With nearly every passing day, yet another detail in last month’s sensational Rolling Stone article alleging gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house collapses under the weight of scrutiny. Its author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, has retreated into strategic silence; her editor, Will Dana, having publicly disavowed the “facts” of the story, is still issuing clarifications and apologies. At this rate, we are unlikely ever to know what (if anything) really happened to “Jackie,” the story’s protagonist and putative heroine, on the UVA campus in 2012, or what impelled her to tell her tale to Sabrina Rubin Erdely.
The conventional wisdom of the moment, especially among those who deployed the Rolling Stone article for political purposes, is that this episode discredits future rape victims and will hamper efforts to raise awareness about sexual assault on college campuses. On the latter point, this may be a salutary development: The oft-cited claims that one in five American women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes and that one in four female college students will be raped are almost certainly exaggerations. As for future rape victims, the opposite is likely true: There has never been greater public awareness about sexual assault in America than there is now, especially on campuses; and in any case, rape—which used to be a capital crime in some circumstances—remains a serious felony.
How all this will be sorted out by the University of Virginia is an open question. Once the Rolling Stone article was published, all fraternity and sorority activities were suspended for the balance of the year; and despite revelations about the story’s manifold defects, the administration is sticking with its decision. In the meantime, certain segments of the faculty are determined to prevent this putative crisis from going to waste, and will persist in their efforts to abolish Greek life at UVA.
There is another aspect to the story, however, beyond academic politics, fraternity behavior, or the national debate on sexual assault, the definition of rape, false accusations, and dubious statistics. This is a problem for the press. For just as Rolling Stone has discredited itself with its evident recklessness, the media generally—with a handful of honorable exceptions, notably the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple—have exhibited all the symptoms of political bias, mob mentality, and lazy practices that have done so much to earn the public’s disfavor in recent decades.
There is, to begin with, the abrogation of the bare essentials of journalistic practice. Sabrina Rubin Erdely is entitled to her opinion, of course, and her disdain for fraternity boys and the University of Virginia (not necessarily in that order) is evident throughout her account. But by her own admission, she not only shopped around the country for a story that would support her presumptions about campus “rape culture,” but relied exclusively on the veracity of “Jackie,” making little or no effort to confirm the story’s most improbable details, or confront (much less identify) the seven undergraduates “Jackie” accused of violent rape. For its part, Rolling Stone seems to have disdained the very idea of due diligence, content to publish an accusation of rape without question.
This is not, in itself, a shocking development: Rolling Stone was a hot book during the Nixon and Ford administrations, but its “serious” journalism is largely behind it. That does not explain, however, the willingness of the media, in general, to accept the truth of the allegations against UVA and its “culture”—unless the media are predisposed to do so. Which, of course, they are. Just as the press was quick to embrace the false premises of the 2006 accusation of rape against the Duke lacrosse team, it was equally eager to believe the worst of frat boys, Greek life, social practices, and campus customs at another prestigious Southern institution of higher learning.
This conscious neglect of professional responsibility—indeed, suspension of the media’s natural, and well-advertised, skepticism—might well be explained by an old, and well-warmed, chestnut: political bias. Except that in this case, as in others, credulity and prejudice combine to do genuine harm. For whatever reasons, “Jackie,” Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and Rolling Stone were willing to generate a virtual lynch mob involving serious criminal accusations against (presumably) innocent people. And the press, which should be the first to ask questions, dig into records, and expose contradictions and inconsistencies, was the voice of unreason.