Yesterday, the Charlottesville Police Department closed its investigation into the reports of a gang rape at the University of Virginia reported by Rolling Stone last year, as well as allegations of a “rape culture” levied by Sabrina Rubin Erdely in the long-discredited article. They found no evidence that the fraternity at the center of the accusation even had any event on the night in question, and declared that no evidence emerged that supported the broader accusations against UVa. Police chief Timothy Longo also told the media that “Jackie,” the accuser at the heart of Erdely’s reporting, refused to cooperate with the investigation, and that the witnesses they found did not support any part of the story she and Erdely told.
What lessons arise from this utter collapse of a narrative created by Erdely and Rolling Stone that could have come straight out of 17th-century Salem, or the McMartin Preschool trial? Erik Wemple shows no mercy in his journalistic post-mortem:
What is left of the Rolling Stone piece? Very little. There’s some reporting on the university’s culture, which shouldn’t be taken seriously in light of the fraud exposed by the police; there’s some reporting on the university leadership’s approach to the issue, which shouldn’t be taken seriously in light of the fraud exposed by the police; there’s some reporting on an old rape case, which pretty much holds up, but, again….
Though Longo is not paid as a media critic, his statements make clear that Rolling Stone propagated a biased work built on a mix of naivete and advocacy. As we’ve written before, Rolling Stone personnel should lose employment over this disaster.
Instapundit posted a letter from a journalist who wishes to remain anonymous, who worries about the turn toward advocacy and away from skepticism in first-person reporting. Don’t expect media outlets to learn a lesson from this, the reporter warns:
You might be interesting in this Tip Sheet from Columbia’s Dart Center:
Note how from the very first paragraph the tip sheet assumes that anyone making a complaint is a “survivor,” not an “alleged victim” or other neutral language.
Nowhere do these guidelines say “Be sure to give the alleged perpetrator or his/her representatives a chance to respond to the allegations.”
But they do say:
“Listening is important. Make sure to allow ample time for the source to tell you their story. Don’t rush them. Don’t press for details if they are not willing. Allow them to tell you what they feel comfortable talking about.”
Columbia’s J-school is finishing an outside investigation of the Erdely article and its publication at the invitation of Rolling Stone’s editors. If this is the standard to which they hold the magazine, Rolling Stone will have no problem accepting the endorsement. The journalist expects J-school dean Steve Coll to rethink the standard. We’ll see. At first blush, it’s hard to see where Coll can fault Erdely or Rolling Stone.
The problem goes deeper than the reporting, though. Gregory Wallance, a former federal prosecutor writing for USA Today, gets close to the mark:
But the U.Va. incident says less about a journalistic rush to judgment than it does about a misguided federal policy to deter campus sexual assaults that is sowing chaos on campuses.
Universities and colleges, as witnessed by U.Va., have been in an impossible damned if you do, damned if you don’t position, ever since the U.S. Department of Education’sannouncement on April 4, 2011 that, under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, any college or university receiving federal aid will be held accountable for failing to deter and punish campus sexual assaults. …
One problem is that the Title IX policy rests on the flawed premise that institutions of higher learning are good at law enforcement. But no one would expect a university to investigate and prosecute a campus murder, yet sexual assault cases, especially rape, are just as challenging, if not more so, as illustrated by the Charlottesville Police Department’s experience. The predictable inability of academic institutions to act as a combined police force, prosecutor’s office and court has led to extraordinary frustration and fury by students. Dozens of lawsuits are pending against schools by students alleging that their claims of sexual violence were mishandled and by students alleging that the accusations against them were unfairly adjudicated. Indeed, U.Va. waspilloried across the country for not having done more to stop a fraternity rape that may never have occurred.
Universities and colleges, including the most elite institutions, are in over their heads, as witness their unworkable sex policies.
It’s actually much more basic than Wallance suggests. The pressure put on universities and colleges by the Obama administration to use a low evidentiary standard and confusing definitions of criminality has had the effect of standing basic American jurisprudence on its head. Instead of allowing a presumption of innocence and the accused to face and question his accusers, the process assumes guilt and blocks even the most elementary of defense options. As I write in my column for The Week, the biggest contribution made by the Charlottesville PD is their admission that they can’t prove a negative:
And yet, as Longo noted, their investigation couldn’t definitively prove that nothing traumatic had happened to Jackie on that night in September 2012. They could demonstrate that Jackie had given false information in her story, but that was all.
That’s the real lesson from the Charlottesville investigation. It’s impossible to prove a negative — and that’s why we have the protections afforded us through due process when it comes to allegations of criminality.
Activists, abetted by the Obama administration’s pressure on schools to increase disciplinary actions for sexual harassment and assault, have pushed schools into using incredibly low standards of evidence in administrative hearings, while denying the accused opportunities to confront accusers, examine witnesses and evidence, or even put on an effective defense. In too many cases, those accused on college campuses find themselves in the impossible position of proving negatives. Instead of having normal due process, they find themselves in kangaroo courts, with their lives ruined on the basis of mere allegation.
Yes, Erdely’s Rolling Stone article is a “crock,” as Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple puts it. But so are attempts to have schools conduct witch hunts against people about whom nothing has been proven. We need to end presumptions of guilt and denial of due process now, and leave criminal investigations in the hands of professionals — like the Charlottesville Police Department — and not activists in pursuit of their own political goals.
It’s time to put an end to the latest moral panic, and put the Department of Education on a tight leash when it comes to Title IX.