The Spirit of Salem Lives On

I was in graduate school in southern California 30 years ago when the McMartin preschool sex abuse scandal erupted in the news media, featuring incredible tales of Satanic rituals, underground tunnels, group sex with animals and children, and various alleged acrobatic acts that would challenge Cirque du Soliel, all believed credulously by the media and California prosecutors. A six-year criminal trial ultimately concluded that the charges were all bogus—every single one of them. But it was the first of several entirely bogus episodes that saw the media credulously reporting wild charges, and prosecutors obtaining convictions of innocent people. (The Amirault case in Massachusetts, covered at length by Dorothy Rabinowitz at the Wall Street Journal, is another egregious example. See the Wikipedia entry for “child sex abuse hysteria” for a good rundown of the leading cases.)

Part of this farce included an army of “expert consultants” and other advocacy organizations drawn from the “caring professions,” and soon many organizations started receiving government and foundation grants to perpetuate this crisis.

It’s not there was never any child abuse occurring at schools or elsewhere, but there was something so literally incredible about many of these “Satanic ritual abuse child abuse cults” that serious doubts and questions should have been raised right at the outset.

Some hard questions are starting to be asked about the latest sequel to the Sallem witch trials—the college campus “rape culture” hysteria. It isn’t that women aren’t being preyed upon on college campuses (though what did people expect after the sexual revolution knocked down all conventions and restraints, and colleges decided it would no longer take seriously any duties of policing student character?). But we know that the “one-in-five women have been raped” statistic is bogus.

The recent Rolling Stone story about an especially brutal gang rape at the University if Virginia is provoking considerable backlash—with a few critics suggesting the entire story might be a hoax—and may represent a turning point in the current rush to implement star chamber proceedings on college campuses that trample due process rights. Richard Bradley, who as an editor at George magazine in the 1990s was taken in by some Stephen Glass’s fabrications, thinks the RS story has many of the same Glass-like alarm bells:

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 article alleges a truly horrifying gang rape at a UVA fraternity, and it has understandably shocked the campus and everyone who’s read it. . .

The only thing is…I’m not sure that I believe it. I’m not convinced that this gang rape actually happened. Something about this story doesn’t feel right.

There’s more at the link, but Bradley is joined in his deep skepticism by Judith Shulevitz at The New Republic, Paul Fahri of the Washington Post, and Ali Elkin and Megan McArdle at Bloomberg. The very best beat down may be Bret Stephens this morning in the Wall Street Journal:

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 whatwe’re inclined to believe is true.

The UVA story cries out for a much closer look.

I think it is going to get that closer look, and perhaps even end the journalism career of its writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, even if some elements of the story are true. At the very least, Rolling Stone is guilty of extremely shoddy journalism, and if the University of Virginia is serious about rape, they should demand a police investigation. Instead they’re just trying to eliminate fraternities.

It took years for the “Satanic child abuse crisis” to collapse, and several months for the Duke lacrosse scandal to turn around. What is interesting about the UVa story is how quickly it is facing credible challenge. Keep a close eye on this.

JOHN adds: From what I have seen, I would guess that the story is mostly or entirely false. Much of it is simply incredible, and reads like a parody. Now, do incredible things happen? Sadly, yes, at times. But the striking thing about the Rolling Stone article, written by an activist reporter, is that there is not a word of the rape story that an actual, identifiable human being stands behind. Every source, including the woman who ostensibly suffered the horrifying gang rape, is anonymous.

Experience tells us that it is easy to spin wild stories when there is no accountability–and, to be fair, it is equally easy to deny true allegations, anonymously. Unless and until someone is willing to attach his or her name to the tales spun by Rolling Stone, and subject himself or herself to appropriate questioning, I will assume that every word of the Rolling Stone story is a fabrication. Only at that point can we even begin talking about credibility.

If there really was a gang rape at the University of Virginia, the perpetrators should be executed; or, if capital punishment is no longer available, they should be sentenced to life without parole. The fact that no one seems interested in pursuing such criminal penalties suggests that no one with knowledge of the facts believes that the rape actually occurred.

There is more to be said about this story as it relates to journalism. Perhaps another time.

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