Feminists Must Hold Sabrina Rubin Erdely Accountable

I’ve mentioned before that I could tone troll Amanda Marcotte on every third or fourth post she writes. I generally don’t because, while I believe her job mainly consists in voicing the outrage of her readers rather than enlightening or informing them, I’m usually in broad agreement with her. At some point, if I spend my time tone trolling other feminists, I have to ask myself what my priorities are. Don’t I have bigger fish to fry?

However, a couple of days ago, she put up a post with which I disagreed in substance, not in tone. The more I think about it, the more I think it is a subject I should address. By now, I think many people are aware of the scandal that has been swirling around the magazine Rolling Stone. In December, they published a story, “A Rape on Campus”, by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. She was assigned to write an article about sexual assault on college campuses, a subject that has been of growing concern in the United States. She sought out an “emblematic college rape case.” The story she chose to write was centered on the University of Virginia and the alleged gang rape of a first year student named Jackie. The veracity of the allegations were brought into doubt. Rolling Stone retracted the story. Recently, a group from the Columbia School of Journalism released a report about the failures in the story.

Back when I was a college freshman myself, in the early 1980s, I took an introductory women’s studies’ class. For one assignment, I wanted to write a paper, not about the crime of rape itself, but how a fear of being raped affected women’s daily lives, what they did or did not do in order to avoid being raped. Having grown up in a sheltered environment where crime was almost unknown, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to write about rape on campus. At that point in time, I had only the vaguest awareness that it happened. As word spread that I was writing a paper “about rape,” other students started to come up to me to tell me about something that happened to them. I was in no way, shape or form prepared for what I was about to hear and it shocked me profoundly. Almost every story started with a similar phrase, “I don’t know if it was rape or not…,” and almost every story I would personally have considered rape. Clearly, they wanted to tell someone, and clearly they had no one to tell. One involved large amounts of drugs and alcohol. Most did not. One involved enough violence and bodily harm that the woman had to be treated at the local hospital, but most did not result in serious injuries. The amount of force varied. The degree to which the victim knew her assailant varied. It was readily apparent that it could happen to anyone, both the cautious and the reckless. This affected me greatly and I’ve taken the subject of rape very seriously ever since. At the time, the stories were shocking because I was naive. Now, older, I look back and I can say that they were almost all undramatic, anti-climatic and banal. None of the women had gone to the police. As far as I know, they put the episode behind them and got on with their lives. I add that last part, not to minimize the seriousness of the crime, but to try to reduce the sensationalistic aspects. The days when a woman was “ruined” by rape, when it was a “fate worse than death,” were the days when women had few economic options beyond marriage, and marriage was unthinkable unless one was a virgin.

The lack of drama in the stories I heard has a particular interest to me in light of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article. Erdely considers herself a “true crime” writer, and she writes with all the luridness that might imply.

Trust between a doctor and patient is never more fragile than in a gynecologist’s office. For many women, there is no indignity greater than lying supine and vulnerable, being touched with gloved fingers and cold metal instruments in the most private of places. At best it is an uncomfortable and highly charged situation to begin with – even more so if the gynecologist is male – never mind if something goes wrong.

I have great difficulty reading stories about rape, however, when I decided to write this post last night, I read the original article, “A Rape on Campus”, which I had avoided, I also read the report by the people from Columbia about the original story’s failures, several Washington Post articles criticizing “A Rape on Campus,” as well as a few other articles, including some in the University of Virginia’s student paper. There has been quite a bit more written about this scandal. I also read some of Ederly’s earlier work. That previous paragraph came from an article, “Intimate Intimidation,” that appeared in Philadelphia magazine in 1996. I’ve been going to doctors for gynecological examinations for over thirty-five years now, and I have to say that I can in no way relate to this lurid, sensationalistic description. In this case, the gynecologist was in fact convicted of molesting his patients in a court of law, but it is worth noting Ederly’s style. “Never more fragile.” “No greater indignity.” “Supine and vulnerable.”

