The Rolling Stone Fallout and What This Means for Rape Victims

I’ve been following the fall-out of the Rolling Stone article a Rape on Campus as well as their evolving preamble to the story, first expressing doubt, then seemingly dismissing Jackie’s account, now falling somewhere in-between with assertions that they have supporting evidence that Jackie was assaulted that night, but no idea of the details. I got a visit from some overly gleeful commenters that seemed to rejoice that the story is a hoax, and Jackie a liar, but it’s clear this situation is more complex. The story contained more than Jackie’s experience, and the focus of our original discussion on the article still is valid. That is, universities and colleges are using internal sexual assault boards to avoid Clery act reporting, and suppress the real numbers and problem of sexual assault on campus. This was largely based on my experience as an undergraduate (albeit over a decade ago) working on such panels and finding them disturbing on many levels. The Cavalier daily features an editorial from a friend of Jackies asking for support because her experience with her in her freshman year was consistent with Jackie’s story, she had an abrupt and negative change in her behavior and shared with her it was from a sexual assault. This is not a hoax, but the story of a hurt and confused girl who was done a disservice by Rolling Stone in their failure to independently confirm the details of her case.
What form should that confirmation have taken? I wrongly believed they had independently confirmed details of that night with Jackie’s friend. To WaPo’s credit, they did real reporting and tracked down those sources who should have provided the confirmation for Erderly’s story. Interestingly it is a mixture of confirmation that something happened to Jackie that night, but also that she had exaggerated in the retelling. My main objection in categorizing the early objections to the article as a smear was that it was largely based on an an armchair critique by Richard Bradley that it just sounded wrong. Granted, that should be the basis for investigation, but not dismissal of the claims. Liz Seccuro, a rape victim while at UVA whose rapist is now in prison was similarly upset by his position that the details were too shocking, and therefore unlikely. Her words a powerful response to his article:

Unlike most people who read the article, I was not shocked by it; I was gang-raped at Phi Kappa Psi at UVA in 1984. My story was a small part of the article, for which I spent hours speaking with Erdely from July through November. I was encouraged that my story — a very public one in the last eight years — would be told again in order to give context to the eerily similar rape of Jackie, the student victim in Erdely’s story.

Over 30 years ago, I told my own story to then student journalist Gayle Wald, who wrote extensively of my rape in the now defunct UVA newspaper, the University Journal. I asked that she use a pseudonym (Kate) for me, and, like Jackie, I begged her not to interview the one man I knew had raped me, as I feared repercussions. There were two other attackers whose names I did not know. When I went to the dean of students at that time, Robert Canevari, I was covered in bruises, still bloodied, and had broken bones. He sat at his big desk across from me and suggested I was a liar and had mental problems for reporting my rape. Some of my new friends told me not to tell, that no one would believe me, that I would ruin my own reputation and that of “Mr. Jefferson’s University.”

Former George journalist Richard Bradley fired the first shot at the Rolling Stone story. “I’m not sure that this gang rape actually happened,” he wrote in a blog post, using brilliant plagiarist Stephen Glass (whom he edited, and who duped him) as a comparison base for the idea that astounding and uncomfortable stories must be fabricated. Though Bradley’s rant was on his personal blog, doubts have now burbled up at established outlets. Jonah Goldberg shares his opinion in an incredibly dismissive piece at the Los Angeles Times — “Much of what is alleged (though Erdely never uses the word ‘alleged’) isn’t suitable for a family paper,” he writes, as if the brutality of an assault could possibly be a measure of its veracity. (His colleague Meghan Daum was more reasonable.) Slate’s Alison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin, posted a thoughtful piece and podcast that asks the journalistic questions without doubting that brutal gang rapes happen.

And that’s what’s missing in all of this: the distinction between discussing journalism ethics and dismantling an important discussion because the subject matter seems extremely distressing. Wholesale doubt or dismissal of a rape account because it sounds “too bad to be true” is ridiculous. Is it easier to believe a rape by a single stranger upon a woman in a dark alley? What about marital rape? What if a prostitute is raped? Just how bad was it? We should not have a rape continuum as part of the dialogue, ever.

