Months after a platoon of journalists went to work dismantling the now discredited tale involving a gang rape initiation at a University of Virginia fraternity spun by Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Erdely, the Charlottesville Police Department has buried that story for good.
In a press conference on Monday, an officer with the Charlottesville PD was careful to note that his department could not prove that the person identified only as “Jackie” was not abused. He added that there is no statute of limitations preventing the future prosecution of anyone who was involved in her alleged attack. He could not, however, corroborate any of the claims in that inflammatory report. Moreover, the notion that there was a “rape culture” on that university’s campus was equally groundless.
For virtually everyone who observed how this story unfolded – from earth-shattering revelation, to wild overreaction leading to the media’s indictment of virtually all fraternity life, to the story’s retraction and the humiliation of those who advanced this false narrative – today’s press conference was the conclusion of a tragic episode that reflected poorly on all involved. That was not the case for CNN, however, where it appears that some believe that accusations of rape are both unfalsifiable and irrefutable.
The majority of this segment was spent issuing important caveats regarding how alleged rape victims both remember and report their stories to police. That is, of course, when they don’t determine that it would be less painful to just keep that traumatic experience to themselves.
That’s not an invalid or perfunctory point to make, but it was also made and made again ad infinitum when Rolling Stone’s story was being audited by reporters. The issue here is not that “Jackie” misremembered or embellished some of the minor details of her ordeal. The point of contention is that she apparently fabricated her story from whole cloth. What’s worse, Erdely did none of the diligence required of her as a reporter and simply reprinted “Jackie’s” fabulist allegations, many of which were so absurd (sexual assault on a pile of broken glass, to think of just one) that it was nothing short of malpractice to publish them without first securing independent confirmation.
For CNN contributor Sunny Hostin, what is really important in this case is the Greater Cosmic Truth that exists independent of objective truth. She found it next to impossible to abandon the preconception to which she declared unflinching fealty all those months ago.
Hostin began her apologia for Erdely’s sources by observing accurately that sexual assault victims can refuse to cooperate with police investigators for a number of reasons. “They can’t deal with the probing that occurs,” she said. “They don’t want to submit to a rape kit. They’re embarrassed. They know that they will be scrutinized, quite frankly.”
“That in and of itself doesn’t make this young woman a liar,” Hostin added. Again, she’s not wrong from a 30,000 foot perspective, but we’re not talking about an abstract figure that represents all rape victims. This was a real person whose claims were subject to intense scrutiny by national news organizations, countless journalists, and a forensic police investigation. All of them came up with precisely nothing to corroborate “Jackie’s” claims. Hostin is hiding behind a theoretical rape victim to avoid confronting the fact that this real person abused the trust of the nation. Too many have become terrified of litigating the facts of any rape allegation precisely for fear of being accused of shaming the alleged victim by reactionaries like Hostin.
Apparently free from guilt, the CNN contributor went on to clarify that she is emotionally invested in the narrative involving “Jackie’s” sexual assault. “If you look at the FBI statistics, only about 2 percent of rapes that are reported are false,” Hostin said of the admittedly “squishy” police statistics on rape. “So, the suggestion that she just sort of made this entire thing up flies in the face of the statistics. Women generally do not falsely report rape.”
CNN reporter Sara Ganim agreed with one of Hostin’s conclusions centered on her fear that “Jackie’s” experience might lead other victims of sexual assault to stay quiet about their experiences. When too many women who are victims of sexual assault already refuse to come forward, her concerns are valid and should be shared by everyone. But if “Jackie’s” story makes some alleged assault victims refuse to come forward, who is to blame? The university that stripped fraternities of the right to operate on campus in the wake of this story, only to backtrack when the tale was proven inaccurate? The police, who diligently investigated this assault and found no evidence to back up Rolling Stone’s claims? The reporters and editors who shed their journalistic instincts and reported on this erroneous tale? Or the subject of this supposed assault that caused a lot of undue pain and hardship for some unknown gain?
The only victims in this story were the men who were falsely accused of assault and had their lives turned upside down over nothing. To refuse to acknowledge that “Jackie” caused a lot of people undue trauma is the only thing that remotely constitutes “victim blaming” here.
For most people, the response to today’s press conference by Charlottesville police is to react with sadness over the plight of those young men who had their names besmirched. They endured quite a bit of unnecessary suffering for the sake of a dubious victimization narrative favored by some grossly irresponsible voices in the media. The UVA rape fable reflects poorly on many in the press, and it would be wise of these and other commentators to bury their pride, acknowledge the mistakes, and stop the bleeding.