Admittedly, I read “A Rape on Campus” with a far more critical eye than I would have had it not been retracted. Still, the first thing that jumped out at me was this description:

A chatty, straight-A achiever from a rural Virginia town, she’d initially been intimidated by UVA’s aura of preppy success, where throngs of toned, tanned and overwhelmingly blond students fanned across a landscape of neoclassical brick buildings…

Overwhelmingly blond? It was such a strange descriptor I looked up pictures of students online. The university is one of the country’s better schools and the students are certainly clean cut, but I don’t know that I would describe them as overwhelmingly blond. However the atmosphere described at the school is integral to the story. Erdely continues to play upon the contrast established in that early sentence. The innocent, dark haired, country girl from a modest background and the rich, entitled frat boys. Although my own sympathies tend not to lie with rich, entitled frat boys, I couldn’t help the feeling that she was distorting the reality to make her case. The fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked was an “‘upper tier’ frat” that “had a reputation of tremendous wealth, and its imposingly large house overlooked a vast manicured field, giving “Phi Psi” the undisputed best real estate.” The University of Virginia is described as “genteel,” lacking in radical feminists, not “edgy or progressive.”

Prestige is at the core of UVA’s identity. Although a public school, its grounds of red-brick, white-columned buildings designed by founder Thomas Jefferson radiate old-money privilege, footnoted by the graffiti of UVA’s many secret societies, whose insignias are neatly painted everywhere. At $10,000 a year, in-state tuition is a quarter the cost of the Ivies, but UVA tends to attract affluent students, and through aggressive fundraising boasts an endowment of $5 billion, on par with Cornell. “Wealthy parents are the norm,” says former UVA dean John Foubert. On top of all that, UVA enjoys a reputation as one of the best schools in the country, not to mention a campus so brimming with fun that in 2012 – the year of Jackie’s rape – Playboy crowned it the nation’s number-one party school. Students hold themselves up to that standard: studious by day, wild by night.

The story reported that Jackie’s friends discouraged her from reporting the assault because they were concerned with their social status.

A recent article in the Univeristy’s student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, takes exception with the way the school was portrayed in the article.

For University students, Rolling Stone did not just get one story wrong. It presented a skewed perspective of our student body; it vilified administrators without adequately explaining the constraints of federal law regarding these issues; it reduced the significance of organizations like One Less and One in Four, as well as the work of many students; it selected egregious elements of University culture — such as the “Rugby Road” song and the phrase “UVrApe” — and treated them as ubiquitous when they are not.

This portrayal interested me because it reminded me of another school that many people felt was inaccurately portrayed by Erdely in another Rolling Stone article, “School of Hate.” The school in that article, the Anoka-Hennepin school district which is located in Minnesota, experienced a suicide cluster. Several of the students who killed themselves were, or were presumed to be, gay. At the same time, the school district was experiencing an internal struggle between a religiously motivated conservative group and the rest of the community. The suicides and the political conflict had been previously covered by Mother Jones and The New York Times, both of which noted that people have drawn a link between the anti-gay conservative activism and the suicides. However, it was Rolling Stone article that some people from the town felt portrayed them unfairly and inaccurately. Again, it seems the drama was heightened at the cost of accuracy.

The errors in Erdely’s UVA article have been picked over by quite a few people and I might not have written about it myself if it hadn’t been for Amanda Marcotte’s post.

The various reporting and investigation that was released prior to this paints, I think, a fairly solid picture of what likely happened, which is that Jackie was telling a tall tale and even seems to have invented the guy who she claimed was the ringleader in a gang rape. (He seems to have been a composite character, constructed out of  pictures of one guy and biographical details from a couple more.) Her friends suggested to the Washington Post that this was a habit of hers, as they suspected her of making up a date with an imaginary friend in order to try to get the interest of a guy who rejected her. Whether or not she made the rape up whole cloth or embroidered/fictionalized a real event remains unknown, though either way, what she did was very wrong.

Strangely, Marcotte decides to be hyper-critical of T. Rees Shapiro, the reporter from the Washington Post who interviewed people at the University of Virgina and found the discrepancies which discredited the story. Shapiro reports that Jackie told him that she asked to be taken out of the story, a part of the article that Marcotte quotes. She continues:

They did reach out to Erdely for comment about this and she didn’t respond, so that’s on her. But the report from the Columbia investigators suggests that this was yet another lie from Jackie. But the fact that this accusation was printed gives me some pause. Unlike Erdely, T. Rees Shapiro seems to have gone into his conversations with Jackie with a suspicion that she was lying about the rape. Under the circumstances, it seems more suspicion was warranted that Jackie would make up more lies to make herself look better. The irony here is that Erdely is the only flesh-and-blood human being that Jackie appears to have falsely accused of anything.

