never been crazy about narrative reconstructions in magazine features. To my knowledge, however, nobody has contested anything in Erdely’s feature except for Jackie’s account. The Washington Post broke the story of journalistic irregularities—and Jackie’s friends have recently gone on the record with their real names, disputing the way they were portrayed—but these revelations boil down to “he said-she said.” (The Associated Press corrected its original story about the friends, after it mistakenly reported that Rolling Stone had “retracted the article.”) The point is, we don’t know yet.
In “Is the Rolling Stone Story True?,” an early blog post that kicked off much of the furor, Editor-in-Chief Richard Bradley of Worth likens Erdely’s account to the fabrications of Stephen Glass in the mid-nineties—partly because, Bradley admits, he’d been taken in by Glass while editing him at George magazine. Glass, a former wonder boy at many top journals such as the New Republic and Harper’s, is now one of the leading flim-flammers in the walk of journalistic shame (along with Jonah Lehrer, Jayson Blair, and Janet Cooke). But as Buzz Bissinger details in “Shattered Glass,” his 1998 Vanity Fair investigative feature:
Glass created fake letterheads, memos, faxes, and phone numbers; he presented fake handwritten notes, fake typed notes from imaginary events written with intentional misspellings, fake diagrams of who sat where at meetings that never transpired, fake voice mails from fake sources. He even inserted fake mistakes into his fake stories so fact checkers would catch them and feel as if they were doing their jobs.
There’s no question that journalists need to be skeptical of the stories sources tell, and that editors must watch out for writers who fictionalize. But comparing Erdely’s handling of Jackie to Stephen Glass’s falsifications is unfair. He intentionally faked notes and sources, clearly knowing what magazine editors would be looking for as they corroborated a reconstructed narrative. In the case of the Rolling Stone UVA story, Jackie is a real person, who experienced a real trauma. So far, it seems as if the problem is fact checking wasn’t done at all.
You could call that careless, stupid, the result of the continual degeneration of journalistic standards. You could also call it an act of good faith in reporting on a complex, hot-button topic. As Dana of Rolling Stone notes in the magazine’s apology to readers, “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.”
That won’t get Erdely off the hook if she did trump up crucial aspects of the story. But the quick leap to crying “hoax” says more about the continuing bias against women in the media than it does about the truth.
Martha Nichols is editor in chief of Talking Writing, a digital literary magazine and nonprofit organization based in the Boston area. She’s a contributing editor at WRB and teaches in the journalism program at the Harvard University Extension School.