A Rolling Stone Update

Posted on March 11th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 16 Comments »

Just so you know: I emailed Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism and the man in charge on investigating Rolling Stone’s infamous story on rape at the University of Virginia, to ask him when his report might be finished.

He never responded.

Frankly, I didn’t expect him to answer my question, but I am surprised that he didn’t bother to reply. I’m always surprised when journalists do this. How can we expect other people to talk to us when we deny others even the courtesy of a reply?

That’s why I always try to be courteous and responsive to other journalists, even if for some reason I can’t answer their questions. It only seems fair.

Has Rolling Stone Learned Anything?

Posted on March 4th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 27 Comments »

In its pages, reviewer Alex Morris writes glowingly of the campus rape doc, “The Hunting Ground.”

So glowingly—and with such utter credulity—it’s as if the magazine has learned nothing from its experience with Sabrina Rubin Erdely, Jackie and the University of Virginia.

The film is, Morris says, a “stunning documentary” that “shows how universities cover up sexual assault cases”—something that Sabrina Rubin Erdely tried and failed to prove in her bogus article, “A Rape on Campus.”

(“Alex”, by the way, appears to be short for Alexandra.)

And then there’s this:

At the heart of The Hunting Ground are the stories of the survivors, each of which is hauntingly similar in its salient points: sexual violence followed by callous dismissal at the hands of a much-trusted institution.

There is not a single cautionary word here to suggest that, in addition to “the stories of the survivors,” there is at least one other side to these cases to hear and consider. Rolling Stone, of all magazines, should know this; should have learned that lesson by now. But…no.

Morris continues:

Simply put, ignoring or undermining survivors keeps rape stats low, which not only helps maintain the school’s brand but also protects fundraising (a large percentage of which comes from Greek alums or is tied to the performance of sports programs)….

This idea that university administrators across the country consistently sweep accusations of rape under the carpet “in order to keep rape stats low” and not harm fundraising is just a paranoid fantasy. An incident here or there, perhaps if it involves a star athlete—certainly possible. But a nationwide cover-up? To maintain the flow of donations from Greek alums, even though they are allegedly the perpretrators of these campus assaults?

(You can’t really have it both ways, can you? Saying that frat members commit most sexual assaults but that frat alums are so concerned about sexual assault statistics that they’ll stop writing checks.)

What a lost opportunity this is for the magazine to show that it has considered the lessons of Sabrina Rubin Erdeley’s fabricated article and integrated them into its coverage of this issue.

The debate about sexual assault on campus has grown considerably more nuanced and thoughtful since Rolling Stone’s false article came out. How weird that Rolling Stone doesn’t seem to notice. Perhaps they’re the ones making money off stories of campus sexual assault…

Considering the Hunting Ground

Posted on March 3rd, 2015 in Uncategorized | 9 Comments »

I have two young children, so I don’t get out to the movies much anymore, so I haven’t yet had a chance to see “The Hunting Ground,” the documentary about sexual assault that has been generating a lot of buzz. It’s playing in a handful of art theaters around the country. I’ll watch it when it airs on CNN. Judging from the alarmist title and the hysterically ominous trailer—I’ve seen Saw trailers that were more subtle—I think I’ll have some things to say about the film. But the early reviews are telling—both about the film and about the media.

Jezebel’s review of the film is, frankly, idiotic; so great is the reviewer’s credulity, you might as well have hired a parrot to type with its beak. Every statistic is gospel truth; ever interview subject is exactly right; every allegation, both against alleged rapists and universities in general, is assumed to be true.

The documentary underscores the most persuasive reason for the dearth of campus rape convictions: college is a business. Universities, the documentary explains, rely on the powerful networks of sororities and fraternities, and on the “multibillion dollar” college football industry for profit. If a school—from big public universities like UNC to small liberal arts colleges like Occidental College to religious institutions like the University of Notre Dame—is labeled as dangerous, it’s assumed their profits will suffer.

This is, frankly, nonsense. There are certainly reasons why university bureaucrats don’t like to talk about sexual assault on campus, and some of those may not be good reasons. Others have to do with federal law and the importance of discretion when handling sensitive matters—for all the parties involved, not just the alleged victim. But universities, with the possible exception of some with big time sports programs, do not think of “profits.” The sources of their revenue—tuition, alumni giving, federal grants, some money from science research, and returns on endowment investing—would not significantly be affected by the disclosure of a sexual assault on campus. In fact, the opposite is far more likely to be true; the cover-up of a rape on campus and its subsequent disclosure would likely be far more damaging to alumni giving and federal grant making than the mere disclosure of an incident.

