Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Deconstructing Erdely, Rolling Stone, and Messianic-Culture-War-as-Journalism

The web is chock-a-block with analyses of the now infamous Erdely-RS-JackieRape Debacle. The fact that this has hit the big time is significant in the continuing culture war.  The Social Justice Warriors have demonstrated that no matter how seriously they lose, no matter how seriously their irrationality is revealed and broadcast to the world, they are still righteous, still correct thinkers, still saviors and messiahs in charge of salvation of their Victimhood Classes.
The following, by Charles C. W. Cooke at National Review, is excerpted from a good overview:

"The harshest charge that one can level against Erdely and her associates at Rolling Stone is that they knew full well that their story was full of holes, but that they considered their political objectives to be of greater value than were the facts in question. (When Sabrina Erdely proposes bizarrely in her “apology” that her job is to “weigh my compassion against my journalistic duty to find the truth,” she opens herself up to this charge.) The softest assessment, by contrast, is the one that was offered by Coll himself: namely, that the “main fault” of those involved with the deception was that they were “too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault.” 
Ostensibly, these options seem to be a world apart; in truth they are merely different sides of the same coin. Even if we suspend our disbelief and give Erdely an extremely generous benefit of the doubt – if we assume, that is, that she made all of her mistakes in a good-faith attempt to spare the feelings of her source – we will still come up against a considerable institutional problem: that being that whether or not they are setting out to deliberately mislead their audiences, journalists writing about claims of rape are operating under rules of engagement that have been set by zealots. Certainly, it is feasible that Erdely is a conscious fabulist, in the mold of her classmate at UPenn, Stephen Glass. It is possible, too, that she was genuinely taken in by Jackie, and that she intended only to do right by her. And yet, here’s the thing: It doesn’t especially matter which one is true. Ultimately, it is downright impossible to divorce Erdely’s conduct from the cultural pathologies that informed it. At UVA, at Rolling Stone, and within the media in general, the malleable specter of “rape culture” is prompting good people to behave like fools.
Over the last decade or so, we have witnessed the rise of a political movement that hopes to set the investigation and punishment of sexual assault outside of the limitations that are imposed by respect for due process, for rational inquiry, and for common intellectual decency. By and large, this movement is populated by people who despise the truth if it contradicts the narrative; who regard evidence and process as tools of oppression; who interpret skepticism and questioning as acts of hostility; and who, at least as it relates to “rape culture,” consider unthinking credulity as a virtue and not a vice. Think back, if you dare, to the first few weeks of the scandal – more specifically, to the point at which a handful of skeptics began to ask penetrating questions about Sabrina Erdely’s account — and ask yourself what happened to the dissenters. Were they thanked for their contributions, or were they screamed at, mercilessly? 
The answer, sadly, is the latter. In the Washington Post, Zerlina Maxwell argued that “we should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser [of rape] says,” for “the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist.” This view was seconded by the lawyer and journalist Rachel Sklar, who confirmed for posterity that she considers “women who speak of their own experiences” to be automatically “credible,” and anybody who asks questions to be a rape apologist. On Twitter, meanwhile, Slate’s Amanda Marcotte concluded that anybody who has questions about a given account must by definition be engaged in a dastardly attempt to demonstrate that no rape stories are ever true, while CNN’s Sally Kohn grew angry at Jonah Goldberg when he asked for more evidence. Perhaps the best example of the all-zetetics-are-heretics presumption came from the remarkably ungracious Anna Merlan, who rewarded Reason’s Robby Soave for his investigative work by throwing an epithet at him: “idiot.”
Now, none of this is to say that Sabrina Erdely is not responsible for her own mistakes. Clearly, had she and her colleagues followed the established rules of journalism, they would not be in this position. But it is worth noting that, by so steadfastly refusing to do her due diligence, Erdely was in fact behaving exactly as a good portion of the “social justice” Left believes is proper. Her initial instinct — to find and to trump up a story in order to illustrate a supposedly broad problem — was that of the frustrated activist who, irked that his favorite injustice is not getting the attention that he just knows that it deserves, takes it upon himself to invent or to overstate or to falsely peddle a dramatic tale that will garner the requisite amount of attention and change the world for the better. Her methodology — more specifically, her failure to properly investigate her primary source for fear of vexing her or of “discouraging” other victims — has been widely endorsed by a good number of feminist commentators. Even her apology — such as it was — followed a classic path: To wit, “I’m sorry for getting the details wrong, but I hope you won’t think this means it wasn’t true.” 
Taking up this lattermost point, the lawyer Scott Greenfield observed today that Erdely has “not only failed to apologize to those she wrongfully smeared in her story, but used it as a vehicle to further promote the very cause that blinded her from truth.” He is correct. Indeed, the most notable feature of this whole saga has been the “rape apology” crowd’s spectacular unwillingness to recognize that there were two potentially bad outcomes here, not just one. It would, of course, have been terrible if Jackie’s story were true but nobody believed her. But it would also have been awful if the charges were untrue and the alleged perpetrators had been unfairly maligned. That it never crossed the minds of the howling mob that their targets may in fact be innocent — and, indeed, that Sabrina Erdely cannot bring herself to apologize to those whose lives she has damaged — is perhaps the most worrying, and illiberal, thing of all."
[Emphasis added]

