In the wake of Rolling Stone’s retraction, I’m trying to gather my thoughts into a big picture, what it all means sort of post—and failing.
There are so many disparate elements to this situation; even now, we do not know what to believe and what not. Rolling Stone and Sabrina Rubin Erdely threw a hand grenade into an emotional social and political environment, and now the rest of us have to pick up the pieces.
So I’m going to keep thinking. I know in our culture we’re expected to produce instant conclusions. I’m just wary of being glib. And also, given that I’ve been tough on other people’s mistakes, I want to be extra cautious.
But I do have some pieces I want to pick up.
1) I appreciate Anna Merlan’s apology. Not that my opinion counts for much, but I think that Anna (once someone refers to you as a “giant ball of shit,” you’re pretty much on a first-name basis) has the potential to be a very fine journalist. I do think she needs to reject the culture of snark and the easy gratification that comes with it.
But listen, I’ve written some things in my life that I’d love to take back, so I’m not going to be all high and mighty about it. I’ve been called worse things than an idiot.
Speaking of taking back, I will admit—I’d like to hear something from Liz Seccuro and Kat Stoeffel. When Stoeffel’s piece, which caricatured what I wrote, came out, I sent her a polite email pointing out why I thought she’d done me some disservices. She responded with a one-sentence email to the effect that I had misspelled her name. (To be fair, I did.) I apologized—and then heard nothing.
She did, however, tweet:
Ughhhhhhh it’s about ethics in gang-rape journalism as well now?
(One thing about social media—a lot of journalists are shockingly open about their biases.)
I look forward to reading your follow-up, Kat.
I am disappointed by Liz Seccuro. The article she wrote on Time.com is discredited within hours of its posting, and she responds by tweeting…
Liz Seccuro @LizSeccuro · 17h 17 hours ago
I am terribly, terribly disappointed by today’s developments. But that cannot change what happened to me. My truth is unassailable.
This is a red herring; no one is assailing Seccuro’s truth. But how can we work through the issues surrounding allegations of sexual assault if there is no honesty in our public discourse? How can you write something that is almost instantly proven wrong and then not at least acknowledge that?
2) Sabrina Rubin Erdely. The woman who accused UVA of “stonewalling” has gone underground; she has said nothing publicly, and is declining to respond to journalists’ inquiries.
I hate it when journalists do that. How can we expect others to talk to us if we won’t talk to them?
I appreciate that this must be a very difficult time for Rubin Erdely, but I don’t think that’s the right approach to take—even if it’s the one Rolling Stone wants her to.
Before the story collapsed, Rubin Erdely—whose Facebook image is a picture of Linda Carter as Wonder Woman, and who posted pictures of herself schmoozing with rape victim Tori Amos—seemed to be reveling in the acclaim her story was attracting.
On November 29th—five days after my original post questioning her story—she posted this on Facebook (we’re not friends; her page is, as of now, public):
I’m in the back of a big black car, on my way to MSNBC. Watch me on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show at 10:30 this morning! You know what I’ll be talking about.
I’m sure that Rubin Erdely, who has apparently written a lot of great stuff in her career, will eventually address what went wrong here. But it’s not courageous to enjoy all the attention when you’re riding high and then vanish when things go south. It has now been two weeks since I and others began faulting her reporting. In that time, Rubin Erdely has done nothing but defend her story and suggest to people that they are misguided for trying to confirm it. When she has spoken, it’s conspicuously to mainstream media outlets, like NPR, that are likely to be more sympathetic to her. (Rubin Erdely has not responded to two emails I sent her.)
3) Rolling Stone strikes the wrong note by putting out a statement saying that “we have come to the conclusion that our trust in [Jackie] was misplaced.”
Jackie, who may genuinely not know whatever happened to her, did not force Rolling Stone to publish anything. She did not force Rolling Stone to abandon basic tenets of journalism. It’s pretty simple: The magazine wanted to run with a bombshell story and chose to compromise its standards in order to do so.
To be fair, managing editor Will Dana acknowledges Rolling Stone’s responsibility in subsequent tweets and interviews.
But it’s gross that Rolling Stone’s first instinct was to throw Jackie under the bus. Meanwhile, the author of the piece has not said a word taking responsibility. That’s not right.
4) Either in the Washington Post or New York Times—forgive me, I’m losing track—I read a quote from Will Dana to the effect that the magazine did not know of the “inconsistencies” in Jackie’s account until it was contacted by the Washington Post.
What on earth has Rolling Stone been doing for the past week or so?
As difficult as it would have been, Rolling Stone should have gone back to its sources—well, source—and pushed to do the reporting it didn’t do the first time around.