But no, The Hunting Ground and Jezebel insist: If a school—from big public universities like UNC to small liberal arts colleges like Occidental College to religious institutions like the University of Notre Dame—is labeled as dangerous, it’s assumed their profits will suffer.

Oh, for God’s sake. I used to get this paranoid when I smoked pot (not very much, just for the record) in high school. And claims like that would seem credible under those circumstances.

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis is a little more skeptical of the film, but primarily because of its, shall we say, creative journalistic techniques. The gist of her review is this:

As Ms. Pino, Ms. Clark and the other interviewees share their lives on camera, their voices underscore that publicly talking about rape isn’t just an act of political radicalism, but also a way for survivors to reclaim their lives. By speaking out, they are asserting that they, rather than their assailants, are the narrators of their own stories, the agents of their destinies. Mr. Dick doesn’t specifically address this openness, but it’s impossible not to think — as woman after woman speaks — that it is female empowerment itself that is driving some of the backlash directed at rape activists. Mr. Dick addresses that backlash rather obliquely, as in a section in which interviewees swat away the issue of false rape claims.

Alas, this too is silly, just with a slightly more sophisticated veneer. I’ll grant that there are probably some men who are made uncomfortable by all the attention women (mostly) are bringing to this issue. But there are a lot of people, male and female, who don’t believe that there is an “epidemic” of campus sexual assault and worry about the trampling on individual rights that’s taking place in the name of eradicating a bogus epidemic.

And, to be fair, Dargis does then write, “It’s too bad that [director Kirby Dick] doesn’t dig into whether the new guidelines to protect (mostly) women are infringing on the civil rights of men, as Emily Yoffe argued in Slate last December.”

Which brings us to Emily Yoffe’s review in Slate.

Yoffe, who has written so smartly about sexual assault, is far more skeptical about The Hunting Ground.

The Hunting Ground, Yoffe writes,

is a polemic that—as its title suggests—portrays young women as prey, frequently assaulted and frequently ignored by their universities and law enforcement when they try to bring charges. The movie, from director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering, features numerous interviews with women who describe horrific experiences, and their testimony has raw, emotional power. But good policy about the lives of young people—female and male—needs to be based on prudent assessment. The film traffics in alarmist statistics and terrifying assertions, but fails to acknowledge both the recent changes in the way the government and universities approach sexual assault charges and the critiques that those changes go too far. By refusing to engage the current conversation about this issue, the film does its subjects—and us all—a disservice.

I have to get on a plane to San Francisco in a couple of hours—work trip—so I’m going to leave it at that. Except to say that I hope Yoffe’s review has some impact. This film is going to be shown on campuses all over the country, and it probably will have some impact. I doubt it’s going to be constructive.

Still Traveling…

Posted on February 26th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

I’m on my way to Mexico for some long-overdue scuba diving. Just a couple of days, but still—I can’t wait. I’ll post some pics, and, for those of you unfortunate enough to be in New England and New York at the moment, try not to gloat.

Drew Faust’s Problematic Book Review

Posted on February 24th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 12 Comments »

Harvard president Drew Faust caused a stir the other day when she reviewed Richard Brookhiser’s new book, Founder’s Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln.

Faust clearly didn’t think much of Founder’s Son, which argues that Lincoln was motivated and inspired by a philosophical allegiance to the Founding Fathers. She writes:

By casting Lincoln as simply a derivative of the founders, Brookhiser obscures one of the most salient features of his life and character: the way he himself changed and the manner in which his ideas developed and shifted in the course of his life. By the end of the Civil War, Lincoln not only differed from the founders; he also differed from his earlier self. “The dogmas of the quiet past,” he told Congress in December 1862, “are inadequate to the stormy present. . . . As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”

It’s the kind of review which, if taken at face value, would strongly discourage one from reading the book.

But Brookhiser is fighting back. He has already prompted the Times to issue a correction about one point; Faust charges that Brookhiser’s treatment of Lincoln’s generals is superficial and that they are “left unnamed.” In fact, as the Times is forced to concede, they are not.

Brookhiser also facilitates (“plants” is probably too strong) is the subject of an article by gossip columnist Richard Johnson in the New York Post in which he alleges that Faust got something else wrong. Update: I sent Brookhiser, this post, and he informs me that he never talked to the Post, so—mea culpa. It discusses a letter Brookhiser wrote to the Times.

Brookhiser writes: “Faust asks, as if I had not considered the question, ‘what would Lincoln have thought about Sally Hemings?’ But I devote a chapter to Lincoln’s thoughts about Thomas Jefferson, including his relationship with Hemings.

