Is the Rolling Stone Story True?

Posted on November 24th, 2014 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Some years ago, when I was an editor at George magazine, I was unfortunate enough to work with the writer Stephen Glass on a number of articles. They proved to be fake, filled with fabrications, as was pretty much all of his work. The experience was painful but educational; it forced me to examine how easily I had been duped. Why did I believe those insinuations about Vernon Jordan being a lech? About the dubious ethics of uber-fundraiser Terry McAuliffe?

The answer, I had to admit, was because they corroborated my pre-existing biases. I was well on the way to believing that Vernon Jordan was a philanderer, for example—everyone seemed to think so, back in the ’90s.

So Stephen wrote what he knew I was inclined to believe. And because I was inclined to believe it, I abandoned my critical judgment. I lowered my guard.

The lesson I learned: One must be most critical, in the best sense of that word, about what one is already inclined to believe. So when, say, the Duke lacrosse scandal erupted, I applied that lesson. The story was so sensational! Believing it required indulging one’s biases: A southern school…rich white preppy boys…a privileged sports team…lower class African-American women…rape. It read like a Tom Wolfe novel.

And of course it never happened.

Which brings me to a magazine article that is causing an enormous furor in Virginia and around the country; it’s inescapable on social media. Written by a woman named Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the article is called “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.”

The article alleges a truly horrifying gang rape at a UVA fraternity, and it has understandably shocked the campus and everyone who’s read it. The consequences have been pretty much instantaneous: The fraternity involved has voluntarily suspended its operations (without admitting that the incident happened); UVA’s president is promising an investigation and has since suspended all fraternity charters on campus; the alumni are in an uproar; the governor of Virginia has spoken out; students, particularly female students, are furious, and the concept of “rape culture” is further established. Federal intervention is sure to follow.

The only thing is…I’m not sure that I believe it. I’m not convinced that this gang rape actually happened. Something about this story doesn’t feel right.

Here’s why.

The article tells the story of “Jackie”—we never learn her identity—an 18-year-old freshman at UVA. She’s a model student, “attending events, joining clubs, making friends and, now, being asked on an actual date” by a fraternity member she met while working as a lifeguard. Her date, “Drew”—for a reason Rolling Stone never explains, we never learn his identity either—leads Jackie upstairs so that they can talk “where it’s quieter.”

What Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rudin Erdely says happens next turns the stomach.

Drew ushered Jackie into a bedroom, shutting the door behind them. The room was pitch-black inside. Jackie blindly turned toward Drew, uttering his name. At that same moment, she says, she detected movement in the room – and felt someone bump into her. Jackie began to scream.

“Shut up,” she heard a man’s voice say as a body barreled into her, tripping her backward and sending them both crashing through a low glass table. There was a heavy person on top of her, spreading open her thighs, and another person kneeling on her hair, hands pinning down her arms, sharp shards digging into her back, and excited male voices rising all around her. When yet another hand clamped over her mouth, Jackie bit it, and the hand became a fist that punched her in the face. The men surrounding her began to laugh. For a hopeful moment Jackie wondered if this wasn’t some collegiate prank. Perhaps at any second someone would flick on the lights and they’d return to the party.

“Grab its motherfucking leg,” she heard a voice say. And that’s when Jackie knew she was going to be raped.

And, Rubin Erdley says, she was—repeatedly, and for an agonizingly long time.

She remembers every moment of the next three hours of agony, during which, she says, seven men took turns raping her, while two more – her date, Drew, and another man – gave instruction and encouragement. She remembers how the spectators swigged beers, and how they called each other nicknames like Armpit and Blanket. She remembers the men’s heft and their sour reek of alcohol mixed with the pungency of marijuana. Most of all, Jackie remembers the pain and the pounding that went on and on.

Let me be very clear: I don’t doubt that it’s possible that this happened. People can do terrible things, things that one doesn’t want to believe happen. And I certainly don’t want to think that this could have happened.

But more than that: I don’t believe that it happened—certainly not in the way that it is recounted.

Remember: One must be most critical about stories that play into existing biases. And this story nourishes a lot of them: biases against fraternities, against men, against the South; biases about the naivete of young women, especially Southern women; pre-existing beliefs about the prevalence—indeed, the existence—of rape culture; extant suspicions about the hostility of university bureaucracies to sexual assault complaints that can produce unflattering publicity.

And, of course, this is a very charged time when it comes to the issue of sexual assault on campuses. Emotion has outswept reason. Jackie, for example, alleges that one out of three women who go to UVA has been raped. This is silly.