Marcotte misunderstands the nature of the criticism of Erdely’s article. In her style, which the Colombia team called “narrative,” Erdely presents much of Jackie’s story without attribution, leading the reader to believe that many of the events were corroborated by other people. Shapiro, however, notes clearly that Jackie told him this.

It is important to note that Jackie never approached Erdely with the story. The team from Columbia that examined the failures in the reporting note that one thing that caused Erdely to not question Jackie’s friends or seek out the alleged perpetrator was because she was afraid that Jackie would pull out of the story.

Jackie proved to be a challenging source. At times, she did not respond to Erdely’s calls, texts and emails. At two points, the reporter feared Jackie might withdraw her cooperation. Also, Jackie refused to provide Erdely the name of the lifeguard who had organized the attack on her. She said she was still afraid of him. That led to tense exchanges between Erdely and Jackie, but the confrontation ended when Rolling Stone‘s editors decided to go ahead without knowing the lifeguard’s name or verifying his existence. After that concession, Jackie cooperated fully until publication.

Unlike Marcotte, I am far less sympathetic to the notion that a forty-something journalist with approximately twenty years of experience was manipulated by an undergraduate who was a compulsive liar without feeling that there must be some underlying problem in her approach to journalism.

I am personally so opposed to the political views espoused by the founder of the site Red State that I find it actually embarrassing to quote an article from the site. However, Leon H. Wolf makes an excellent point when he notes that:

One of the painful things the New Republic was forced to undertake when it first came to light that reporter Stephen Glass had fabricated certain details of his stories was to go over all his stories with a fine toothed comb to determine exactly how systemic the problem had been with Glass’s reporting. After all, a reporter who faked details in one or two stories might well have done so in others. To TNR’s credit, they promptly performed an exhaustive, line-by-line review of each of Glass’s stories over the years and laid bare the gruesome results for the world to see, exposing that the infractions for which Glass was eventually caught were only the tip of the iceberg, and that fabulist reporting by Glass was the rule, not the exception.

By way of contrast, in the wake of a damning CJR report on the reporting practices of Sabrina Rubin Erdely and the editorial and fact checking practices of Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone has shown absolutely no inclination to engage in a similar soul searching over whether Ms. Erdely might have engaged in similarly shoddy reporting in the past, and whether such shoddy reporting (if it exists) might have slipped through their fact checking and editorial system. Ms. Erdely by all appearances has not been professionally disciplined at all for her blunders and the Rolling Stone brass is acting as though this is an isolated incident in which they were blameless victims of an exceptionally clever con artist.

By coincidence, the Stephen Glass scandal was fresh in my mind because, a few days ago, I was about to throw out my old copies of The New Republic when I decided to go through them to see if there were any interesting stories I’d overlooked. There was one about Stephen Glass.

Before I came across the Red State article, I’d already looked up the Wikipedia page on Erdely. On her Wikipedia page, there is information about another article she wrote about shocking sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, including information about a boy who alleged that he had been gang raped by priests. According to Wikipedia:

Ralph Cipriano wrote in Newsweek that “Erdely didn’t know or bother to find out … that Billy had already told his story to the archdiocese, police, and a grand jury, and would subsequently retell it to two different juries in two criminal cases. And every time he told his story, the details kept changing.”

The Red State article by Wolf is concerned with yet another article about a sexual assault written by Erdely, “The Rape of Petty Officer Blumer.” All the articles I can find criticizing this piece by Erdely are unfortunately from websites with an acknowledged conservative agenda. Where is the soul searching on the left? Her work needs to be examined without the defensiveness. It needs to be gone over with a fine toothed comb, just like the work of Stephen Glass.

In “What Went Wrong,” Coronel, Coll and Kravitz write:

The story’s blowup comes as another shock to journalism’s credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry. The particulars of Rolling Stone‘s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.

Unfortunately, they fail to note what some of those “head-swiveling” changes might be. One thing that had changed in recent years is a changing attitude towards journalistic objectivity. From Media Ethics:

The past two decades have witnessed a conscious push away from the traditional journalistic value of objectivity, often deeming it an impossible goal…. Scholars have noted that advocacy journalism promotes societal change. Thus it tends to advocate more for “leftist” causes, serving as a progressive counterweight to the intrinsically conservative nature of objectivity. And advocacy journalism as a whole—including much “rightist” activity—is growing.