For what it’s worth, I used Amazon’s “search inside the book” feature to try to fact-check this—not a very good research method, but I haven’t read the book—and found two references to Sally Hemings; both were brief, and didn’t appear to address the question Faust poses. So Faust may come out ahead on that one.

Faust is also tough on Brookhiser’s argument that Lincoln felt a connection to the Founding Fathers because the writers of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence hoped to set slavery on a course to extinction. But Faust disagrees with that assessment of the Founding Fathers:

This is a portrait of the founding fathers not as masters — which so many of them actually were — but as captives of slavery. In connecting them to Lincoln, Brook­hiser makes them seem part of a long antislavery tradition, liberating them from a recent and powerful historiography that has detailed sharp and troubling contradictions between their rhetoric of freedom and the realities of everyday lives lived close to the darkest aspects of human bondage and exploitation. Yet, one wonders, what would Lincoln have thought about Sally Hemings?

Is this fair? Again, with the caveat that I haven’t read Brookhiser’s book (I have read Faust’s latest, and found it oddly flat and much overrated), I don’t think so. If Brookhiser makes the FF’s seem “part of a long antislavery tradition,” that would indeed be overstating the case. On this subject, they were generally conflicted and conservative. As Faust points out, many of them were also hypocritical. But hypocrisy does not disqualify them from sincere belief that slavery was a profound moral wrong. It just means they couldn’t always practice what they preached.

(Of all the Founding Fathers, probably John Adams most wrestled with bridging the gap between daily living and revolutionary idealism, and while it made him admirable and admired in many ways, it also caused him enormous psychological stress—particularly when he felt he had failed to live up to his own words.)

It is also true that the Founding Fathers who opposed slavery in theory—most of them, I believe—did not know how to end it in reality. They were racist, as was the norm at the time, and they could not imagine black Africans living self-sufficiently in the new country; one of the reasons that Washington didn’t free his slaves until his death was that he did not believe they would survive on their own. This is, from a modern perspective, an appalling thought. That does not make it an insincere one—and in fact Lincoln himself went through a phase in which he was inclined to believe that freed slaves would have to be returned to Africa. (If memory serves, Jefferson had considered the same thing; which would make an interesting connection between Lincoln and the Founders.) If you take seriously the Founders’ racism—and there’s no reason not to, they were perfectly upfront about it—it’s perfectly possible for the Founding Fathers to have been both “masters”—a term Faust uses literally—and “captives” (she makes this figurative) of slavery.

So while Faust writes with a great deal of well-earned confidence about Lincoln and the Civil War, she does not inspire (in me, anyway) a great amount of confidence in her understanding of the Founding Fathers. Her book review feels a bit to me like the work of a president who has repeatedly and convincingly said that the downside of being president of Harvard is the fact that she can no longer practice the writing of history. It lets her keep her toes in—while other muscles deteriorate.

TBD re the Stanford Case

Posted on February 17th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 75 Comments »

This story of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Joe Lonsdale and former Stanford undergraduate Ellie Clougherty.

My quick (and only semi-serious) take: You could not ask for a more unstable combination in a girlfriend than someone who once wanted to be a nun, then became a model…two professors which seriously mess with your head.

More to come.

I Haven’t Vanished

Posted on February 17th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

…thanks for your patience, as I haven’t been able to blog lately. At the moment, I’m traveling in California for the day job. (Delighted to be missing what sounds like horrible weather back East.)

I’ll be tweeting and blogging more regularly soon.

Maureen Dowd’s Missing Words

Posted on February 9th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 22 Comments »

In her column today, she blasts Brian Williams. This is her lede:

NBC executives were warned a year ago that Brian Williams was constantly inflating his biography. They were flummoxed over why the leading network anchor felt that he needed Hemingwayesque, bullets-whizzing-by flourishes to puff himself up, sometimes to the point where it was a joke in the news division.

The missing words here?

“According to…”

The Problematic Story of the Woman with the Mattress

Posted on February 9th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 451 Comments »

In the Daily Beast, Cathy Young reports on the story of Paul Nungesser, the Columbia student at the center of that university’s sexual assault controversy; Nungesser was accused of varying levels of assault, from forced anal sex to “emotional abuse” to grabbing and trying to kiss a student, by three different women.

The most high-profile of them, of course, is Emma Sulkowicz, who says that Nungesser violently anally raped her and then got up and walked away without a word; to make a statement about the event, and fulfill her credits as a performance art major, Sulkowicz has been carrying her dorm room mattress around on campus. She has gotten a huge amount of supportive publicity, including a cover story in New York magazine and an appearance at President Obama’s recent state of the union, courtesy of New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Nungesser first spoke out in a recent NYT article, which I found poorly reported and badly written. (More on this later, I hope.) Young’s piece has much more work behind it—and it raises serious questions about the accusations made by all three women, and particularly Emma Sulkowicz.

