March 23, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

The damage done

By Molly Hannon
Published: 2014-12-09

Yes, girls could inspire age-old sexual chases in homage to some strong literary heroine they'd read about, but anyone who thought were primed to become a latter day Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Eyre was sorely mistaken. Independence and strong personal identity were myths.

Seven years later, I'm back in Charlottesville after years spent traveling, working and writing abroad — and putting distance between my adult life and my college years, which I look back with a mixture of affection and pain.

Reading Rolling Stone magazine's November report, "A Rape on Campus," the story of an alleged UVA fraternity gang rape as told through the eyes of a student named only "Jackie," only revived the more painful side.

If the story wasn't shocking enough — a graphic account of Jackie's 2012 frat house rape, involving seven men — the magazine's recent backtracking may have been worse. Less than two weeks after the article's publication, Rolling Stone announced doubts regarding the victim's version of events, and the reporter's methods — methods it explicitly condoned by commissioning, editing and ultimately publishing the piece. Rolling Stone essentially repudiated itself.

Now, Jackie's entire story, very possibly accurate (at least in part), is under siege, ruined by freewheeling reporting and lazy editing that inexcusably ignored all sorts of basic reporting premises. The Internet is predictably teeming with frat rage. "Don't go on Facebook if you can avoid it," a Virginia alum and frat friend told me. "There are a lot of bros going 'I told you so.'"

I bet there are.

Anti-rape protests have become more frequent on American college campuses.

Rolling Stone admitted that the author, contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely, never tracked down the frat boys Jackie had singled out, relying almost exclusively on the victim's vivid and detailed recollection. "The mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie," wrote editor Will Dana.

Around campus, revived "bros vs. hoes" rhetoric is now pushing attention away from sexual misconduct, frat ethic and police laxity. The spotlight is on the faulty story. There's no denying Rolling Stone did a poor job of vetting Erdely's melodramatic piece, which reads more like a blockbuster movie script than a detailed piece of investigative reporting (the words "chilling" and "harrowing" come up often).

Erdely has defended herself through non-defense, saying she won't divert "the conversation away from the point of the piece itself," namely rape and police laxity. Her would-be nobleness fails to acknowledge the extent to which her misstep stands to deepen the pervasive (if little spoken) view that all girls cry wolf. Fraternity life has medieval dimension on campus, with hysterical accusers painted as a town's witches, or, in these times, a town's "hoes."

That medieval torch is ablaze and it makes me crazy. I know two rape victims. One was gang raped (not at Virginia), triggering traumatic and debilitating mental illness. Her life is ruined.

But the Jackie damage is done. She is the liar. PBS news' coverage of the fiasco has dwelled mostly on her inconsistencies. Washington Post reporter T. Rees Shapiro, an early Erdely skeptic, interviewed Phi Kappa Psi fraternity leaders who insisted they had no record of any parties at the time of Jackie's assault (which means little, since fraternity life is often spontaneous and not all parties are dutifully recorded.)

In the end, it is a George Orwell remark that comes to mind: "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better."

Many people in this case should have known better. But imitation and the indiscriminate wish to spread ill-gotten news prevailed over sources, facts, and possible consequences. This makes the language of journalism seem corrupt, if not bankrupt.

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