I'm sure that much will be said about Columbia Journalism Review‘s devastating autopsy of "A Rape on Campus," Rolling Stone‘s fraudulent, and now retracted, story that strongly implied gang rape was an initiation rite at a University of Virginia fraternity. The girl whose story—and, as we see now, that's all it was: a story—served as the narrative backbone for the piece claimed to have been viciously gang raped by a pack of pledges before the administration covered up this horrific crime.
"Jackie's" lies,* as reported by Rolling Stone and author Sabrina Rubin Erdely, caused months of turmoil at UVA (full disclosure: I graduated from UVA just over a decade ago) and lasting damage to the school and its Greek system. How did this absurd-on-its-face story come into existence?
Well, there was confirmation bias:
Renda told Erdely that many assaults take place during parties where "the goal is to get everyone blackout drunk." She continued, "There may be a much darker side of this" at some fraternities. "One girl I worked with closely alleged she was gang-raped in the fall, before rush, and the men who perpetrated it were young guys who were not yet members of the fraternity, and she remembers one of them saying to another … ‘C'mon man, don't you want to be a brother?'"]
Renda added, "And obviously, maybe her memory of it isn't perfect."
Erdely's notes set down her reply: "I tell her that it's totally plausible."
Emphasis mine, because the only way you can believe this story is totally plausible is if you're looking for an utterly implausible story to drive home the horrors of the subject you're tackling. Beware anecdata, etc., but talking it over with friends after that story broke, only about two in 10 considered it even remotely plausible, let alone likely to have happened.
In addition to confirmation bias, there was a refusal to establish as truthful even rudimentary facts about the case:
Jackie refused to provide Erdely the name of the lifeguard who had organized the attack on her. She said she was still afraid of him. That led to tense exchanges between Erdely and Jackie, but the confrontation ended when Rolling Stone‘s editors decided to go ahead without knowing the lifeguard's name or verifying his existence.
They went ahead with the story because, let's be clear, they were pushing a narrative:
Erdely and her editors had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better.
And in the service of pushing this narrative they bought into the notion promulgated by social scientists that one should never question a victim, even if you aren't certain that said victim was ever, y'know, victimized:
Yet the editors and Erdely have concluded that their main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault. Social scientists, psychologists and trauma specialists who support rape survivors have impressed upon journalists the need to respect the autonomy of victims, to avoid re-traumatizing them and to understand that rape survivors are as reliable in their testimony as other crime victims.
Because, hey. "Victim blaming." Don't want to do that.
The story is a horror show from start to finish. A failure on literally every level—and that's not hyperbole from me. That's according to the jackaninnies running the show:
In retrospect, Dana, the managing editor, who has worked at Rolling Stone since 1996, said the story's breakdown reflected both an "individual failure" and "procedural failure, an institutional failure. … Every single person at every level of this thing had opportunities to pull the strings a little harder, to question things a little more deeply, and that was not done."
Will there be any accountability for this farce?
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) April 5, 2015
Reasoning behind this decision: staffers weren't purposeful/deceitful. And the report feels like "enough punishment" http://t.co/3PdrjYmwF4
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) April 5, 2015
As the kids say: AYFKM? Well, at least the author, Erdely, will suffer some professional consequences, right?
I … what?
Seriously? Is this for real?
What a garbage publication. If you want to know why no one takes the journalism profession seriously, well, here you have it. Reputations, both individual and collective, tarnished; actual victims of rape hurt because now their claims are less likely to be taken seriously; weeks of national news coverage on a story that was, at its heart, utter horseshit.**
Consequences, according to Jann Wenner? Zero.
Heckuva job, Janny. Heckuva job.
*Jackie—who seems to have invented a date, and then an assault, because she had a crush on a boy—should be subjected to some sort of discipline for this farce as well. I'm tired of hearing about how victims sometimes aren't perfect but we should believe them anyway. There's literally nothing to suggest she's been a victim of anything—except her own lies.
**That's a technical term.