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.