Congress needs to take a look at the UVA/Rolling Stone fake gang rape scandal. Not because of anything the magazine did, which is anyway protected by the Constitution’s first amendment, but to determine to what extent the Obama Administration had its fingers in what turned out to be a very messy pie.
Recall that for some time before the story broke officials within the Obama administration were pushing a narrative that America’s colleges and universities were hotbeds of sexual assault, unsafe for young men and women and in need therefore of greater scrutiny by the federal government.
Most people accepted this at face value. After all, it’s about the children and anyway who wouldn’t want their sons and daughters to live in a rape free environment? Then, right in the middle of it all, dropped the Rolling Stone story about as gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party that went uninvestigated and, to be candid, unavenged.
Other media outlets picked it up. Feminists foamed at the mouth with outrage. Education professionals decried the expose as being just the tip of the iceberg. Nervous mothers emailed the story to their daughters. It dominated the conversation on television and on various social media platforms. Pastors spoke out about it from the pulpit as an example of how degenerate society had become. Everyone was up in arms, demanding something be done.
The one problem with the story, the one small thing everyone missed, is that it wasn’t true. The woman telling the tale to Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely made it up and Erdely – who seemed to have been looking for a story to dramatize what she already believed was happening – took her at face value.
The story’s been retracted and the noise has subsided but questions still remain. The Columbia Journalism Review analysis of the events involved (now cited as the definitive account of what transpired) seems only to scratch the surface. Who said what to whom, and why, is a tale still waiting – and needing – to be told.
When Jason Blair was exposed as a fabulist he lost his prestigious position at The New York Times and ultimately took several senior editors down with him. Janet Cooke’s Jimmy’s World story about a young heroin addict won The Washington Post a Pulitzer Prize it had to return and tarnished forever the reputations of some of the biggest, best known names in American journalism. Stephen Glass’s career as an up-and-coming liberal writer on The New Republic was shattered when it was proven that he was a fabricator of events he related in print.
The idea that reporters make things up is, sadly enough, not new. Walter Duranty told lies about the Soviet Union that won The New York Times a Pulitzer in the early part of the last century it has still not returned. Over at NBC multi-million dollar anchorman Brian Williams was relegated to a less important job on a less important network. MSNBC, because of lies he told about himself. The media industry has little tolerance for lies when they are uncovered yet no one involved in the reporting, editing, and publishing of the original Rolling Stone story was fired or resigned. Call it a tell-tale sign something nefarious might be going on. In fact the only real damage to the magazine may come as a result of the multi-million dollar defamation suit filed May 12 by the UVA associate dean of students who was held up to ridicule in the original story. Nicole Eramo asserts the article portrays her indifferent to allegations of sexual assault on campus, callous, and made her out as the “chief villain” in an incendiary and ultimately completely retracted piece.
All this, unfortunately, may tie back into the Obama administration’s pursuit of what it likes to say is a safer environment on the nation’s college and university campuses. The Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross produced a remarkable expose that tied the alleged victim in the original story to the woman who reported it to a UVA staffer, Emily Renda, who says she is a sexual assault survivor and works with on-campus victims to the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, Catherine Lhamon who was her agency’s “designee to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault which Obama created on Jan. 22, 2014,” serving alongside Renda.
These connections, while not proof of anything are still enough to raise questions, questions that are now being raised everywhere from the Washington Times to The Hollywood Reporter. Certainly the Obama administration’s campus safety initiative created a climate in which reporters may have felt led to look into the issue. What if, rather than being led, Erdely was essentially pushed by Renda and Lhamon – as now appears may have been the case -- onto the trail of story that was dramatic, heartbreaking, and proved anecdotally every point the folks in the White House pushing the new policy wanted to make?
Think back to the earliest days of the Obama presidency when then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel talked about the importance of never letting a crisis go to waste. With that in mind, and with the way this particular administration has lurched from crisis to crisis as it formulates policy objectives, one cannot help but wonder if senior officials inside the administration have taken it to be their job to invent crises (or inflame little ones into big ones) so that the people will demand something be done.
There’s certainly enough anecdotal evidence to warrant an inquiry and, since most of the big name newspapers and television networks seem unwilling to take up the mantle, then Congress will have to do it. The Department of Education continues to stonewall, answering FOIA requests on the matter from media outlets in a less than candid way. The only new developments have come as a result of the lawsuit filed against Rolling Stone – and that all stops if a settlement is reached.
The search for the story behind the story is what’s important. The Institute on Government and Media Integrity is asking Capitol Hill lawmakers to open an investigation, something that is entirely appropriate. They’re not crossing any first amendment boundaries. They want congressional investigators to examine records of calls and conversations by Lhamon in order to determine whether federal officials were, as it now appears to have been the case, part of an orchestrated attempt to discredit two University of Virginia college deans and an entire university.
This is not about education policy or the first amendment. There is in fact a case to be made that colleges and universities are in fact ill-equipped to handle most crimes on campus, including sexual assaults. Salting the media with a phony story to make the case, and by people working for the American taxpayer, is not, however, the way to make it.