Research has shown that members of the press have a strong, widespread politically liberal orientation. At the same time many scholars and journalists argue that, despite this inherently progressive attitude, the ethical value of objectivity exerts a powerful moderating influence and that liberal bias in the media is for all intents and purposes non-existent…. A highly partisan press corps cannot produce politically unbiased journalism without respect for the value of objectivity….

Despite scholarly findings of “balanced” political news reporting, the public increasingly views the media as politically partisan, with nearly half of poll respondents specifically citing a liberal bias in the press. As charges of bias have risen, media credibility and trust in journalism have plummeted. While this is prevalent among Republicans, independents have also shown a substantial drop in trust of the media with ratings much closer to Republicans than to Democrats (Morales, 2012). More than three-quarters of the respondents in a 2011 Pew poll indicated belief that the media favored one side. With some journalism organizations continuing to enshrine “objectivity” in their ethical codes and others, such as the Society of Professional Journalists, are moving away from it, one can understand the public’s confusion about the place of objectivity in journalism.

… Some scholars have found evidence supporting the idea that perceived bias drives audience members away from use of traditional media as a common source of news, and toward alternative outlets, exacerbating partisanship. For example, Hollander (2008) found evidence that partisan viewers were migrating to media that reflected their own viewpoints, while casual news consumers were moving to entertainment rather than news programming. … As distrust in the media increases, voting becomes correspondingly more partisan. Malone (2008) and others have suggested that this represents a danger not only to the future of news organizations but to the American democracy.

Conclusion

This essay is not meant to suggest that objectivity is the only laudable goal of ethical journalism. Nor should it be taken as an assault on either the ethical or practical merit of advocacy journalism. It is instead intended as a call for the re-evaluation of objectivity and advocacy as ethical values in journalism. As a practical matter, perceived objectivity has a demonstrable impact on journalism. Some have asserted that a lack of objectivity has been responsible, at least in part, for journalism’s reputational decline. Others declare that objective journalism has grown stale and that advocacy journalism offers an opportunity to make it fresh and relevant in a society overloaded with information. News organizations need to understand what members of the public mean when they express a desire for the press to be objective, the extent to which the public is aware of the advocacy movement within journalism, and their reaction to the virtues of both objectivity and advocacy. Media ethicists should assert a central role in furthering our understanding of these vital concerns.

Which leads me to why feminists in particular are obligated to speak out against the work of Sabrina Rubin Erdely.

The best predictor that a person will believe in a conspiracy theory is that he or she already believes in another conspiracy theory. While belief in conspiracy theories affects women as much as men and, in the U.S., Republicans as much as Democrats, one thing that many conspiracy theorists have in common is a distrust of the mainstream media and a tendency to seek out alternative sources of news. From an article in the MIT Technology Review:

In particular, people who engage with debates on alternative news posts are much more likely to engage in the debate about false news posted by trolls. “We find that a dominant fraction of the users interacting with the troll memes is the one composed of users preeminently interacting with alternative information sources–and thus more exposed to unsubstantiated claims,” they say.

That’s an interesting result. Quattrociocchi and co point out that many people are attracted to alternative news media because of a distrust of conventional news sources, which, in Italy, are strongly influenced by politicians of one persuasion or another.

But this search for other sources of news seems to be fraught with danger. “Surprisingly, consumers of alternative news, which are the users trying to avoid the mainstream media ‘mass-manipulation’, are the most responsive to the injection of false claims,” they conclude.

If you read posts by men’s rights advocates, a picture of feminism emerges in which powerful people, in this case often professors in the academy, spread lies and propaganda. Feminism is, in short, a conspiracy. So, Erdely’s article did not just undermine the credibility of rape victims as her editor worried, but she has undermined the credibility of feminists, liberals and the mainstream media, especially leftward leaning sources among mainstream news outlets.

Many people have said that Erdely was not guilty of fabrication, but of confirmation bias. Because we are all, to some degree, capable of confirmation bias, it seems that many people are interpreting this to have absolved Erdely of the guilt that ended the career of Stephen Glass. In fact, a straight out liar presumably knows that he is lying, can repent and change, as Stephen Glass has claimed to have done. However, if Erdely has not confronted her biases, she is very likely to make the same error again. It is worth asking exactly what her biases are.

I, for one, will never again trust her or Rolling Stone.

 

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