While Sulkowicz has always said that they started out having consensual sex, her account diverges drastically from Nungesser’s at this point. According to Sulkowicz, he suddenly and brutally assaulted her, then picked up his clothes and left without a word, leaving her stunned and shattered on the bed. According to Nungesser, they briefly engaged in anal intercourse by mutual agreement, then went on to engage in other sexual activity and fell asleep. He says that he woke up early in the morning and went back to his own room while Sulkowicz was still sleeping.

Sulkowicz has said in interviews that she was too embarrassed and ashamed to talk to anyone about the rape, let alone report it; an account of her mattress protest by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith says that she “suffered in silence” in the aftermath of the assault. Yet Nungesser says that for weeks after that night, he and Sulkowicz maintained a cordial relationship, and says she seemingly never indicated that anything was amiss.

(Hat tip to Young: that is an adroit use of the words “art critic.”)

Central to Nungesser’s account is the fact that he and Sulkowicz corresponded at length, on cordial and even flirty terms, for weeks after the alleged incident; he gives Young screenshots of long instant message “conversations” they had. Asked about these conversations, Sulkowicz acknowledged that they were accurate and offered to annotate them, then changed her mind. Her defenders have argued that people who are the victim of assault don’t always respond in predictable ways, which I’m sure is true.

Sulkowicz is now critizing the Daily Beast for posting these Facebook interactions and saying that the media has done her wrong; but as this writer points out in the New York Times, she doesn’t have a lot of ground to stand on—she sought out the media in the first place.

The stories of the other two women are also less than convincing; one sounds like the result of an intense but non-abusive relationship, and one sounds trumped up to try to have Nungesser expelled from a coed fraternity he was a member of. There’s some suggestion that the stories were coordinated.

A theme of the article is that Nungesser may be the real victim here, and it’s an argument that has to be taken at least as seriously as the argument that he is a serial sex offender. After all, he was outed by the Columbia student newspaper, among others. His life on campus was turned into one of suspicion and alienation and hostility from other students. He had to undergo a frustratingly opaque disciplinary process (which, despite the low “preponderance of evidence” standard, nonetheless did not act all the accusations—I was going to say “cleared him of…” but I don’t know if Columbia’s process actually does that).

Most provocatively, Nungesser argues that Sulkowicz’s decision to carry her mattress around campus is in fact a form of harassment, designed to shame him and force him to leave the university. Whether or not he did anything, I think he’s right about that.

As a free speech near-absolutist, I would say that Sulkowicz has the right to carry her mattress, and the best response is to speak out in your defense in public, which Nungesser has now done, twice.

But I would also point out that if a male student carried out such a highly visible campaign directed at shaming a female student, you can be sure that he would have long before been charged with harassment by her defenders. Imagine if Nungesser started taping transcripts of his conversations with Sulkowicz to campus bulletin boards; campus sexual assault activists would go ballistic. Yet if she has the right to attack him in public, doesn’t he have the right to defend himself in public?

In the end, it seems pretty clear to me that Columbia did the right thing in not taking any action against Nungesser; from what information is public, none of these accusations are very convincing, and how could you possibly establish what happened when they are not reported until weeks, months, after they allegedly happened?

But Nungesser and his parents rightly point out that the young man is still saddled with a reputation as a sexual offender—something they insist is untrue and unfair.

“What really struck us as outrageously unfair,” says Nungesser’s father, Andreas Probosch, a schoolteacher who speaks near-perfect English, “was the university’s non-reaction to Emma Sulkowicz’s public campaign. After investigating the allegations against Paul for seven months they found them not credible, but when Ms. Sulkowicz went to the press and claimed Columbia had swept everything under the rug, why didn’t they stand by his side and say, ‘We do have a process and we followed that process and we stand by the acquittal’? Instead they declined to comment and just threw him under the bus.

Kudos to Young for a disturbing story that provides a reality check to the other reporting on this case.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

P.S. Here’s an example of the other reporting on this case. It’s from—you guessed it—Jezebel. The added emphasis is my doing.

Jezebel has spoken with three students who accuse Nungesser of sexual assault—one of whom, a male classmate, is currently in the process of pursuing disciplinary action through Columbia and has never previously spoken publicly about his allegations. There is not, by these students’ accounts, much ambiguity in their experiences with Nungesser.