A footnote here: In the past few days, a lot of folks have said to me things like, “Well, what do you expect from Rolling Stone?” Or: “They should stick to music reviews.” Etc.
Just for the record, I like Rolling Stone. I’m a subscriber, and I think the magazine has done a lot of great reporting over the past few years. It’s still committed to long-form journalism, which is increasingly rare. I defended the magazine, on this blog, for all the heat it took about its Boston Bomber cover.
I just don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here…
5) I am troubled by the fact that Jackie has now given a name for the man she said invited her to the fraternity party, and he has responded that he has never met her.
This from the Washington Post:
Reached by phone, that man, a U-Va. graduate, said Friday that he worked at the Aquatic and Fitness Center and was familiar with Jackie’s name. But he added that he never met Jackie in person and never took her out on a date. He also said he was not a member of Phi Kappa Psi.
If this man is telling the truth, Jackie has just made a false allegation of sexual assault.
That is an uncontestable equation, and all of the writers who, in the past several days, have argued that we must never question a story of sexual assault have a responsibility to admit that they were wrong.
Would Marc Cooper and Helen Benedict, the two journalism professors quoted in the New York Times as saying that it is not necessary for journalists to contact the accused, care to revise their opinions?
6) I have never understood why UVA president Teresa Sullivan suspended activities at all fraternities because of the alleged crimes that took place at one. It was a defensive overreaction in an environment of hysteria—not the mark of a leader.
I do not now understand why those fraternities remain under suspension.
I don’t have an investment in fraternities one way or another, it’s just an example of how bad journalism leads to bad policy that, once implemented, tends to linger.
7) There are a lot of high profile journalists who praised Rubin Erdely’s work after her story was published—Lisa DePaulo (“you’re SO good!”, she wrote Rubin Erdley on Facebook), Jeffrey Goldberg (“a super reporting job,” he tweeted), Elliott Kaplan, etc.
Journalists can be a tribal, insular bunch. Sometimes this is good, as when journalists are wrongly criticized or when we support each other, as with the really awful situation now happening at The New Republic.
Sometimes it isn’t.
I’ve gotten a lot of emails from journalists in the past few days like the one from the editor of a very high profile magazine—he’s a powerful guy. “Good call on RS,” he wrote. “I was with you all the way.”
I mean—I appreciate that, I truly do. But it is easy to say after the fact, in private, after Rolling Stone has retracted its story. On Twitter, I’ve seen a lot of non-journalists raising issues with this story once the discussion got started. I didn’t see a lot of journalists doing so.
Sometimes our tribalism goes too far.
(Full disclosure: Lisa DePaulo, who is probably best known for trying to convince the world that Gary Condit killed Chandra Levy when he did not, is not my biggest fan, due to a falling out we had many years ago. Also, I’m not that fluent with Twitter, so it’s absolutely possible that I’ve missed relevant tweets.)
8) I have seen the word “backlash” used quite a lot to describe the efforts by me and other writers (Robby Soave, Paul Farhi, Erik Wemple, Hanna Rosin, Allison Benedikt) to point out some of the issues in Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article—as in, “the backlash against the Rolling Stone story began when…”
Like Liz Securro referring to my blog as a “rant,” “backlash” is an extremely loaded word in this context. It was, after all, the title of Susan Faludi’s famous book, followed by the subtitle, “The Undeclared War against American Women.”
What I and others did was not a backlash. You could call it a correction, an assessment, a reevaluation, an investigation—there are plenty of reasonably accurate labels.
But please don’t use a term that has very specific political connotations to describe journalists who are just doing their jobs. Sabrina Rubin Erdley intended to be political; we didn’t.
9) In the past 24 hours, I’ve read a number of times that we must not let the “inconsistencies” in Jackie’s story blind us to the larger truths about the University of Virginia and “rape culture.”
This argument should not be received uncritically.
One reason is that Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story does not establish any larger truths about the University of Virginia.
The damage is done, of course. Nothing that I or anyone else now writes will dissuade the general public from believing that UVA is a bastion of misogyny and sexual assault.
I don’t know if it is or isn’t.
I do know that, from start to finish, Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article has methodological flaws and a deep bias. “A Rape on Campus” is an irresponsible patchwork of personal politics, sloppy reporting and preconceived conclusions by a writer who lamented that the University of Virgina has no “radical feminist culture seeking to upend the patriarchy”—and took it upon herself to do just that.
As to the larger question of the existence of “rape culture”–well, that is an ongoing discussion, and I hope to participate in it.
Thanks for hearing me out. And thanks to all the people who’ve taken the time to comment on this blog. I find it incredibly inspiring. As I’ve mentioned before, I do this for free. Your comments mean a lot.