Rolling Stone’s Rape Hoax: Why Did It Happen?

After its story on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia fell apart, Rolling Stone magazine commissioned the Columbia School of Journalism to investigate the incident and write a report about what went wrong. That report, by Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz, was issued today. More or less simultaneously, the author of the Rolling Stone piece, Sabrina Erdely, released an apology.

While it does go behind the curtain at Rolling Stone, the Columbia report doesn’t tell us a lot that we didn’t already know. The reporter’s and editor’s principal failings were already a matter of record. Rolling Stone’s story was based on the account of a single witness, “Jackie,” years after the fact. “Jackie” blamed her purported rape on a person who, it turned out, did not exist. And the reporter never tried to track down the three friends who, according to “Jackie,” saw her shortly after the alleged gang rape. If the reporter had talked to those students, she would have found that they told a story completely different from “Jackie’s.” She also could have learned from them that “Haven Monahan,” the villain of “Jackie’s” story, was a figment of “Jackie’s” troubled imagination.

The Columbia report takes us behind the scenes at Rolling Stone and adds new details about how the false story made its way into print. But it says little about why the scandal, one of the worst instances of journalistic malpractice on record, happened. The closest it comes is this paragraph:

The problem of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here. Erdely believed the university was obstructing justice. She felt she had been blocked. Like many other universities, UVA had a flawed record of managing sexual assault cases. Jackie’s experience seemed to confirm this larger pattern.

Of course: Sabrina Erdely and her editor, Sean Woods, believed “Jackie,” even though there were obvious indications of unreliability, because she was telling them what they wanted to hear, something that was consistent with a “larger pattern.” One might think that the nightmare the principals at Rolling Stone have lived through might generate some self-knowledge. But no. Their biases are intact.

The Managing Editor of Rolling Stone, Will Dana, introduced the Columbia report with his own mea culpa, which concludes with these words:

Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.

I don’t know whether sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses or not. FBI statistics indicate that women aged 18-22 who are not college students are significantly more likely to be raped, or otherwise sexually assaulted, than those who are college students, as one would expect. It occurs to me that if you are a rapist, women aged 18 to 22 are probably a prime target group. But it is an article of faith within the establishment, of which Rolling Stone is emphatically a part, that campus rape is an epidemic. That’s why they wanted to publish the article, and that’s why they weren’t too particular about whether it was true.

The authors of the Columbia Journalism School report share Rolling Stone’s assumptions. Thus, they endorse the perspective of Ederly’s article:

Erdely’s choice of the University of Virginia as a case study was well timed. The week she visited campus, an 18-year-old UVA sophomore went missing and was later found to have been abducted and killed.

But not by another student, and not on campus. Jesse Matthew, when he abducted Hannah Graham on a Charlottesville street, presumably didn’t know or care whether Graham was a student.

Sabrina Erdely’s apology is also revealing:

[I]n the case of Jackie and her account of her traumatic rape, I did not go far enough to verify her story. I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts.

It never occurred to Ms. Erdely to wonder whether “Jackie” had been traumatized in the first place. And why does a reporter have confidence in the credibility of some sources, but not others? In this case, it seems obvious that Erdely found “Jackie” credible, even though her story was outlandish on its face, because “Jackie” was saying what Erdely wanted to hear.

This part is still more significant:

I want to offer my deepest apologies: to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the U.V.A. community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.

Notably missing from Erdely’s apology, at least by any specific reference, are the people she actually hurt: members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, whom Erdely accused of casually (and, one might infer, habitually) encouraging the gang rape of young women who wander into their parties, and the administrators at U. Va. whom Erdely accused of self-interested callousness toward rape victims. Ms. Erdely seems to believe that her story was really “true”–men who belong to fraternities are animals, and university administrators are corrupt buffoons–and she only chose the wrong vehicle to express these verities.

So don’t be surprised next time Rolling Stone, or any other liberal publication, gets a story wrong. These journalists’ biases are set in stone. We and many others have revealed them countless times, and liberal bias has led to countless errors and embarrassments. But such setbacks don’t faze the social justice warriors who went into journalism to further the left-wing narrative. They are mere temporary checks. It is notable that no one at Rolling Stone will be fired or even disciplined as a result of the “Jackie” fiasco. From the establishment’s perspective, they may have erred–published an entirely fabricated story, in fact–but their hearts were in the right place.

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