But What If It’s A Lie? (Update)

When I first read the story at Rolling Stone, I twitted “This is rape.” I fell prey to confirmation bias, as was made painfully clear in a subsequent post by Richard Bradley, which asked whether Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story of the gang rape of a University of Virginia freshman, identified only as Jackie, might be a lie.

Some years ago, when I was an editor at George magazine, I was unfortunate enough to work with the writer Stephen Glass on a number of articles. They proved to be fake, filled with fabrications, as was pretty much all of his work. The experience was painful but educational; it forced me to examine how easily I had been duped. Why did I believe those insinuations about Vernon Jordan being a lech? About the dubious ethics of uber-fundraiser Terry McAuliffe?

The answer, I had to admit, was because they corroborated my pre-existing biases. I was well on the way to believing that Vernon Jordan was a philanderer, for example—everyone seemed to think so, back in the ’90s.

We all have pre-existing biases.  The problem isn’t ridding ourselves of them, since we can’t, but recognizing that we have them and doing everything possible to overcome them.

The lesson I learned: One must be most critical, in the best sense of that word, about what one is already inclined to believe. So when, say, the Duke lacrosse scandal erupted, I applied that lesson. The story was so sensational! Believing it required indulging one’s biases: A southern school…rich white preppy boys…a privileged sports team…lower class African-American women…rape. It read like a Tom Wolfe novel.

And of course it never happened.

Bradley goes on to parse the Rolling Stone story as a skeptical editor might, raising questions that needed to be raised in order to fill in the gaps that allow for lies to propagate.  One of the critical components of Bradley’s perspective was that he, like me and probably most of you, read Erdely’s story and believed it.  Not because it was without holes, but because it confirmed his bias.  I would like to think I’m too skeptical to fall into this obvious hole, but I’m not. I believed it too. It never dawned on me that it could, conceivably, be a lie.

The article alleges a truly horrifying gang rape at a UVA fraternity, and it has understandably shocked the campus and everyone who’s read it. The consequences have been pretty much instantaneous: The fraternity involved has voluntarily suspended its operations (without admitting that the incident happened); UVA’s president is promising an investigation and has since suspended all fraternity charters on campus; the alumni are in an uproar; the governor of Virginia has spoken out; students, particularly female students, are furious, and the concept of “rape culture” is further established. Federal intervention is sure to follow.

The only thing is…I’m not sure that I believe it. I’m not convinced that this gang rape actually happened. Something about this story doesn’t feel right.

Bradley, at least to anyone who isn’t so deliberately blind to anything remotely resembling painful truth, has some very real points.  They by no means “prove” the story to be false, or a lie, or whatever characterization you prefer, but make a critically important point: we rely on the credibility of media and, sadly, when we read something that conforms to our desires, our reliance becomes near absolute.  We embrace it with blind faith, because it matches our truth.

I would have thought Bradley’s point to be uncontroversial.  I would have been wrong.

Bradley gets attacked by the usual suspects:

Referring to me as “a guy by the name of Richard Bradley” who is “now mostly retired” (I am?), [Anna] Merlan says that my post below is a “giant ball of shit.” (I would love to use that as a book blurb someday.) She doesn’t really say why she thinks I’m so fecally wrong, except that I’m male and, apparently, old, and insufficiently appreciative of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s “months of work.”

I know it’s Jezebel and all, and no one there is particularly expected to be responsible or even truthful, but in the act of dismissing what I wrote, Merlan profoundly mischaracterizes it.

The title of the Jezebel post kinda gives its contents away: ‘Is the UVA Rape Story a Gigantic Hoax?’ Asks Idiot.  While not the title “idiot,” Merlan can’t pass up the easy smack at Reason’s Robby Soave.

Soave at Reason—who has previously written that much of the campus sexual assault crisis is just “criminalizing campus sex”—takes Bradley’s giant ball of shit and runs with it.

There is confirmation bias, and then there is abject blindness that makes anyone who questions anything about something you believe in the deserving target of attack.  The difference is that people who suffer from confirmation bias can, when someone points out the issues, see their potential error and, if persuaded, change their mind.  The latter can never do so.

There is only one real question raised by that “idiot,” Richard Bradley’s, challenge: Does it matter to you whether the story you want so desperately to believe is true or false?  If it doesn’t, then we have nothing more to discuss.

