The University of Virginia has suspended Greek culture on campus in the wake of a heartrending report in Rolling Stone. That account served as a grotesque window into a world in which forcible sexual assault is not only tacitly condoned but virtually encouraged.
Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s account of the graphic assault on one woman by a group of seven fraternity brothers is difficult to read.
Language and content warnings apply:
“Shut up,” she heard a man’s voice say as a body barreled into her, tripping her backward and sending them both crashing through a low glass table. There was a heavy person on top of her, spreading open her thighs, and another person kneeling on her hair, hands pinning down her arms, sharp shards digging into her back, and excited male voices rising all around her. When yet another hand clamped over her mouth, Jackie bit it, and the hand became a fist that punched her in the face. The men surrounding her began to laugh. For a hopeful moment Jackie wondered if this wasn’t some collegiate prank. Perhaps at any second someone would flick on the lights and they’d return to the party.
“Grab its motherfucking leg,” she heard a voice say. And that’s when Jackie knew she was going to be raped.
The visceral images Erdely conjured up in the uncensored passage above rocked the national media environment and are prompting serious policy changes on the nation’s campuses. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is citing this case and the Rolling Stone article about it to push a national anti-sex crime bill that would target colleges.
Erdely’s words may have changed the nation forever.
But the minute some began to take a critical look into the fantastical account of college men raping a woman atop piles of broken glass, and their university essentially sweeping it under the rug as they had countless other similar crimes in the past, disturbing questions about this account began to emerge.
“The most intelligent dissection of the article comes from a Nov. 24 blog post from Richard Bradley, the editor in chief of Worth magazine,” The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens wrote. “Mr. Bradley picks up on some of the journalistic malpractice in the story, including the failure to get any statement (or ‘no comment’) from the accused rapists.”
“He also notes lurid details that are also simply improbable, such as the suggestion that the victim was raped over shards of glass. (Wouldn’t that have wounded the rapists also?),” Stephens continued. “Which isn’t to say that the rape did not happen, even if it may not have happened precisely in the way described in the piece. But it ought to raise a skeptical eyebrow.”
The Journal columnist added that Bradley had indicated that the Rolling Stone story played into “existing biases” which are prevalent inside the Northeastern media establishment; the belief that fraternities are incubators of toxic masculinity, that young men in general are dangerous animals, and that the South is historically friendly towards this type of criminality. Those same biases led the press to promote the hoax surrounding the alleged gang rape of a young black escort by the members of Duke University’s lacrosse team in 2006.
A report in The Washington Post observed that Erdely had been unable to locate the supposed attackers in her story in order to get their side of the tale. “They were kind of hard to get in touch with because [the fraternity’s] contact page was pretty outdated,” the Rolling Stone reporter told Slate. “I wound up getting in touch with their local president, who sent me an e-mail, and then I talked with their sort of, their national guy, who’s kind of their national crisis manager. They were both helpful in their own way, I guess.”
“News organizations typically seek comment from those accused of criminal acts or from their attorneys as a matter of fairness and balance, as well as to confirm that the individuals exist,” The Post noted with a rather large hint of skepticism.
When The Post followed up with Erdely directly on several occasions, they received an email from her in which she admonished the paper for focusing on the particulars of her story. Instead, she suggested, the overarching “culture” of this university which supposedly permitted such behavior – the existence of which is far more difficult to disprove than a criminal act – should be the media’s focus moving forward.
“I could address many of [the questions] individually .. . but by dwelling on this, you’re getting sidetracked,” she wrote in an e-mail response to The Post’s inquiry. “As I’ve already told you, the gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie — a person whom I found to be credible — told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way — i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.”
This is a disturbing accusation and one which demands action if it can be proven accurate, but it is also one which is nearly impossible to substantiate or falsify. This story alone, painful as it is, does not meet the evidentiary burden necessary to enact sweeping policy reforms on either the state or national level.
National Review’s Jonah Goldberg has been critical of this story, and has noted the behavior in which Erdely engaged is not consistent with standard reporting practices. For some, to dare question the veracity of this dispatch is tantamount to denying the genuine anguish of this and every other rape survivor.
Wow, @JonahNRO, I’m curious when you last demanded that reporting on a burglary be independently corroborated by other outlets? Or a murder?
— Sally Kohn (@sallykohn) December 2, 2014
When a burglary or a murder is used to ignite a national dialogue and enact major policy reforms, it is perfectly appropriate to demand that the facts of that case be accurately reported. Americans should not base policy on faith or emotion. A dispassionate audit of the facts of this case is not only merited but necessary if America’s campus culture is to be remade as a result of this lurid tale.
To borrow a simplistic construction from the left so as to communicate the gravity of this episode, those like Goldberg and The Washington Post who are raising serious doubts about the quality of reporting in this story should not be “fact-shamed” by those like Kohn who are happy to take its claims at face value.