September 20th, 2021


A late education in rape culture in Charlottesville

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published April 7, 2015

 A late education in rape culture in Charlottesville

We're getting a lesson in the politically correct way to conduct journalism in contemporary media, with a retraction and the admission by Rolling Stone magazine that it made up the story about gang rape at the University of Virginia. But nobody is paying a price. Not yet.

Rolling Stone — which is to journalism what rock, even with the roll, is to music — says it has its regrets, too bad, sorry and all that, but nobody will be punished.

The magazine published the sensational story last summer, high crimes beyond misdemeanors in the upper class, as if it had beaten the supermarket tabloids to a story (and no offense intended to those supermarket tabloids): A young woman had been gang-raped at a drunken party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Tom Jefferson's old school.

The young woman had been identified only as "Jackie," and after publication it became clear that the young man she said was one of her attackers could not be found, and there was no party, drunken or otherwise, at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on the given night. Other than that, apparently, the story lived up to Rolling Stone's high standards.

The magazine, adrift in tears after the story blew up on cursory examination, tears not necessarily of remorse but maybe the beginning of shame, called in the Columbia University School of Journalism to tell them what the magazine did wrong. Some of the findings, released Monday by Columbia University, shouldn't surprise anyone who has worked on a newspaper. Newspapers, and newspaper editors, are not always what they used to be. Neither is the society and the culture.

Rape was once a very serious crime. Men, black and white, have gone to the electric chair for it. Young men were terrified of "going too far past third base," and young women knew that a false accusation could be lethal. Newspapers exacted a rough justice. The woman in a rape case was never identified, either as an accuser or the principal at trial. But if the man was found not guilty by 12 good men and women true, the "victim" was duly identified, usually on the front page. There was a victim, but it wasn't the accuser.

With the sexual revolution, the prevailing ethic, if not the guiding moral, became "if it feels good, do it." Anyone who lived through the great trash decade of the '60s remembers it well. Rape was reduced to something akin to shoplifting. Parents — and grandparents — sent their daughters off to college with a combination of pride and foreboding. I told my own granddaughter, the perfect light of my life, that if a young man tried to push her to a place where she didn't want to go, she should tell him that her grandfather was an unforgiving redneck from Arkansas, "and down there they sometimes take things in hand with a do-it-yourself justice, and answer questions later."

Once, as a young buck in a previous century I got a little fresh one night after dinner with a Delta stewardess in Chicago, who "mentioned" that her grandfather was "a party to" the infamous St. Valentine's Day massacre, and that she was his favorite grandchild. I didn't believe her until I checked it out. I would not go near Chicago for months afterward, not even through O'Hare to make an airline connection.

Rape is a serious crime again, though sometimes it's regarded as more a crime against feminism than a crime against simple decency. The reporter in the Rolling Stone rape story had a narrative in mind and went shopping for a subject to show "what it's like to be on campus now . . . where not only is rape so prevalent but also there's this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture."

The writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, found a rape survivor at the University of Virginia who told Mzz Erdely that many assaults take place at parties where "the goal is to get everyone blackout drunk," and related the story of a young woman who was gang-raped." But she added a warning: "Obviously, maybe her memory of it isn't perfect." The Rolling Stone writer put down her reply in her notes: "I tell her that it's totally plausible."

This should have been a red flag for her editors, that getting a story in sensational detail was all. If the reputations of innocents must be sacrificed for sensation, so what? Rolling Stone says nobody will be punished. After all, the story, or one like it, could be true. The lawyers are at work now. Maybe Rolling Stone will learn something yet.

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