Epilogue:  As it turns out, Bradley’s questions were not without basis:

“I reached out to [the accused] in multiple ways,” Erdely said in the Slate interview. “They were kind of hard to get in touch with because [the fraternity’s] contact page was pretty outdated. But I wound up speaking . . . I wound up getting in touch with their local president, who sent me an e-mail, and then I talked with their sort of, their national guy, who’s kind of their national crisis manager. They were both helpful in their own way, I guess.”

Sean Woods, who edited the Rolling Stone story, said in an interview that Erdely did not talk to the alleged assailants. “We did not talk to them. We could not reach them,” he said in an interview.

Kinda hard?  There’s a word for that. It’s called “work,” or sometimes, “effort.” These are archaic words, so it’s understandable that they may be unfamiliar to some.  But it’s not like editor Woods abdicated his responsibility to accuracy:

However, he said, “we verified their existence,” in part by talking to Jackie’s friends. “I’m satisfied that these guys exist and are real. We knew who they were.”

I can kill a guy with a pen.  Need proof?  Here’s a pen. Thank you. Now get lost.

Update:  Rolling Stone has a message for its readers:

Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone‘s editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie’s credibility. Her friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported Jackie’s account. She had spoken of the assault in campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn’t confirm or deny her story but had concerns about the evidence.

Okay. So you believe. And this matters why?

In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.

What new information isn’t mentioned. It could be the widespread castigation of promoting a story as fact because . . . you believe?  And now you don’t. For those who commented, whether I published or trashed it, that I was a hater for not believing like you and Rolling Stone, I understand. Religion is to be believed, not questioned.

34 comments on “But What If It’s A Lie? (Update)

  1. Patrick Maupin

    Extraneous “the” in “read the Erdely’s story”, methinks. (No need to thank me or keep the comment)

  2. Ryan

    When I read the story, the first thing that jumped out at me was the glass. That part needs to be explained. How much glass was on the ground? the story says it dug into her back . . . so how did she and all the rapist avoid the hospital,.

    I very much suspect this story is heavily embellished.

    1. SHG Post author

      It bothered me as well, but I attributed it at the time to mediocre writing and hyperbole. Also my confirmation bias.

  3. Fubar

    From a secret memo on neurophysiological harmonization for aspiring journalists:

    Our biases need confirmation
    Fixation needs no good foundation.
    If your heart says “He did it”,
    But your brain says “Faggit it”,
    You succumb to sweet reason’s temptation.

  4. The Real Peterman

    Remember the good old days, when we didn’t punish people before convictibg them, and collective punishment was frowned upon?

    I used to be inclined–biased, maybe–to believe stories like this, but after so many falsehoods (Jamie Leigh Jones, Crystal Mangum, Nafissatou Diallo, Wanetta Gibson, etc) I’m inclined to wait and see.

    1. SHG Post author

      So you’re trying to sate all those people here wondering, what was The Real Peterman’s old and new inclinations? You’re very kind to them, because they might lose sleep if they didn’t get an answer to that critical question.

  5. Vin

    The story about Jackie could be entirely made up, but I wonder about Dean Nicole Eramo and the other named and photoed people in the same article who haven’t said a word about the article being a hoax.

    That doesn’t by itself prove that the Jackie story is true, but it seems to lend some credibility to the notion that UVA has a problem no matter if Jackie is or isn’t real or telling the truth. Putting convictions of innocent people aside, which it doesn’t seem likely to occur if guys like Drew are fake, the article drew attention to problems that need to be addressed. The bigger problem is, if Jackie is found to be a fake, this will turn into a “boy who cried wolf” situation that could result in people not taking real victims seriously.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’ve got to be kidding me, Vin. Please, tell me you’re trolling me and that this comment was an hysterical joke just to see how twisted you could get me. Please, Vin, tell me that, so I don’t have to reach down your throat and rip you lungs out. Come on, Vin, just give me this one chance not to have to call you some really, really mean names. Please?

      1. Vin

        LOL, I don’t mind if you call me names SHG. I can take it.