The male classmate part is interesting: Jezebel gives his name as “Adam,” but in true Sabrina Rubin Erdely style, we don’t know if that’s his real name or not. Adam “identifies” as “queer and black”—I’m just using quotes because that seems safer—and says that “Paul pushed him onto his bed and sexually assaulted him.”

What does that even mean?

But Adam “didn’t tell anybody about the incident until months later” out of “denial, fear that nobody would believe him, fear that even defining himself as a survivor would somehow damage others.”

Fear that even defining himself as as survivor would somehow damage others? What does that even mean?

Adam’s response to Cathy Young’s article: Adam scoffs that apart from the disservice it does to Paul’s alleged victims, it “invalidates and completely erases my entire experience.”

It completely erases his entire experience?

I think at this point journalists need to really consider very carefully the decision to grant anonymity to people accusing others of sexual assault.

Also, Emma Sulkowicz responds to the Daily Beast article via an email, excerpted below, to Jezebel:

I went public with my story because I wanted to show the world how flawed the college process for handling cases of sexual assault is. I have already been violated by both Paul and Columbia University once. It is extremely upsetting that Paul would violate me again—this time, with the help of a reporter, Cathy Young. I just wanted to fix the problem of sexual assault on campus—I never wanted this to be an excuse for people to dig through my private Facebook messages and frame them in a way as to cast doubt on my character. It’s unfair and disgusting that Paul and Cathy would treat personal life as a mine that they can dig through and harvest for publicity and Paul’s public image.

This is why I have chosen to release the full conversation, plus the context in which things were said. I want people to have all the information so that they can make informed decisions for themselves, rather than seeing a redacted version of the conversation with bits and pieces picked out to make me look a certain way.

If I had a choice, no one would see my private Facebook messages at all.

Let’s be honest here: The more this woman talks, the more she discredits herself. Whether she was assaulted by Paul Nungesser, we will likely never know—that’s what happens when you wait for months to make an accusation. Did Columbia “violate” her? The university took her claims seriously, heard everything she and others had to say, and made a decision that she doesn’t agree with. If that’s a violation, this woman is going to have a hard time in the real world.

And don’t even get me started on the fact that a woman who is toting her mattress around campus, appearing on the cover of magazines and attending the state of the union is complaining about her privacy being violated. People who are accused in public have a right to defend themselves in public.

Jezebel’s main argument is, ultimately, this:

While Young’s piece might read like a dud of an aspirant bombshell to anybody who isn’t the American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Hoff Sommers (another ” rape isn’t real” cheerleader), the process by which she obtained the “exclusive” information for the piece showcases a new normal for women who publicly accuse men of rape: an open-ended ideology-driven crusade to discredit them, a reality bent to suit a narrative.

We’re back in Sabrina Rubin Erdely-land again: Any attempt to investigate whether a claim of rape is true—and this one is being investigated because it is very public and highly controversial, not out of some default skepticism—is “an open-ended ideology crusade to discredit them.”

I would just ask Jezebel: If this situation doesn’t apply, then under what circumstances would it be appropriate to not assume that an accusation of rape is inherently true? I mean, who is really practicing open-ended ideology here?

P.P.S. The original version of this post misspelled Kirsten Gillibrand’s name.

Was Larry Summers Right about Women in Science and Math?

Posted on February 7th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 45 Comments »

Mmmmm…no.

As NPR reports, a childhood friend of his, Eileen Pollack, a former scientist and now a teacher of creative writing at the University of Michigan, has written a book exploring why there are so few women in STEM fields relative to men.

After Summers’ infamous 2005 speech on the subject—a watershed in his disastrous Harvard presidency—Pollack, who knew Summers in high school, sat down to write him a long email explaining why he was wrong to suggest that women had less genetic aptitude for math and science than men do. Pollack, who says that she always considered Summers an admirer of smart women, thought he had gone very wrong on this one. The email grew into the book, The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boys Club. (The book is blurbed, by the way, by MIT prof Nancy Hopkins, who stood up and walked out of that Summers speech, one of the main reasons why it got as much attention as did.)

Pollack argues that the primary reason for the lack of women in STEM is still a lack of support from more senior figures in those fields, and from their own peers—an explanation that certainly sounds much more credible than the idea that male and female brains are hardwired differently. (As I recall, Summers also suggested that those fields are so competitive, many women would have trouble succeeding at their highest levels because of greater family obligations, whether due to choice or social mores.)

Pollack goes on to suggest that Summers may have done women a service, drawing attention to the issue by bringing it up in such a boneheaded way. I think that’s probably true. But ten years down the road, it doesn’t sound like a lot has changed.