So, yes, gang rape happens, it happens today on college campuses, just look at Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilts recent experiences, or mass druggings of girls at a frat party. Just because her allegations were shocking was not a good reason to disbelieve them. Just ask Liz Seccuro. Her experience was too similar to just dismiss such allegations based on gut-feelings, and have been confirmed subsequently by an admission by one of her attackers and a criminal conviction. I still believe that this was wrong, and my original complaint that, “Not on any independent investigation, sourcing or facts, they’re smearing this victim.” I still think that’s shoddy reporting and that statement came before I had the Washington Post’s real reporting which came later. What the Washington Post performed was actual journalism, and they successfully demonstrated that yes, there were real problems with Jackie’s facts in this story. However, it’s wrong to say that her story is a “hoax” as the same reporting suggests she was found distraught that night, claimed that she had been assaulted (although with notably different details – no visible injury, claims of being forced to perform oral sex etc.), but more likely her story has been exaggerated in the retelling rather than completely fabricated as many have gleefully crowed in the comments of this and other blogs. Sorry MRAs, her story can’t be dismissed as a hoax, and before we had the data that the Post had, it was unfair to dismiss this story simply because it didn’t conform to what one thinks such stories should sound like. Bradley was right in this instance, but only because he got lucky, he would have been really off if he had been in charge of Liz Seccuro’s story.
My second critique was that in cases such as this there is no benefit of seeking “balance” by interviewing the alleged rapists, and this is a source of legitimate debate among journalists and survivors like Seccuro who believe it will further make coming forward more difficult for fear of retribution. I don’t know what is the right answer or that there is a uniform protocol for every case. In the current incarnation of the Rolling Stone header they say:

We published the article with the firm belief that it was accurate. Given all of these reports, however, we have come to the conclusion that we were mistaken in honoring Jackie’s request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.

I’m torn, certainly in this case it did not serve the victim that they did not seek this confirmation, but it’s also clear they failed on multiple fronts in confirming the story, including the date of the event which does not appear consistent with a social event hosted at the fraternity Jackie alleges was the location of the rape. I think this should still be left to the victim but journalists in the future should then take extra care to independently corroborate the details of the event, a failure in this instance. A generalization that there should be one way to perform this kind of reporting seems crude, and a poor fit for reporting on such a difficult and sensitive topic for survivors. I think if RS had done a better job confirming the story this would not have been a problem, but only in the face of the holes in Jackie’s particular story does it seem so glaring. There is no doubt that in future reporting the pendulum will swing towards required interviews with the alleged attackers, this strikes me as a disservice as there is more than one way to skin this cat.
So what have we learned? What can be done better in the future? The consensus seems to be that Rolling Stone screwed up and it isn’t Jackie’s fault. The evidence seems to be that Jackie was sexually-assaulted, but in the time since she has expanded her story in the retelling. This is not her fault, this is a very human failing, memory is fluid, and her experience traumatic. Many (including Bradley)have pointed out we will likely never figure out the “truth” now at this late date, but dismissing her story as a “hoax” is also likely a disservice to the truth.
I believe, as in my original “never event” article is that the problem rape on campus is one of inadequate data. Slate has an interesting summary of the research although I strongly disagree with their repetition of the MRA nonsense that “forced kissing” is somehow not sexual assault. Minimizing acts of sexual assault that fall short of penetration is ridiculous. Non-consensual kissing, groping, fondling, grabbing etc., is assault, and it’s sexual. That aspect of the RS article actually still stands. Colleges and universities should not be internally adjudicating violent crimes in kangaroo courts, it’s a disservice to victims and the accused. It hides the data on rape, while abusing the due process civil rights of those accused of crimes. They just have no damn business getting involved in judging any serious criminal infractions.
And there may be some good that comes of this in the form of a new bipartisan bill which may prevent colleges from hiding the data.

On Wednesday morning, eight senators announced the bill, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, said the legislation would impose significant financial penalties on colleges for noncompliance with new federal mandates to release data about sexual violence on campus.
Every college would be required to participate in the survey and publish results online, and the penalty for colleges that don’t report sexual assault crimes, as required by the Clery Act, would increase to $150,000 from $35,000 per violation.

Colleges would be required to supply confidential advisers to victims and train counselors. Athletic departments would not be allowed to handle sexual assault complaints. Colleges would need to coordinate a uniform plan with local law enforcement agencies. And the bill would provide federal funding to create and distribute an inexpensive, anonymous annual survey that asks all undergraduate students about experiences with sexual violence. Parents and students would be able to see the data, which may influence their decisions when applying to college.
“Right now schools have reason to repress reporting and be focused on public image rather than being focused on the problem, because there is no real penalty for not accurately reporting and there is no standardized survey,” said Nancy Cantalupo, a research fellow with the Victim Rights Law Center and a researcher at the Georgetown University Law Center, who acted as an informal consultant during some stages of the bill’s creation.
Ms. Dauber says transparency is the single most important change that Congress could bring about. “Absent transparency, we don’t know what problem we are trying to solve and we have no idea how to solve it,” she said. “We are just fumbling around in the dark. When you want to change, you take an honest inventory of your situation.”

