Magazine editor Richard Bradley, who was taken in by one of Stephen Glass’s hoax stories as an editor at another magazine, doesn’t buy the blockbuster Rolling Stone story out of the University of Virginia. Why did he buy the salacious “facts” in the Glass story?:
The answer, I had to admit, was because they corroborated my pre-existing biases. I was well on the way to believing that Vernon Jordan was a philanderer, for example—everyone seemed to think so, back in the ’90s.
So Stephen wrote what he knew I was inclined to believe. And because I was inclined to believe it, I abandoned my critical judgment. I lowered my guard.
The lesson I learned: One must be most critical, in the best sense of that word, about what one is already inclined to believe. So when, say, the Duke lacrosse scandal erupted, I applied that lesson. The story was so sensational! Believing it required indulging one’s biases: A southern school…rich white preppy boys…a privileged sports team…lower class African-American women…rape. It read like a Tom Wolfe novel.
And of course it never happened.
The story of Jackie, the UVA gang rape victim, strikes him as like this. How come? Here:
The first thing that strikes me about it, of course, is that Jackie is never identified. I don’t love that—it makes me uncomfortable to base an entire story on an unnamed source, and I can’t think of any other situation other than rape where a publication would allow that—but certainly one can see the rationale.
Then we have three friends who talked to Jackie right after the rape, and apparently discouraged her from going to the hospital or the authorities because they might subsequently be banned from frat parties. Not one of them is named, or interviewed; so the three people who could allegedly corroborate the assault don’t.
Then there’s the fact that Jackie apparently knew two of her rapists, but they are not named, nor does Rubin Erdley contact them, which is basically a cardinal rule of journalism: If someone in your story is accused of something, you’d better do your damnedest to give them a chance to respond. There’s no sign that Rubin Erdley did so. Why not? Did she not know their names? Would Jackie not tell her? Because if Rubin Erdley knew their names and didn’t call them, that is horrible journalism and undermines confidence in her reporting. And if she didn’t know their names—well, we’re back in Patrick Witt-land again.
Finally there’s the narrative of the gang rape itself. It is a terrible story—so terrible that, if it weren’t for the power of our preexisting biases, we would be hard-pressed to believe it.
Read the whole thing. There’s a lot more, and as someone who believed the Rolling Stone story, which spoke to my pre-existing biases about fraternities (the legacy of my GDI days at LSU), it makes me very queasy. Plus, the story does quote several women by name talking about their experiences with rape at UVA, and the UVA administration behaves in the story like a bureaucracy with something to hide (which doesn’t mean that it actually does have anything to hide).
The WaPo‘s Paul Farhi did a piece the other day on Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the journalist who wrote the piece. It’s mostly admiring, but:
Some elements of the story, however, are apparently too delicate for Erdely to talk about now. She won’t say, for example, whether she knows the names of Jackie’s alleged attackers or whether in her reporting she approached “Drew,” the alleged ringleader, for comment. She is bound to silence about those details, she said, by an agreement with Jackie, who “is very fearful of these men, in particular Drew. . . . She now considers herself an empty shell. So when it comes down to identifying them, she has a very hard time with that.”
The story does take one journalistic shortcut. The alleged assault, described in graphic detail, is presented largely without traditional qualifiers, such as “according to Jackie” or “allegedly.” The absence of such attribution or qualification leaves the impression that the events in question are undisputed facts, rather than accusations. Erdely said, however, that her writing style makes it clear that the events are being told from Jackie’s point of view.
In any case, there have been no outright denials from any party about the alleged crime Erdely reported, a rarity given the relative specificity of the allegations and the enormous impact of the story. A general statement on the matter came from Phi Kappa Psi’s Virginia chapter, which pledged its cooperation with a police investigation but said: “We have no specific knowledge of the claims” contained in the article.
I have no reason to disbelieve Erdely, and I understand why she would choose not to disclose anyone’s identity. But she should be able to confirm that she knows who the attackers are, shouldn’t she? Again, we don’t have to know who they are, but we should know that she knows—or else the story is just one long uncorroborated accusation. And regardless of whether or not the story is told “from Jackie’s point of view,” it was written by Erdely, who treats its contents as fact.
However, some of the details do strike me as perplexing on subsequent re-reads. One issue now being raised by skeptics is the nature of her injuries, which sound as if they would have required immediate medical attention. (According to the story, everybody involved was basically rolling around in broken glass for hours.) If the frat brothers were absolute sociopaths to do this to Jackie, her friends were almost cartoonishly evil—casually dismissing her battered and bloodied state and urging her not to go to the hospital.
Tonight, Farhi published an update on the WaPo website confirming that neither the reporter or her editors ever talked to any of the men accused of gang-raping Jackie. This is a big, big problem, journalistically. You can say, “They declined to comment for this article,” but you have to make a good-faith effort to reach them. It seems clear now that Sabrina Rubin Erdely failed to do this Journalism 101 step — and this failure was evident in the article, for those with eyes to see (this blog’s reader Ryan Booth, for one, questioned the article early on). This doesn’t mean that the story is false, of course, but it does make it much harder to believe.
If this turns out to be a hoax, UVA will have suffered a devastating loss of reputation — and Rolling Stone will need to lawyer up. Meanwhile, a writer for the feminist blog Jezebel calls Bradley and Soave names for daring to question the story — this, even though both men qualify their criticism by saying quite clearly that the story might well have gone down exactly as RS reports, but the reporter took some real liberties with her writing that warrant skepticism. By the way, Judith Shulevitz at the New Republic is also sounding skeptical. Jezebel’s scribe forgot to call her a self-hating woman who ought to shut her face. I’m sure they’ll get around to it.
UPDATE: I was thinking just now, reading the comments, why I shooed away the ordinary skeptical questions that came to mind when I read the story. I’m predisposed against liking fraternities, but I have never believed them to be rape mobs (though I think a group of young men and lots of booze are capable of most anything). For me, it was a matter of this Rolling Stone piece playing into a narrative that has come to have enormous emotional resonance within me: a story about a system that, when faced with evidence that the strong within it are preying sexually upon the weak, chooses to ignore or otherwise dismiss the gravity of the crimes, for the sake of protecting its own image. It’s pretty obvious why I am primed to believe these claims: because this is exactly what happened, again and again and again, with the Catholic Church. And yet, the familiarity of this narrative does not mean that when it is alleged — within the Church or other institutions, like UVA — that it actually happened. Here I am griping at the Ferguson partisans for believing that Mike Brown has to be Darren Wilson’s sacrificial lamb, despite the evidence (because it fit their preferred narrative about How Cops Treat Black People), but I was prepared to believe Jackie’s story on the basis of little real evidence offered because it fit my preferred narrative of How Institutions Treat Victims Who Have Been Sexually Assaulted By The Powerful. Damn. It seems that it’s not possible to learn the confirmation bias lesson often enough.