Erdely apologized in a statement on Sunday. Her reasons don’t come off as particularly ignoble: She wanted to bring to light a problem with the way sexual assaults are handled on college campuses, and once she found Jackie she was unwilling to pressure her for details, names, or verifying facts because she did not want to re-traumatize her after her ordeal. Naturally, Rolling Stone’s mea culpa and Erdely’s apology have not satisfied a certain segment of the reactionary peanut gallery, with rightwing outposts like Twitchy deliriously bemoaning the fact that no one at the magazine has been fired over the meltdown, and declaring Erdely a hack for not apologizing specifically to the fraternity brothers accused of rape in her article.
This suggests that the scope of the disaster is wider than the professional failures CJR documents with such unsettling clarity. Yes, there were an absurd number of mistakes in Rolling Stone’s journalistic method, but like most events ostensibly about ethics in journalism, the kernel of the controversy is about politics, not journalism.
The politics, of course, inform the journalism. For better or worse (almost certainly worse), rape is a contested political property, and campus rape is its pinnacle. During last year’s ballyhoo over California’s campus affirmative consent law, the contingencies for and against split down the aisle: The left and center-left supported it, while the right and far-right opposed it. More importantly, similar political groupings tend to form around controversial cases. When Cathy Young reported skeptically on the case of Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia undergraduate whose mattress-hefting protest made national news, Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan called her out, and anti-feminist finger-waggers at the misleadingly titled American Thinker feted her insight. What accounts for the political polarization in rape journalism, which is presumably odious to everyone, regardless of political orientation?