        Im forming my questions into comments because you told me to do so. What I was hoping for was for you to point out the flaws in my thinking vs just saying my thinking is flawed.
        Im cheating a bit trying to manipulate you to educate me some. Your article and the dude you pointed to flipped me upside down because I TOO had a strong reaction to the Rolling Stone piece. I was ready to shut UVA down. Then I reread the Rolling Stone article and had questions. I didn’t want to ask you questions.
        I now see the error of my ways. I won’t bother you anymore. 😉

        1. SHG Post author

          I neither suggest the UVA article is true or not, but that we need to fight our confirmation bias to always on guard against believing things uncritically. But you went down a tangential path that I would hope you now understand (See Lawrence below) is below the threshold of understanding I would expect of you.

          Every accusation stands or falls on its own merit based on its own evidence. The allegations of every accuser should be viewed skeptically, as they’re accusations. You should appreciate this by now, and know better than to suggest that the counterpoint to a false accusation is a concern that it might dissuade other, valid accusations. No human being is expendable to the cause, whatever that cause may be. That includes women. That includes men. That includes everyone.

    2. lawrence kaplan

      Vin: I’m sure you would love it if someone falsely accused you of rape to draw attention to the”larger problems that need to be addressed” It may be nice of you to take one for the cause; don’t volunteer other people or institutions.

      1. Vin

        Lawrence, my entire thought pattern might be flawed, but Atleast understand what it is. I said if the accused was actually fake, meaning, Drew didn’t exist. I also said that in the case that the accused don’t actually exist, there is no harm in the form of the ruin that comes from being falsely accused.
        I would never think or suggest that someone should take one for the team this way.

        1. SHG Post author

          Whoa, Vin. You did it again.

          I said if the accused was actually fake, meaning, Drew didn’t exist.

          Drew’s existence proves nothing about what happened in that room that night. It’s my pen analogy at the end of the post. You exist. If someone said “Vin raped me, and here’s proof: Vin commenting at SJ,” does that do anything to prove you raped someone? Do you see it yet?

          1. Vin

            SHG, I see. I was thinking more in line with the entire Jackie side of the story being false, and that there was no Drew and no dark room, and no one else there.

            In that case I guess I could be smacked for thinking it was OK to crap on the actual Frat House in total.
            To be clear, I do not ever think it’s OK to accuse real people of crimes they did not commit, ever, under any circumstance.

            If Jackie is real and her story is a lie about make believe people, I see her doing more harm to the cause than good. I don’t see falsely accusing fake people of a crime to be anything other than the tragedy that is a pathological lier.
            Now, I struggle still to see that Jackie is entirely made up because of the relationship with the Dean, who hasnt come forward to claim Jackies lack of existence.

            1. SHG Post author

              Vin, it could all be true, all be false or anything else along the continuum. The point is that we don’t know because of the gaps. There are reasons why all, none or any combination can be the case. The point is that we believe because we want to believe. I did. You did. So did many others. But we, as rational people, need to overcome our self-imposed myopia and see all the possibilities, all the permutations, and not just overlook the holes, gaps, problems, because we close our eyes and believe too much.

  6. JRF

    As usual, this blog makes me a better critical thinker. My initial reaction was to believe the story, but consider it a very low probability event. Gang rape by upper-class white frat boys? Sure, America is a big country and anything that can happen probably will at some point. On the other hand, young reporter selling bullshit for ideological reasons is a similar low probability event. It seems wise to keep an open mind, and wait until the situation clarifies a bit.

  7. Patrick Maupin

    On the other hand, young reporter selling bullshit for ideological reasons is a similar low probability event.

    I’m not convinced you have your probabilities right, but if you do, it’s only because of the “for ideological reasons” clause.

    1. JRF

      OK, I see the point, but the issue on the table is why we might buy one low probability event over another.
      The actual probabilities seem to be a second issue, and I thought figuring that out was the issue I was raising.

  8. RAFIV

    I am beginning to think of Vin’s post as a sort of mirror image of Barleycorn’s. Oftentimes Barleycorns posts seem nonsensical but readers are left with the nagging suspicion that they are neither smart enough – or drunk enough – to fully grasp their meaning. Vin’s posts on the other hand seem remarkably lucid yet the reader is left wondering how drunk or unbalanced Vin would have to be to pack that much guano into so few words. Now lest Barleycorn take umbrige and inveigh against me, I plead the Nightquil defense.

  9. wes

    I’m starting to think the reporter heard a story that was too good to pass up and shirked her responsibility to vigorously fact check.