Intellectual integrity is the first to be jettisoned from the Social Justice "journalist's" procedural principles. It is a WAR, after all, and principled behaviors get in the way of fighting. But even before that, the objectives of the war - the targets - must be defined outside the bounds of rational thought, and with actual evidence fully ignored. For Messiahs, the war and its targets are defined ideologically first, and then given "immoral" attributions as necessary in order to justify the Messianic warfare and the mob rule.

They will not, cannot, ever apologize for being Messiahs, nor for any consequentialist tactics used in their Messianic wars. To do so would strip them of their very self-anointed identities. And being stripped before the world, with their morally vacant, intellectual emptiness revealed would destroy them, leaving them no self-identity at all. So it cannot be allowed to happen. Because morally vacant, intellectually empty is precisely the sum total of who they are.

From the Columbia Journalism Review:
"Erdely and her editors had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better. Instead, the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations. (Social scientists analyzing crime records report that the rate of false rape allegations is 2 to 8 percent.) At the University of Virginia, “It’s going to be more difficult now to engage some people … because they have a preconceived notion that women lie about sexual assault,” said Alex Pinkleton, a UVA student and rape survivor who was one of Erdely’s sources.

There has been other collateral damage. “It’s completely tarnished our reputation,” said Stephen Scipione, the chapter president of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity Jackie named as the site of her alleged assault. “It’s completely destroyed a semester of our lives, specifically mine. It’s put us in the worst position possible in our community here, in front of our peers and in the classroom.”

The university has also suffered. Rolling Stone’s account linked UVA’s fraternity culture to a horrendous crime and portrayed the administration as neglectful. Some UVA administrators whose actions in and around Jackie’s case were described in the story were depicted unflatteringly and, they say, falsely. Allen W. Groves, the University dean of students, and Nicole Eramo, an assistant dean of students, separately wrote to the authors of this report that the story’s account of their actions was inaccurate. [Footnote 3]

In retrospect, Dana, the managing editor, who has worked at Rolling Stone since 1996, said the story’s breakdown reflected both an “individual failure” and “procedural failure, an institutional failure. … Every single person at every level of this thing had opportunities to pull the strings a little harder, to question things a little more deeply, and that was not done.”

Yet the editors and Erdely have concluded that their main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault. Social scientists, psychologists and trauma specialists who support rape survivors have impressed upon journalists the need to respect the autonomy of victims, to avoid re-traumatizing them and to understand that rape survivors are as reliable in their testimony as other crime victims. These insights clearly influenced Erdely, Woods and Dana. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Woods said. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”

Erdely added: “If this story was going to be about Jackie, I can’t think of many things that we would have been able to do differently. … Maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate her but should have been about whether she would be in this story at all.” Erdely’s reporting led her to other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated her narrative, although none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie’s.

Yet the explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong. Erdely’s reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain. The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie’s position."

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