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Culture, Science & Faith

From the Department of Corrections

Innocent until proven guilty: A good lesson from Rolling Stone's reckless journalism.

Dec. 8, 2014

The Leftmedia have a story to tell, and they’re generally not going to let facts get in the way. This truth came in to stark relief with Friday’s massive correction Rolling Stone issued to its November report on a gang rape at the University of Virginia.

The correction was so big, it may be easier to recount what the original report got right than what it got wrong. A quick recap:

A UVA student given the name “Jackie” recounted how a man Rolling Stone calls “Drew” and his fellow fraternity brothers raped her at a party. But among numerous other errors, it turns out Drew belongs to a different fraternity than the one in question, and there was no party the night Jackie says she was raped. Much trouble would have been avoided had reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely not acceded to Jackie’s request not to interview the accused because she feared retribution. Bad decision.

The story was evidently too good to check because it fit the narrative of a widespread “rape culture” supposedly evidenced by the epidemic of sexual assault on campuses around the country. In fact, Erdely went around looking for just the right story to support that narrative. We’ve already questioned the breadth of the epidemic itself, and Rolling Stone’s shoddy and reckless journalism hardly does anything to correct the record, much less help true victims of rape.

Jackie may have been raped, and just because some of the facts were wrong doesn’t mean all of them were. And it should go without saying that this doesn’t invalidate other rape accusations. But truth cannot be a casualty of narrative.

Other media outlets swallowed Rolling Stone’s original story hook, line and sinker, leading to a cascading effect turning a lie into a legend. Media often blindly take up a cause célèbre in pursuit of ratings and the almighty advertising dollar. (We note that this is one reason The Patriot Post doesn’t accept advertising, instead relying on the support of our readers for our sustenance.)

It’s noteworthy that, just like the Jonathan Gruber videos, the UVA story began to fall apart because of the efforts of an independent blogger.

Worked into a tizzy by Rolling Stone’s story, feminists hammered “rape apologists” who dared ask questions. To them, men accused of rape are guilty until proven innocent. And to many of them, they’d even rather cling to a false story than admit men are innocent.

That recalls the response to rape accusations against Duke University’s lacrosse team several years ago. Those likewise proved to be false, though only after the reputations of those young men were destroyed.

Nevertheless, UVA students protested, while university president Teresa Sullivan responded to the allegations by shutting down activities at all fraternities and sororities. When Rolling Stone essentially retracted the story, Sullivan didn’t apologize for overreacting – she doubled down. “Over the past two weeks,” she said in a statement, “our community has been more focused than ever on one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses. Today’s news must not alter this focus.”

Reason Contributing Editor Cathy Young concludes: “Commentators across the political spectrum have expressed concern that Rolling Stone’s sloppy journalism will damage what Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle calls ‘the righteous fight for rape victims.’ But despite its righteous goals, the crusade against rape has leaned too far toward promoting the dangerous idea that accusation equals guilt and that to doubt an accuser’s word is heresy. Finding the balance between supporting victims and preserving the presumption of innocence is a difficult line to walk. Perhaps the lessons of the UVA story will help steer the way toward such a balance.”

In Young’s separate analysis of the Obama administration’s Department of Education push to have colleges and universities more vigorously prosecute sexual assault, she writes, “The Department of Education has recommended that colleges use the lowest burden of proof – ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ which means a finding of guilt if one feels the evidence tips even slightly toward the complainant. Missing is virtually any recognition of the need for fairness to the accused.”

Bottom line: Sexual assault allegations should be investigated and prosecuted by qualified law enforcement agencies, not on the pages of Rolling Stone or other pop media outlets.

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