Op-Ed: Like A Rolling Stone
A charge of rape at UVA unravels, and so does a political narrative.
Rolling Stone magazine has now acknowledged “discrepancies” in an article it published last month about an alleged premeditated gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely made sensational allegations based solely on the testimony of the alleged victim. Ms. Erdely also made no attempt to get a comment from the alleged assailants, a failing that bloggers and columnists first pointed out.
All publications make mistakes, including us, but this one is worth some meditation for what it says about our larger media and political culture. All the more so given the amount of laudatory national attention the story received, and the trauma it caused at UVA.
Part of the reason may be a natural human reluctance to investigate the credibility of an alleged rape victim. But that should not have stopped Ms. Erdely from doing some basic due diligence.
The rape allegedly took place at a loud “date function” at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on September 28, 2012. On Thursday the fraternity released a statementthat it “did not have a date function or a social event during the weekend of September 28th, 2012.”
The larger problem, however, is that Ms. Erderly was, by her own admission, looking for a story to fit a pre-existing narrative—in this case, the supposed epidemic of sexual assault at elite universities, along with the presumed indifference of those schools to the problem. As the Washington Post noted in an admiring profile of Ms. Erdely, she interviewed students at several elite universities before alighting on UVA, “a public school, Southern and genteel.”
In other words, Ms. Erdely did not construct a story based on facts, but went looking for facts to fit her theory. She appears to have been looking for a story to fit the current popular liberal belief that sexual assault is pervasive and pervasively covered-up.
Now that the story has begun to fall apart, it’s worth considering the damage. Though it may never get as far as the bogus 2006 rape charges against the students of the Duke lacrosse team, members of the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi will have to live with undeservedly tainted personal reputations, especially since the charges may never be decisively refuted. UVA has also taken an unfair blow to its reputation. Nor can the story do any good for the broader interest of preventing future campus sexual assaults.
We live in an era of politically driven narratives—particularly about race, class and gender—which the media often use to assert “truths” before bothering to ascertain facts. Last month in Ferguson, Missouri, and now at UVA, we’ve seen the harm those narratives can do.