RICHARD BRADLEY — WHO FIRST SMELLED A RAT IN THAT ROLLING STONE STORY — HAS A POST-MORTEM: In the End, It’s All About Rape Culture—or the Lack Thereof.
Again, in the spirt of full disclosure, there is one thing that bugs me about the reference to me in the report, the acknowledgment of my “early if speculative” blog posting calling Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article into question. I’ve encountered this theme—that I was “speculating”—repeatedly since I wrote my blog, and it frustrates me. By framing what I wrote as speculation, a number of mainstream publications, such as the Times and the New Yorker, feel free to ignore my blog when detailing how Erdely’s story was dismantled by press critics.
The supposition that I was “speculating” misses the larger point of what I wrote;the foundation of my argument was not “a hunch,” but basic professionalism. Any decent editor who is honest with him or herself would tell you the same: Even if Jackie’s story turned out to be true, it still shouldn’t have been published as it was reported and written. Will Dana should have sent it back to the editor and writer with a note saying: “You don’t have this story. Go back and do your jobs.” It was not “speculative” to say that the story should not have been published without further reporting; it was Journalism 101, the kind of thing that they teach (I assume) in the first couple weeks at Columbia Journalism School. And I didn’t have to have access to all the fact-checker’s notes and interview transcripts to know that; any reader with some small degree of journalism experience could know that—and, frankly, should have.
My suspicion that Jackie’s story was not true was based on the idea that if it were, Rolling Stone would have shown us the reporting to back it up. Since Rolling Stone did not, one had to conclude that the evidence to support Jackie did not exist.
That’s not speculation, that’s observation. Plus:
With a story this sensitive, good libel lawyers—and I assume Rolling Stone has very good lawyers—are, or should be, very much in the mix. On sensitive stories, they become something akin to editors with a law degree. You simply could not publish such an accusatory article without having it very heavily lawyered; there is, or ought to be, a lot of discussion between the editor-in-chief and the magazine’s libel lawyer(s). That Rolling Stone won’t disclose their lawyers’ advice suggests that the magazine did not take it, or did the least amount possible to satisfy legal concerns. After all, if the lawyers argued that the magazine had done excellent work and was on safe ground publishing the story, disclosing that information would likely have discouraged any potential lawsuits—like the one Phi Psi is now pursuing against the magazine.
In other words: It’s highly likely that Rolling Stone had a prepublication warning that this story had significant problems—and published the story anyway. Because they knew it was a sexy story, and they were willing to take the risk.
Oops. That’s “reckless disregard.” Plus, sheer bigotry:
Sabrin Rubin Erdely started with a thesis and went in search of someone—and some place—that fit her thesis. She found Jackie and the University of Virginia. But, she admits, if she had discovered that Jackie was a liar, it wouldn’t have caused her to question her thesis. (To which the only response is, if that doesn’t cause you to question your thesis, what would?) Instead, she’d just go find another person who would better conform to what she already wanted to write.
And if that person proved to be a fraud as well, she’d find another…and another…
I am not a lawyer, so I don’t know if Phi Psi has a strong case against Erdely and Rolling Stone. But if the famed “actual malice” test—you are intending to defame someone—is relevant, it seems to me that Erdely has just given the fraternity some explicit evidence of such malice. Even if her “victim” was a liar, Erdely has no doubt: Frat boys are rapists.
19th Century lynch mobs were equally certain about black men. Also:
I have seen a lot of published fretting—not just in Erdely’s statement—about whether this fiasco will discourage victims of rape from going public. This sentiment, which I have seen far more of than I have seen empathy for the people Erdely falsely accused of rape, strikes me as odd. A horrific story of rape, which, following its publication in a national magazine, had an enormous impact, is discovered to be a fraud. And the response is: Well, we should all worry about the potential impact on rape victims’ ability to come forward to speak the truth.
I have a different take: Let’s agree that if you don’t lie and claim that you were gang-raped as part of a fraternity initation ritual, you’ll be treated with respect. And if people treat you disrespectfully based simply on past frauds, then shame on them.
But in the meantime, let’s remember that the only known victims of this story are members of the Phi Psi fraternity, fraternity members in general and the University of Virginia. These individuals and institutions suffered in tangible ways; you might even say that some of the fraternity members were “traumatized.” The argument that the people we should worry about first are rape victims could actually—if I may borrow a phrase from Sabrina Rubin Erdely—re-traumatize them.
But they don’t count because in Erdely’s world they’re the Evil Other. Like black men in the 19th century South.
And, finally: “Sabrina Rubin Erdely is not just a horrible reporter, she is a deeply dishonest one. According to the Coll report, two sources in the story publicly claimed that they did not say that Erdely attributes to them.”