So let’s look at this story with a different set of eyes—not the eyes of a man or a woman, but those of a magazine editor who has seen fakes before.

The first thing that strikes me about it, of course, is that Jackie is never identified. I don’t love that—it makes me uncomfortable to base an entire story on an unnamed source, and I can’t think of any other situation other than rape where a publication would allow that—but certainly one can see the rationale.

Then we have three friends who talked to Jackie right after the rape, and apparently discouraged her from going to the hospital or the authorities because they might subsequently be banned from frat parties. Not one of them is named, or interviewed; so the three people who could allegedly corroborate the assault don’t.

Then there’s the fact that Jackie apparently knew two of her rapists, but they are not named, nor does Rubin Erdley contact them, which is basically a cardinal rule of journalism: If someone in your story is accused of something, you’d better do your damnedest to give them a chance to respond. There’s no sign that Rubin Erdley did so. Why not? Did she not know their names? Would Jackie not tell her? Because if Rubin Erdley knew their names and didn’t call them, that is horrible journalism and undermines confidence in her reporting. And if she didn’t know their names—well, we’re back in Patrick Witt-land again.

Finally there’s the narrative of the gang rape itself. It is a terrible story—so terrible that, if it weren’t for the power of our preexisting biases, we would be hard-pressed to believe it.

A young woman is lured to a fraternity in order to be gang-raped as part of a fraternity initiation. It’s a premeditated gang rape. I am not, thankfully, an expert on premeditated gang rape, but to the extent that it exists, it seems to be most prevalent in war-torn lands or countries with a strain of a punitive, misogynist and violent religious culture (Pakistan, for example).

The allegation here is that, at U.Va., gang rape is a rite of passage for young men to become fraternity “brothers.” It’s possible. One would think that we’d have heard of this before—gang rape as a fraternity initiation is hard to keep secret—but it’s possible.

So then we have a scene that boggles the mind. (Again, doesn’t mean it’s untrue; does mean we have to be critical.)

A young woman is led young woman into a “pitch-black” room. She is shoved by a man, who falls on her; they crash through a glass table and she lands in shards of glass. She bites his hand; he punches her; the men laugh. (Really? A man punches a woman and people laugh?) With the smell of marijuana (not usually known as a violence-inducing drug) hovering over the room, he and six more men rape her. The last uses a beer bottle; allegedly he can not get an erection, so his fellow frat brothers goad him on, mock him, then finally give him a tool with which to violate Jackie. (This is the man whom Jackie allegedly knew because they were in an anthropology seminar together.) This, after all, is who men really are, in anonymous darkness.

It is hard for me here not to think of Tawana Brawley, who not too long ago—but too far back for many of this article’s readers to remember—showed up at her home after going missing for a couple of days wearing only a garbage bag, covered in feces and with racial slurs scrawled on her body. Brawley told her family that she’d been kidnapped and raped by six white men.

Turned out she made the whole thing up because to avoid a potential punishment from her stepfather. But before that truth was discovered, the lives of the men she accused were very nearly destroyed.

(Jackie: “She remembers how…the men called each other nicknames like ‘Armpit’ and ‘Blanket'”—which apparently explains why she doesn’t know the names of seven of the men involved.)

The story of what happened to Jackie is similarly horrifying—and similarly incredible. Having been raped for three hours while lying in shards of glass “digging into her back”—three hours of which Jackie remembers every detail, despite the fact of the room’s pitch-blackness—she passes out and wakes up at 3 AM in an empty room.

Again: It’s possible. You can’t say it isn’t. But I am reminded of the urban myth about someone waking up in a bathtub full of ice in New Orleans. This story contains a lot of apocryphal tropes.

Jackie makes her way downstairs, her red dress apparently sufficiently intact to wear; the party is still raging. Though she is blood-stained—three hours with shards of glass “digging into her back,” and gang-raped, including with a beer bottle— and must surely look deeply traumatized, no one notices her. She makes her way out a side entrance she hadn’t seen before. She calls her friends, who tell her that she doesn’t want to be known as the girl who cried rape and worry that if they take her to the hospital they won’t get invited to subsequent frat parties.

Nothing in this story is impossible; it’s important to note that. It could have happened. But to believe it beyond a doubt, without a question mark—as virtually all the people who’ve read the article seem to—requires a lot of leaps of faith. It requires you to indulge your pre-existing biases.

