The failure of so many of us, myself included, to have taken the Rolling Stone report of a forcible rape at University of Virginia that never happened with sufficient skepticism of both accusation and reporting should be a clarion call to constrain the passion of belief until facts are proven. And yet, Rolling Stone’s retraction of its story in the face of a report by Columbia School of Journalism as to its pervasive abject failure to be accurate and dispassionate fails as an apology and, instead, twists its lie to serve the very same purpose that gave rise to its blind, and grievously misguided, faith.
As Eugene Volokh notes, the writer of the false story, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, offered an “apology.”
The past few months, since my Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus” was first called into question, have been among the most painful of my life. Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience. I want to offer my deepest apologies: to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the U.V.A. community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.
Notably, Erdely not only failed to apologize to those she wrongfully smeared in her story, but used it as a vehicle to further promote the very cause that blinded her from truth:
and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.
That promoting lies undermines her cause isn’t in doubt. For others of her ilk, this was indeed the most serious problem with Erdely’s story, that it called into question all accusations of rape, and this became the gravest horror demanding a fix as the UVA story was revealed as a sham.
Even in its retraction, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana committed the same offense.
We would like to apologize to our readers and to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students. Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.
At least Dana had the minimal good sense to apologize to the fraternity tarred by the lie, though his emphasis certainly isn’t on his victims. “Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses”? Got a cite for that, Will?
This will ultimately be chalked up to a monumental screw-up by Erdely, who has issued her facile mea culpa, sans apology, and sloppy fact-checking by Rolling Stone. This compounds the problem, and the error. While it’s true, obviously, that both Erdely and Rolling Stone were at terrible fault for their egregious failure to give any consideration to accuracy and verification, they are just cogs in a far bigger, far more damaging, wheel of blind rage, ignorance and belief that has consumed the overly passionate and less-than-overly thoughtful.
Publishing a story about a rape that never happened is not a cause to apologize other imaginary rape “survivors.” While it may be fashionable to focus primarily on the harm one does to a cause in the name of furthering the cause, it is not an apology to those directly harmed by the lie. What about the lie? What about the harm to the specific fraternity smeared? What about the individuals named in the story, about whom lies were published?
Tough shit about your cause. What about your lies?
This was the second story within a week about false accusations gone horribly wrong. In the #TeamHarpy saga, a couple of female librarians accused a male librarian of being a sexual predator. The man, Joe Murphy, had Nino Pribetic and Marc Randazza sue for defamation, and his accusers ultimately confessed that their accusations were totally false, and apologized to Murphy. Supporters of the women, who called themselves #TeamHarpy, refused to accept these admissions, twisting them into a coerced confession and apology to avoid the devastating costs of Murphy’s “high powered” legal team.
The notion that truth could be different than the internalized myth was unacceptable, but more to the ultimate point is that we’ve now constructed sufficient excuses and explanations, all designed to do away with the need for facts or evidence upon which accusations should be based, that we can believe whatever we want to believe with abandon, and can be absolutely assured in the complete absence of proof that beliefs are unshakeable nonetheless.
While Rolling Stone and Erdely may have blown the story, its failure did nothing to shake its inherent belief in the righteousness of its cause. Clearly, an apology was needed, but not to those it smeared with the publication of false conversations and accusations, but to the cause it failed to champion well enough.
When one’s cause is just, the concept of apology only applies to those of the same faith. The same blind faith. There can be no one else worthy of an apology, because they never mattered in the first place. And if there is any apology, it must be coerced, as truth could not possibly alter blind faith in the cause. And even the apology is a lie.