Damn right. So hopefully there is a silver-lining in this ordeal.

Excellent GMO debate hosted at Intelligence Squared – a summary

The GMO debate hosted by Intelligent Squared was excellent and informative. I admit I learned things from listening and that’s always a bonus, but it’s worth watching to see the “respectable” arguments against GMO posed and dealt with very effectively by the pro-side in this debate. Spoiler alert, the pro-GMO side spanked the anti-GMO, going from 30% pre-debate in support of GMO (~30% against and 38% undecided) to 60% in support of GMO post-debate with anti-GMO only climbing 1% to 31. While voting on points of science and data is largely irrelevant, science is not democratic, it is reassuring to see that when the arguments are laid out it’s clear which side convincingly has science on its side. It also suggests that maybe the audience didn’t enter as polarized as one might expect.  And Bill Nye (who is a bit foolish on this issue) makes a cameo in the audience, and asks the first question.  I wonder if he was one of the 60%?  He’s being cagey about it on his twitter account.

It’s a bit long so I can summarize the dominant points. From the pro-side led by Robert Fraley
Executive VP & Chief Technology Officer, Monsanto and Alison Van Eenennaam Genomics and Biotechnology Researcher, UC Davis:
1.  This is a promising technology, still early in its potential, which has the benefit of solving problems with food-security such as plant disease, pests, and need for fertilizers, and may have future productivity and environmental benefit  by allowing greater yields from existing farmland.  Some of these benefits have already been realized like the rescue of the papaya.
2. It has direct benefits for the environment by encouraging no-till farming and decreased pesticide use (roundup-ready and bt products).
3. It is not necessary to see the issue as one of GMO vs conventional breeding as the technology is used in addition to conventional techniques
4. Resistance is a problem with all technologies, including conventional pesticides and herbicides, that’s not a good reason not to pursue a technology as you wouldn’t use that as an excuse to stop investigating new antibiotics.  Evolution happens.
5.  There is a broad scientific consensus that the technology is safe including organizations such as NAS, AAS and the Royal Academy as well as numerous other international scientific bodies.  Extensive research on safety and experience since implementation in 1997 do not suggest any harm despite consumption by billions – this was acknowledged by the anti-side as well.
6. There is not a believable hypothesis or theory that can describe how the technology will cause a specific harm to human or animal health and that has been borne out by studies so far.
From the anti-side led by Charles Benbrook Research Professor, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources and Margaret Mellon Science Policy Consultant & Fmr. Senior Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists:
1. The technology has not lived up to the hype, lots of promising technology is “in the pipeline” but we’ve only seen a handful of beneficial products and no game-changers for agriculture.
2. The early promise of the technology is the basis for much of the pro-GMO arguments, as time has gone on resistance of weeds and pests has limited the economic and yield benefits.
3. The technology results in resistant weeds and bugs, and increased spraying of herbicides which may impact human health (although they agree they have no data to back this up)
4. Pursuing GMO distracts from better conventional breeding strategies to deal with problems such as drought, and disease.
5. There may be harms from the technology that may not become evident over the time scales we have observed so far.
6. We have seen ecological harm in some animal populations such as the monarch butterfly, and bees.
7. Safety profiles haven’t taken into account the rapid roll-out of new technologies as the products are progressively altered with each generation and “stacked”.  And the safety studies have not been as thorough as critics have suggested they should be.
There is a lot of back-and-forth on all of these points, and the pro-side does a good job frankly dismantling each of them.
Overall I agree with the audience, the anti-side does not provide a compelling argument not to pursue the technology, nor do they provide a mechanism for a realistic theoretical harm, other than some vague idea that over huge timescales maybe something will come up.  In particular the argument from Charles Benbrook that we should only pay attention to products on the market so far, and ignore the potential future applications I found galling and just pure Luddism.  This is still a relatively new technology as applied to agriculture, although in medicine, as the pro-side points out, we have fully incorporated GM treatments in the form of insulin and other biologics which have revolutionized many fields of medicine and will likely revolutionize many more including cancer, heart disease (the new anti-cholesterol drugs being investigated are GE-biologics), etc.  Multiple times they push a false equivalence that somehow GM takes away from conventional techniques, which is hotly, and effectively countered by the pro-side who both point out that a majority of their research still is based on conventional techniques.  Finally the suggestion of harm to the monarch butterfly is a side-effect of the herbicide resistant crops being more effective (less milkweed = less food for monarchs) and the suggested link to bee die-offs is completely specious.  I am left somewhat confused, as always, over the debate about whether GM has truly resulted in a decreased use of chemical pesticides, according to the anti-side, the good data on those benefits are from early in the application of the technology, and the benefit has decreased or reversed over time.  They do not present data, or evidence from peer-reviewed literature on this claim, however, saying “if you talk to farmers”.  Thus I credit this as low level evidence for their side.  Consistently the pro-side discusses results from the peer-reviewed literature, the anti-side is really presenting a “god of the gaps” argument and argument from uncertainty.
What do you guys think?

