UVA, Ferguson and Media Failure

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by Bret Stephens,

from The Wall Street Journal,

Narratives and allegations are not facts, despite what the media would have us believe.

In March 2007 the New York Times Magazine ran a stunning 12,000-word cover story on the subject of “The Women’s War.” It told the story of several female veterans of the war in Iraq, of the sexual assault some had endured in the military, and of their subsequent struggles with alcoholism, depression, PTSD and other effects of combat.

Among the most compelling characters in the piece was a woman named Amorita Randall, who claimed she had barely survived an IED attack on her Humvee and that she had been raped twice in her six years of Navy service. She claimed to have reported the second incident to her commanders only to be told “not to make such a big deal about it.”

The details are gruesome: “I remember there were other guys in the room too,” Ms. Randall told the Times. “Somebody told me they took pictures and put them on the Internet.” Ms. Randall, added reporter Sara Corbett, “says she has blocked out most of the details of the second rape—something else experts say is a common self-protective measure taken by the brain in response to violent trauma—and that she left Iraq ‘in a daze.’ ”

Only one problem: “Ms. Randall did not serve in Iraq, but may have become convinced she did,” as the Times later acknowledged in an Editors’ Note. Instead, her overseas service was spent in Guam, 6,200 miles away from the combat zone. The Navy, the Times added, “had no record of a sexual-assault report involving Ms. Randall.”

I was reminded of Ms. Corbett’s article while reading another blockbuster piece, this one in Rolling Stone by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. Ms. Erdely tells the story of an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, identified only as “Jackie,” who claims to have been gang-raped by seven young men at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity over the course of three hours. The account is graphic and stomach-turning. No less disturbing is the article’s description of UVA as a campus saturated with institutional misogyny and governed by a de facto law of omerta when it comes to sexual assault.

The article has stirred a national outcry. The university has shut down Greek life through January. Congressional Democrats are calling for hearings. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is using the UVA case as an opportunity to push a campus sex-crime bill.

All of this may do a great deal of good. With apologies to Bluto, there’s not a lot to be said in favor of Greek life, much less of the toxic blend of partying, drinking and hooking up. Nor is there much doubt that rape is a serious problem on college campuses, all the more so because an astonishing number of young men do not seem to understand that coerced sex is rape.

But using the Rolling Stone story as an opportunity to promote a worthy cause should not acquit the media from looking closely at the details of the story itself. And here there are some serious reasons to exercise caution.

The most intelligent dissection of the article comes from a Nov. 24 blog post from Richard Bradley, the editor in chief of Worth magazine. Mr. Bradley picks up on some of the journalistic malpractice in the story, including the failure to get any statement (or “no comment”) from the accused rapists. He also notes lurid details that are also simply improbable, such as the suggestion that the victim was raped over shards of glass. (Wouldn’t that have wounded the rapists also?)

Which isn’t to say that the rape did not happen, even if it may not have happened precisely in the way described in the piece. But it ought to raise a skeptical eyebrow. Mr. Bradley’s sharpest observation is that the journalistic fabrications that most often make it into print are those that “play into existing biases.” In the UVA case, he notes, those include biases against fraternities, men and the South—exactly the kinds of biases that led to the fabricated rape charges against the Duke lacrosse players in 2006.

Much the same could be said about other recent media sensations, Ferguson most of all. The killing of Michael Brown was many things, but for the media it was largely an opportunity to confirm an existing narrative, this one about trigger-happy cops, institutionalized racial disparities and the fate of young black men caught in between.

That narrative, also conforming to pre-existing biases, overwhelmed what ought to have been the only question worth answering: Was Darren Wilson justified in shooting Brown? If the media had stuck to answering that, the damage inflicted on the rest of Ferguson—not to mention all the squalid racial hucksterism that went with it—could have been avoided.

It isn’t surprising that a generation of journalists schooled in the idea that “narrative” contains truth independent of fact are so easily taken in by stories that ultimately prove less than accurate, if not utterly untrue. Nor is it surprising that American distrust in the news media is near an all-time high. Bad journalism is bad for journalism, and good journalists have a responsibility and an interest in calling out sensationalist stories whose details ring false even as they play to what we’re inclined to believe is true.

The UVA story cries out for a much closer look.

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