December 13, 2014


What progressives don't want to talk about in the Rolling Stone scandal (Freddie deBoer, December 12, 2014, The Week)

By creating the expectation that all rape accusations must be presumed true regardless of circumstance, anti-rape activists have tied the credibility of their efforts to every individual accusation, and in so doing perversely undermined our efforts to end sexual assault.

From both supporters of the original reporting and doubters alike, a central question has emerged: Why did Sabrina Erdely, the story's author, fail to interview any of the accused? This question was initially pressed by The Washington Post's Erik Wemple and Slate's Hanna Rosin and Allison Benedikt. It would seem to be a glaring and obvious omission; as much as her story concerned campus rape in general, its central, most powerful passage concerned the fraternity gang rape. A story of that prominence and emotional power was inevitably going to take on the lion's share of attention. So how could Erdely have failed to do proper diligence, especially with a story so certain to generate attention and controversy? More generally, why did Erdely not do more to vet Jackie's story, which could have potentially saved Erdely, Rolling Stone, and Jackie a great deal of embarrassment and trouble?

In fact, in the context of today's elite media culture, the failure makes sense. In progressive online circles, particularly Twitter, a powerful social norm has emerged: Decent people have a moral obligation to believe all rape accusations, and failure to do so amounts to anti-feminism or worse. Recently, the writer and lawyer Zerlina Maxwell advocated for exactly that at The Washington Post. Others, such as Jessica Valenti, have suggested the same. Spend any time in the progressive corners of the internet and you'll see the power of this norm.

Indeed, both Wemple's and Rosin and Benedikt's initial pieces questioning Erdely's reporting earned complaints of rape denial on Twitter. The social risks of being seen to express skepticism towards any given accusation of rape are now so powerful that many people avoid even the suggestion of doubt. Those who are willing to question individual accusations, like Cathy Young, are subject to repeated and vociferous criticism. In such an environment, it's no wonder Erdely felt little urge to interview the alleged assailants. To do so in our media culture was to invite risk and little reward.

But as the ensuing days have proved, there is considerable danger in applying this standard to journalism, and not merely for the accused. Ultimately, refusing to subject accusations of rape to rigorous review hurts accusers, by failing to build the strongest case on their behalf, and other victims, by producing ambient skepticism in the culture.

Posted by at December 13, 2014 8:24 AM

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