NYT Helps in Typical Rape-victim Smearing

We should have predicted this when we discussed the UVa Rape story in Rolling Stone last week, it was just a matter of time before people would start suggesting the central figure in the story, Jackie, might be fabricating. I would be surprised if this response did not occur, because sadly it is so typical. What I’m surprised by is that the New York Times, is credulously repeating this smear led by Richard Bradley, and Jonah Goldberg of all people.

Still, some journalists have raised questions about the story. Richard Bradley, who as an editor at George magazine was duped by the former New Republic writer and fabulist Stephen Glass, said in an essay that he had since learned to be skeptical of articles that confirm existing public narratives. “This story contains a lot of apocryphal tropes,” he wrote. Others, including Jonah Goldberg, a Los Angeles Times columnist, compared the case to rape accusations in 2006 against three lacrosse players at Duke University who were subsequently cleared and speculated that the Virginia story might be a hoax.

First, I’ll give you Richard Bradley might be legitimate, but his argument is completely speculative. He says it merely sounds odd to him. Hardly newsworthy. But then Jonah Goldberg? Author of “Liberal Fascism”? Who gives a damn what he thinks about anything? On the basis of basically one credible reporter’s feeling, they feel this deserves an article suggesting Jackie was not a credible source. Not on any independent investigation, sourcing or facts, they’re smearing this victim. And their argument about Rolling Stone’s reporting being adequate is highly debatable.

The subject of the article, who was identified by only her first name, had requested that her assailants not be contacted, and Rolling Stone decided that her situation was too delicate to risk going against her wishes, according to people familiar with the reporting process who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
News media critics questioned the article’s reliance on a single source. “For the sake of Rolling Stone’s reputation,” said Erik Wemple, The Washington Post’s media critic, “Sabrina Rubin Erdely had better be the country’s greatest judge of character.”

So, the story should be rejected because they didn’t contact the rapist for his take on the story? Let’s predict how that would go. The guy would either say, “no comment”, “it never happened”, “I don’t know what you’re talking about”, or “talk to my lawyer.” If he was stupid he would admit some culpability or suggest it was consensual, thereby giving a future prosecutor an edge in establishing the fact of the crime. There, I filled in the blanks. Do they really think that would add anything to this story, or result in it not being reported? This is total nonsense.
Worse, it ignores the focus of the story, which isn’t about the facts of the victims allegations but in how my Alma Mater handles such allegations which is clearly sourced from discussions with several school administrators including the president Teresa Sullivan.
Can we call this anything but typical victim smearing? How dare the New York Times thoughtlessly promote this unethical critique of Rolling Stones reporting and this rape victim. This isn’t based on independent investigation, sourcing or facts, but on the feeling of one reporter, the reliable victim-bashing of a right-wing ideologue, and a misplaced argument about the value of obtaining “balance” by talking to an alleged rapist who (if he was smart) would undoubtedly be completely unhelpful or silent.
The point of Rolling Stone’s article was not to investigate a gang rape, but to expose how this University (and other universities as we discussed) similarly use internal rape boards to sweep crimes like these under the rug and avoid Clery Act reporting. NYT does a disservice to this victim, and other victims, by smearing Rolling Stone and Jackie in this fashion, without any real independent investigation or reporting. Maybe it’s time we write a letter to their ombudsman. I suggest you join me. Write to their public editor Margaret Sullivan at
Also in today’s New York Times, another Cosby victim has come forward alleging sexual molestation when she was a minor. It strikes me as ironic, that this type of casual smearing of victims is the exact problem that allows serial rapists to thrive. Until we support victims, and stop reflexively accusing them of making rape allegations up, men who rape will have no problem moving from victim to victim without fear of justice.