    “I reached out to [the accused] in multiple ways,” Erdely said in the Slate interview. “They were kind of hard to get in touch with because [the fraternity’s] contact page was pretty outdated. But I wound up speaking . . . I wound up getting in touch with their local president, who sent me an e-mail, and then I talked with their sort of, their national guy, who’s kind of their national crisis manager. They were both helpful in their own way, I guess.”

    If the extent of her attempts to contact the accused was searching through their fraternity’s website, then that is incredibly lazy and irresponsible. These are college students, how hard is it for a journalist to track them down? If you can’t find them, then you hold off publication until you do.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s really impossible to imagine that they couldn’t have done far better than this. The quote in Slate is remarkably underwhelming. The first thought that came to my mind upon reading it was that they can’t possibly be that lazy and stupid, to admit publicly they were that lazy that they put in such a slovenly effort. But then, slackoisie?

      1. wes

        Telling quote from Erik Wemple’s Washington Post write up

        “I made contact with a student activist at the school who told me about the culture of the school…and then I asked her to put me in touch with other rape survivors and she had mentioned a bunch of people with different situations and she had kind of casually mentioned that she knew somebody who had been gang-raped.”

        Wemple then writes

        “When she chose her opening anecdote, that is, Erdely opted for a sensational and undocumented gang-rape case over other cases, which were perhaps more prosaic and documentable.”

        Shame is that UVA does have a well documented history of problems handling sexual assault cases, which is ostensibly the point of the RS article. Using a poorly sourced story to explore this issue is irresponsible though.

        1. SHG Post author

          I don’t find the quote either responsive or telling. In fact, I find it the sort of loaded, disturbing crap that I would usually trash. A “student activist”? Says who? Of what? What makes her the arbiter of culture at UVA? “Rape survivors”? Did they also have cancer, because cancer kills (and hence, those who don’t die are survivors), but rape does not. Was each of their rapists convicted in court? What does “a bunch of other people with different situations” mean? It means nothing, while giving the general impression of meaning when there isn’t a single fact stated.

          And what proof do you have of a “well documented history of problems handling sexual assault cases”? Somebody said so? Somebody wrote it in an article? That’s not fact. That’s exactly what this story tells you to be skeptical about, and you failed to get the message.

          1. wes

            No, I meant “telling” in the sense that Erdely had other possible cases she could have written about, but they wouldn’t have been as attention getting as the one she ultimately chose. Makes me suspect she put a priority on getting the story out over doing her due diligence in fact checking.

            No, I wasn’t referencing the RS article for that second claim, although the article does feature other women who have complained of UVA’s handling of their cases (one specific case is Liz Seccuro’s from 1984, which resulted in a conviction 20 years later after her attacker confessed) as well as mention that UVA has been under Title IX compliance review since 2011. I was referencing articles I’ve read about problems with UVA’s handling of sexual assault going back to 2004. Better sourced articles than the Rolling Stone one. Fair point though. I’ll retract “well documented history of problems handling sexual assault cases” and replace with “long history of complaints about its handling of sexual assault cases”.

            1. SHG Post author

              I understand what you were trying to say. I responded as I did because the quotes from Wemple article perpetuated the very failures that this post is about. I barely scratched the surface of what was wrong, it was that horrible, vague and misguided.

              The point is to stop being a slave to the tropes, the ambiguous and meaningless language the evokes without informing, the vagaries in place of facts. I don’t think you see it yet, no less can do so.

              Edit: It just occurred to me that you may not appreciate (and Wemple clearly shows no clue) that the less sensational, but more easily documented, rapes/sexual assaults may not have been rapes or sexual assaults under any meaningful definition at all, but only under the new academic definitions, such as post-hoc regret, intoxication, inadequate affirmative consent, etc. There was no question that the gang rape in the RS article was rape, by any definition. That distinguishes the story as much as its sensationalism.

  10. EH

    I wonder if the people were unwilling to respond to the author because they (correctly) assumed that she was not interested in facts which did not support her narrative? If I were wrongly accused I’m not so sure I’d choose to participate in the liberal-feminist version of the Ferguson trial: “fair” on the outside but not on the inside.

    1. SHG Post author

      The problem isn’t so much that they were “unwilling to respond,” as that the author never actually found them and asked. Erdely can’t make anyone respond, and there is a fairly good chance that they wouldn’t regardless, but to contend that she couldn’t actually locate and make the request directly is unacceptable. If she had, then she could have included in her article that she asked and the men involved refused to respond to question, but she didn’t.

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