Celebrity sex scandals rarely interest us, and we follow political scandals more from a sense of civic obligation than any voyeuristic fascination, but we do love a good journalism scandal. The recent flap over Rolling Stone magazine’s latest discredited story is also an academic scandal, another of our favorite pastimes, so we have been enrapt.
The story that was featured on the cover of the Rolling Stone, once such a counter-cultural honor that Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show had a hit song about it, was incendiary stuff. It told of a brutal gang-rape that occurred as part of a fraternity initiation rite at the University of Virginia, complete with such shocking details as the broken glass that littered the floor where she was attacked. Such a sordid story not only corroborated the academic left’s recent claims of a “culture of rape” on the nation’s campuses, it also confirmed its longstanding prejudices against fraternities, the south, and the brutally sexist nature of American society generally. All in all the story was too good to be true, so it should have come as no surprise that it turned out be false.
Some readers were skeptical from the start, noting the abundance of unnamed sources and a striking failure to even ask for a response from the accused, and of course those who expressed their skepticism were widely denounced for their insensitivity. Even so the points they raised about the numerous deviations from standard journalistic practice were sound enough to instigate an investigation by The Washington Post, a publication ordinarily inclined to believe the academic left’s claims and think the worst of fraternities and the south and the American society generally, and its reporters quickly found several problems with Rolling Stone’s reporting. Among other things, the very specific description of the appearance and occupation of the man who allegedly lured the victim to the party did not remotely match any of the fraternity’s members, and the victim’s friends’ recollections of the aftermath of the incident did not include the visible injuries that would have inevitably occurred if her story were true. A short time after the Post’s story ran Rolling Stone issued a statement acknowledging discrepancies in the subject’s claims and admitting that “We have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”
Rolling Stone’s liberal readership was of course angered that the magazine was blaming the putative victim, even though at that point there was no evidence she was a victim of anything, and more reason to believe that she had victimized the fraternity with a false claim of rape, so the magazine has since altered its statement to say that the mistakes were entirely its own fault. Some of the accuser’s friends remain plausibly convinced that something bad happened to her at the fraternity even as they say that it could have not been precisely what she described, so at this point it is probably for the best that Rolling Stone simply admits its own responsibility for the story and leave it at that, but the fraternity members deserve a presumption of innocence that the phrasing seems to deny them.
Presumption of innocence is an unfashionable concept on the modern left, however. The University of Virginia’s president had no use for it when she suspended all fraternity activities in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the Rolling Stone story, the Department of Justice is using the government’s funding of higher education to coerce other schools to to expel students accused of all manner of sexual misbehavior without due process, and claims that no woman has ever made a false of claim of rape is being chanted on campus around the country. An exception seem to be made for Juanita Broderick’s very believable claim that she was raped by former President Bill Clinton when he was the Attorney General of Arkansas, and the radical left’s defense of Scottsboro Boys and other black men accused of raping white women in the Jim Crow era of the south is still to be regarded as a heroic chapter in the history of liberalism, but otherwise any woman’s claim of rape is to be believed no matter how little evidence supports the charge or how much evidence refutes it.
To believe otherwise opens one to a charge of denying that rape is a continuing problem, but those who insist on believing every charge without reason are not helping the many women who truly are victims of this heinous crime. Every false charge that is ultimately disproved makes it harder for the public to believe the true claims, and those who fall for those false charges similarly discredit themselves. Rolling Stone has done great harm to a fraternity at the University of Virginia, and will probably wind up paying for it in a libel suit, but one can only hope that it will pay for the great harm it has done to rape victims with declining sales and ad revenue and public scorn.
— Bud Norman