At a Columbia School of Journalism press conference earlier this week to answer questions about the J School’s investigation of Rolling Stone magazine’s faked story about “Jackie,” the still unidentified undergraduate who claimed she was gang raped by bunch of sociopathic preppies at the University of Virginia, journalism academic affairs dean Sheila Coronel made an astonishing admission:
“We don’t believe that ‘Jackie’ was to blame,” Coronel said of the hoaxer, who created havoc at UVA when she became the latest poster victim for the Obama administration's beloved -- but debunked -- statistic that one in five women on campus is raped.
As reported by Lloyd Grove of the Daily Beast, J School Dean Steve Coll, the Pulitzer Prize winner who led the Rolling Stone investigation, stepped in to admit that the Columbia sleuths hadn’t found out any more about what actually might have happened to "Jackie" than the Charlottesville, Va., police, who remain officially agnostic on the gang rape. Coronel added, “What happened to Jackie that night is a mystery.”
It may be a mystery. But here is one thing that did not happen to “Jackie” that night: She was not gang raped by fraternity members at the Phi Kappa Psi house in Charlottesville, Va. She appears to have fabricated this horrendous incident whole cloth. Whatever else turns out to be the case -- including Jackie's mental state -- she lied and that lie had serious consequences. She is far from blameless.
If you are a young man who has been falsely accused of rape, one of the two most heinous crimes there is, or are the parent of such a young man, would you believe that the accuser is deserving of carte blanche clearance? Wouldn’t you blame her -- at least a little?—for her malicious attempt to ruin the reputation and sabotage the college career of an innocent person?
Jackie may have suffered a different kind of attack. She may have emotional problems -- or she may just have wanted to pursue a vendetta -- we won't know unless she comes forward. While mitigating factors may yet surface that make Jackie’s behavior, if not innocent, at least comprehensible, there can be no such mitigation for Rolling Stone.
The quality of reporting in the Rolling Stone story is such that it would not have passed muster at the left-leaning “alternative” weekly where I worked in New Orleans in my twenties. There was almost no feint at reporting. The information in the story essentially came from one source, Jackie, and there appears to have been almost no independent effort to corroborate anything she said. The most basic canon of journalism is (or was?) that if a source brings you a story, you have to get another source to verify the information. Source Number One may be lying, or, less maliciously, merely deluded.
The Coll report does reveal some truly astonishing journalistic lapses -- though “lapses” is perhaps too gentle a word when a magazine publishes what amounts to a total fabrication about a serious crime -- in Rolling Stone’s preparation for publishing the story. The Columbia report says that “[reporter Sabrina Rubin] Erdely’s reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain.”
Forget tracking down “Drew,” the alleged rapist who, according to Jackie, led her into a room of other, waiting rapists at the fraternity house, Erdely didn’t bother to talk to the three friends in whom Jackie said that she confided about the rape. If Erdely had doubts about Jackie’s veracity, they could have surfaced by speaking with these friends. Erdely didn’t want that: She was looking for a rape story to dramatize the idea that there is a “rape culture” on college campuses and Jackie’s story fit her bill.
With regard to the Coll report’s harrumphing about how Rolling Stone could have done better, I have to say that I agree with a New Republic writer, who explains why the endeavour was beside the point. “The problem is that no such report was needed” says the New Republic, “because the mistake Rolling Stone made was not subtle, complex, or hidden. Their mistake was so elemental it has a name: The Story Too Good To Check. Sophomores in Journalism 101 learn about it by their midterm exams. Cub reporters are told ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out.’”
Where the Coll investigation could have been valuable was in showing how Rolling Stone got something so colossally wrong -- and here the report fails utterly. It fails because the answer involves a word journalists hate to apply to themselves -- biased -- and because the Rolling Stone editors and the Columbia deans share the same biases. The closest the Columbia report gets to letting this cat out of the box is this:
“The problem of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science.”
Of course, like Ms. Erdely and her editors, the J School deans accepts uncritically that there is a “rape culture” on American campuses. The widely-used and promoted-by-the-Obama administration one-in-five figure for women on campus who have been victims of rape has repeatedly been debunked by scholars. Mainstream journalists haven’t bothered to check it out, and the notion that there is a “rape culture” on campus underlies both the original story and the investigation. Rather than operating in an atmosphere of skepticism, most reporters now believe wholeheartedly whatever conventional wisdom snake oil is being sold in progressive circles.
I note in passing that the Coll investigation cites rape information from a Center for Public Integrity study that specifically and compellingly has been discredited by Christina Hoff Sommers. You can read her report “The Media Is Making College Rape Culture Worse.”
Federal guidelines for dealing with rape accusations on campus rely on these inflated figures to eliminate the civil rights of the accused and get an easier guilty decision. Erdely, Rolling Stone editors and ultimately the Coll report refused to look into the assumptions. Rolling Stone did the journalistic equivalent of the federal guidelines: the editors deprived the accused of their rights. It wasn’t Jackie who got screwed, it was the young men who were accused.