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When a likely story goes bad

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published December 9, 2014

   When a likely story goes bad

Some of our most dedicated feminists are trying to make a good thing of rape, heretofore regarded as one of the more horrific crimes. Once upon a time rape was even a capital crime, like murder. Many men went to the gallows or the electric chair for it.

The mere accusation of rape, like the accusation of molesting children, was usually horrific enough to guarantee conviction. Would a woman lie? Some men accused of rape died at the hands of a mob and many at the hands of the state and were often not actually guilty.

Rape was serious, dreadful business then. But now, sometimes, not so much.

Anger, unfocused resentment and high dudgeon have lately inspired certain young women — abetted by men and women in responsible positions who ought to know better (and probably do) — to make uncorroborated claims of abuse that trivializes one of the meanest and most brutal crimes that a human can inflict on another.

One young woman, Lena Dunham, has made a television career of a sordid sex life and of being raped, or at least she thinks she was. She wrote a book about it.

Innocent reputations suffer. Institutions are damaged when, like men, they pay for crimes that did not exist. Bearing false witness is a crime, too, and a serious one, legally no less than morally.

Rolling Stone magazine, the journal of rock music that sometimes aspires to big-boy journalism, is the current cause celebre, out with a sensational story of gang rape on the campus of the University of Virginia. Colleges and universities build their reputations slowly and sometimes inadvertently. The University of Alabama is celebrated as the nation's foremost football factory. Georgetown is famous for having educated Bubba and infamous for the drunken students who have blighted the quiet residential streets surrounding its campus in Washington. And now Tom Jefferson's university has become, fair or not, a place where cautious parents are wary of sending their daughters for a college education. Rolling Stone will now live in infamy as a rag that put a dent in the credibility of modern media everywhere.

The story in the magazine was a horrific one, more a tale from an Arabian night than from the cultured precincts of an American university town. A young women, identified by Rolling Stone only as "Jackie," said she went to a party in a fraternity house in Charlottesville and was set upon by a gang of ruffians, raped and scratched and beaten and left to make her escape without help. The details were set down in a story by one Sabrina Rubin Erdely in Rolling Stone.

"Jackie" provided neither corroborating evidence, and the magazine did not ask for a witness to go on the record with details. Her story was told in the usual purple ink, as evidence of the "rape epidemic" said to be roiling campuses everywhere. "Who would lie about rape?"

When her story began unravel, as others sought but could not find corroboration or evidence to support her story, Rolling Stone was left to explain the greater sin of the story. Feminists trotted out their usual shock that anyone could question a rape accusation; "rape denial," said one, "is like denying the Holocaust." Maybe nothing happened, but it could have. Isn't that enough?

Rolling Stone's only defense was an apology, subject to revision, which in an earlier day would have been an unanswerable indictment of both its editors and its publishers. The apologies, such as they were, suggested that the university's "troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults" was to blame for its careless disregard for the fundamental canons of journalism. Newspapers and magazines have slipped into the newspaper graveyard for less.

"Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie's story," wrote Will Dana, the managing editor, "we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed participated in the attack, for fear of retaliation against her." Facts have destroyed many a good story, and the magazine didn't want that to happen to its account of Jackie's lurid tale.

"In the face of new information," the apology continued, "there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced." It wasn't Rolling Stone's fault, it was Jackie's. "We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account." It wasn't Rolling Stone's fault that it sold fiction as fact, it was society's fault. Lawyers are now on the scout for an identifiable plaintiff against the Stone.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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