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Sabrina's fable

In the <em>Rolling Stone</em>’s tall tale we witness both the stronghold and weak state of the liberal establishment

Sabrina's fable

(Handout)

A lot has been said about the lessons for journalists in the Rolling Stone magazine story of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia we now know is false. I, for one journalist, am listening. When reporters go looking for stories to confirm their biases, they might be onto something, but they must proceed with caution and accountability.

But when editors can get away with allowing a story like “A Rape on Campus”—a graphic, violent tale of an 18-year-old female student gang-raped by seven men at the University of Virginia—to spin its lies for months and months without retraction, there’s more than journalistic ethics at stake.

In April an investigative team from the Columbia School of Journalism concluded, “The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting” in the account by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. They called it “a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable.” By then Charlottesville police also had determined there’s “no substantive basis” to the Rolling Stone account. But by then the story had more than 2.7 million online views, the campus had dissolved in protests, and the school president had suspended all fraternities and sororities. 

Sticking to a narrative even when your facts fall apart takes hubris.

Rolling Stone editors knew within days of publishing the Nov. 19, 2014, story that it was questionable. On Dec. 5 managing editor Will Dana admitted to “discrepancies,” as the Washington Post and others provided damning evidence.

Yet Rolling Stone not only continued to carry the story online, but published follow-ons about “confronting campus rape” and how its revelations “jolted” the UVA campus. Even after the Columbia team reported its findings, the magazine editors blamed the alleged rape victim for lying, and Sabrina Rubin Erdely issued a formal apology—to victims of sexual assault, not those she smeared.

Sticking to a narrative even when your facts fall apart takes hubris, and in this case coincides with the noise over Indiana’s religious freedom law, and the willingness of the now-widening pro-gay lobby to infringe on First Amendment rights. The media’s ability to craft a distorted narrative—no matter who gets hurt—has lessons for all.

Lesson one: We live in a country that doesn’t say “I’m sorry.” We no longer uphold a walk of personal repentance, turning and going the other way when wrong; we value what’s imposed by an opponent at the bar, handed to us in a dollar amount. Give it a year or five, and Rolling Stone may be more sorry in a large sum handed over to Phi Kappa Psi—at a belabored cost to all involved.

Lesson two: Our culture prizes cool over meaningful; actually, cool over just about anything. Rolling Stone is cool. Protesting its thesis on campus rape or anything else might mean I’m, heaven forbid, Mike Pence or something. The value of having likers, followers, and regrammers surpasses nearly all others. For journalists, even Christian ones, it’s hard not to follow the herd.

Lesson three: The not-so-soft bigotry enfolding the once-liberal establishment is more about self-protection, and prone to self-destruct. Give it to liberals, they used to champion human rights and human dignity in important ways. At a time of genocide, sexual enslavement, and a refugee crisis overseas, they’re fixated on the right of a gay couple to bully a businessperson into performing a service for a wedding he or she is religiously opposed to—when that service is readily available elsewhere (see our cover story, "Losing their shirts," in this issue). This isn’t civil rights, it’s a send-up to the 2 percent of the population who identify LGBT, are mostly above-average in income, and are highly represented in media and academia.

Far from liberal, it’s close-minded, and not only about political differences but tone-deafness. How else could Frank Bruni, The New York Times’ cool gay columnist, on Good Friday feel free to lecture Christians on the bigotry of holding to their Scriptures (“Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana”), and no one on the editorial board thought that was a bad idea? On the day after 148 African Christians had been hunted and gunned down in Kenya?

Listening overmuch to your own crowd and your own wisdom is one way to get in trouble as a journalist. And that’s a reminder for us all.

Email mbelz@wng.org

Comments

  • William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:35 pm

    good article.

  • Uff Da's picture
    Uff Da
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:35 pm

    Rolling Stone is only interested in selling a trashy magazine, not truth.