Or perhaps I should say your pre-existing fantasies—your nightmares about the worst possible thing that could happen to you, or your friend or your daughter or sister; your deepest fears about what men are capable of; your horror at the horror of rape; your outrage about the lack of outrage.

“Grab its motherfucking leg,” says the first rapist to one of his “brothers.” It reminds me of Silence of the Lambs: “It rubs the lotion on its skin…” But Silence of the Lambs was fiction.

What happens now? There will be investigations; the police will likely be involved. If there really were nine men in that pitch-black room, it is hard to imagine that we won’t find out the truth, or at least more information. And Jackie could, I believe, waive her legal protections and allow the university to disclose the file it allegedly has on her case.

But we do not know who Jackie is, and she will not put her name to this, for fear of backlash.

If it didn’t happen, this story will be impossible to disprove—some people seem to want to believe it—and U.Va’s reputation will likely not recover for decades. Rolling Stone—which published several articles by Stephen Glass, by the way, and always insisted that it was the one publication in which Glass did not tell lies—will stand by its story. And we will never know the truth.

The Journal on Why Harvard Football is So Good

Posted on November 20th, 2014 in Uncategorized | 21 Comments »

In the WSJ, Matthew Futterman takes a crack at explaining how Harvard’s football team has become such a powerhouse.

His answers include:
1) An alumni booster program that pays for a lot of the football program’s expenses
2) Harvard’s generous financial aid program, which allows the university to give athletic scholarships while pretending that they aren’t athletic scholarships (Okay, Futterman put it somewhat differently)
3) The sales pitch that if you go to Harvard, you can play for a serious program and get a Harvard education if football doesn’t work out
4) A commitment to play big-time football

As a result, Harvard is 9-0 this year—only Yale, at 8-1 is close, and we’ll see what happens on Saturday—and has an offensive line averaging 6’5″ and 287 pounds. The roster includes 13 players from Texas and 13 from Georgia.

So all of this makes sense in terms of explaining how the football program at Harvard got so good; it doesn’t do so much at explaining why and what the consequences of that are. Are you trying to tell me that those 13 football players from Texas come close to Harvard’s traditional academic standards? If so, I have some derivatives to sell you. (Y’all know what Texas football is like, don’t you?) And what kind of impact does the presence of all these intellectually under-achieved behemoths on campus have? In my very limited experience, big-time recruited athletes at Yale (there weren’t very many) produced a lot of cynicism among the other students, who sensed that these kids really didn’t fit in very well and struggled academically.

Harvard has already had one academic scandal with a significant athlete connection. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time till there are more. Meanwhile, one imagines the number of “gut” classes growing.

(And yes, to the inevitable people who say, “I know a brilliant comp sci major who’s also a star running back”—certainly those people exist. But they’re the exception.)

And I go back to the question of why—of what real benefit is it to the University to have a high level football program? When I was at Yale, our athletic programs were, you know, pretty good, but we were never going to be Ohio State—and that was just fine. In fact, people kind of liked the idea that there was still one place in college sports, the Ivy League, where athletics were not the be-all and end-all of campus and alumni life.) Now Harvard has started an athletic arms race—in basketball, football, and elsewhere, I’m sure—and other Ivy League schools are playing catch up. But to the best of my knowledge, there’s never been any campus debate about this, no presidential direction, no outpouring of alumni frustration over the state of college athletics. And yet the culture of the college—and the Ivy League—is changing as a result.

Sure, it’s nice to have a basketball team that gets a lot of attention. But is it worth lowering academic standards and opening the door to the same kind of corruption that top-tier NCAA schools seem generally happy to tolerate?

Patrick Witt Speaks Out

Posted on November 3rd, 2014 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

At last! The Yale quarterback who was so grossly treated by Richard Perez-Pena—in a story that perhaps should have been a career-ender for Pena—in the New York Times—as detailed at length on this blog—has written in the Boston Globe about his experience of being kinda-sorta accused of sexual assault.

in the hopes that my painful and humiliating experience might yet produce some good by improving the final measures adopted, I offer my own story as a real-life example of how this well-intended policy can produce disastrous consequences if it remains detached from the most basic elements of fairness and due process that form the foundation of our legal system.

..When I demanded that fact-finding be done so that I could clear my name, I was told, “There’s nothing to clear your name of.” When I then requested that a formal complaint be lodged against me — a process that does involve investigation into the facts — I was told that such a course of action was impossible for me to initiate. At any time, however, my accuser retained the right to raise the complaint to a formal level. No matter, the Committee reassured me, the informal complaint did not constitute a disciplinary proceeding and nothing would be attached to my official record at Yale.

…Days after the initial meeting with the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, I received a phone call from the Rhodes Trust informing me that they had received an anonymous tip that I had been accused by a fellow student of sexual misconduct. Next came a call from my summer employer, who, having received a similar anonymous tip, rescinded my offer of full-time employment upon graduation….

This is exactly why the current hysteria about “rape culture”—a term so over-broad and unproven that is hard to take seriously—is so dangerous. Because in politicians’ efforts to get reelected redress a wrong, and universities’ desire to avoid being scapegoated in the press, the rights of the accused are being shredded. The process Witt describes above—one not unlike what happens now at Harvard and elsewhere—should not inspire confidence in anyone who follows this issue that justice was/is done. It sounds like a Kafka-esque nightmare in which you haven’t really been accused of anything so you can’t actually defend yourself from something.

Good for Patrick Witt for speaking out now. I’m sure he will get hate mail from many Harvardians. That’s a shame. It can not be easy to defend yourself against an accusation you don’t even know….

Is Elizabeth Warren Running for President?

Posted on October 23rd, 2014 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

She’s opened the door just a bit

Myself, I think she should. Try as I might, I just don’t like Hillary. And I think an uncontested Democratic race would be a disaster for the Democrats.

Harvard at its Best

Posted on October 23rd, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

A nice story in the Times about a kid from a truly rough background—living on the streets of Rwanda, sleeping in a garbage dump—who winds up at Harvard. Really inspiring, and good on you, Harvard.

Has Naomi Wolf Gone Nuts?

Posted on October 6th, 2014 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Vox reports that the Yale educated feminist—her most recent book is a history of the vagina—is spinning conspiracy theories about ISIS videos and the US using ebola as a pretext for a military takeover of American society….

George Magazine in Retrospect

Posted on October 5th, 2014 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

As one of the original editors of George, the political magazine founded by John F. Kennedy Jr., I’ve long maintained that, behind its celebrity factor, George was a smart and influential magazine. The idea of a mainstream magazine premised on the convergence of celebrity and politics felt, at the time, quite radical to me; these days, I don’t think anyone would blink an eye, which is probably proof that John had put his finger on something true about American culture.

So I was pleased to see Charles P. Pierce, writing in the current issue of Esquire, agreeing with that estimation:

Once upon a time and not that long ago, and don’t let it be forgot, there once was a glossy magazine named George. It was founded and edited by the late John Kennedy Jr., who was, by all accounts, a more than decent bloke. Its conceit was that there was no essential difference between politics and show business or between political celebrity and all other forms of celebrity. (I think we all can agree that JFK Jr. was something more than an authority on that last part.) Its first issue featured model Cindy Crawford dressed as George Washington, who once had only Parson Weems as his personal celebrity biographer. Sadly, in March of 2001, its last issue had Kennedy himself on the cover, the editor having died in a plane crash on July 16, 1999. Despite some contemporaneous ur-snarkery from Spy, it’s hard now to conclude that the basic premise behind George was wrong. (By 2005, Tom Brokaw, the man who invented World War II, was moderating a ten-year retrospective on the magazine at Harvard, although that might have been just a Kennedy thing.) The entire world of political journalism has come around to George’s fundamental philosophy.

Pierce doesn’t entirely mean that as a compliment; his essay is really about what a piece of rubbish Politico (“George’s bastard child”) is, which is basically true.

Of course, back when George—and John—were still around, Esquire was one of their most frequent critics….

And Republicans Swear They Don’t Have a Woman Problem

Posted on October 3rd, 2014 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

The Detroit Free Press reports on a Republican ad targeted at women which compares Michigan’s two gubernatorial candidates to wedding dresses.

Apparently the Republican one is a better fit, the Democratic one comes with added costs, etc.

Must be seen to be believed.

(A tangential but amusing note—the woman getting married “just” graduated from college. In other words, she’s doing exactly what the GOP thinks she should.)

My Idea of Hell

Posted on September 24th, 2014 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

Listening to Lena Dunham give advice.

“I was like, so into counting almonds that I don’t think I got laid that entire time….”

But you feel free.

Tuesday Morning Video

Posted on September 23rd, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

From the fantastic second album, This is Your Girl, by Alt-J; the song is called “Every Other Freckle.”