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Rolling Stone's Rape Article Failed Because It Used Rightwing Tactics to Make a Leftist Point

Ryan M. Kelly/AP

If you type in the original page for Rolling Stone’s December 2014 story “A Rape on Campus: The Struggle for Justice at UVA,” you’ll be redirected to "What Went Wrong?,” a report about the article published Sunday by the Columbia Journalism ReviewRolling Stone officially retracted its blockbuster story, which had garnered more than 2.7 million views. The retraction comes on the heels of the Charlottesville Police Department’s announcement that there was not enough evidence to pursue an investigation of the story’s titular rape, which now appears to have been something between a delusion and a hoax.

What did go wrong? A whole host of things, most of them probably more interesting to journalists than readers. There were dazzling editorial oversights, like the decision not to contact the three friends allegedly present on the night of the assault, and mundane human error, like the assumption that everyone who had heard Jackie’s story had been told the same tale. Still, the mother of all these blunders seems to have predated the article’s eventual litany of technical failures. Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the investigative journalist and true-crime writer who penned the essay, set out with an answer in search of a question, a conclusion about systematic indifference to rape which she needed the right story to backfill. If she had written a fictional account of a rape that met all her article’s needs, I can’t imagine it would have been too different than the horrifying one that issued from Jackie, which should have set off alarm bells then.

Erdely apologized in a statement on Sunday. Her reasons don’t come off as particularly ignoble: She wanted to bring to light a problem with the way sexual assaults are handled on college campuses, and once she found Jackie she was unwilling to pressure her for details, names, or verifying facts because she did not want to re-traumatize her after her ordeal. Naturally, Rolling Stone’s mea culpa and Erdely’s apology have not satisfied a certain segment of the reactionary peanut gallery, with rightwing outposts like Twitchy deliriously bemoaning the fact that no one at the magazine has been fired over the meltdown, and declaring Erdely a hack for not apologizing specifically to the fraternity brothers accused of rape in her article.

This suggests that the scope of the disaster is wider than the professional failures CJR documents with such unsettling clarity. Yes, there were an absurd number of mistakes in Rolling Stone’s journalistic method, but like most events ostensibly about ethics in journalism, the kernel of the controversy is about politics, not journalism.

The politics, of course, inform the journalism. For better or worse (almost certainly worse), rape is a contested political property, and campus rape is its pinnacle. During last year’s ballyhoo over California’s campus affirmative consent law, the contingencies for and against split down the aisle: The left and center-left supported it, while the right and far-right opposed it. More importantly, similar political groupings tend to form around controversial cases. When Cathy Young reported skeptically on the case of Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia undergraduate whose mattress-hefting protest made national news, Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan called her out, and anti-feminist finger-waggers at the misleadingly titled American Thinker feted her insight. What accounts for the political polarization in rape journalism, which is presumably odious to everyone, regardless of political orientation?

The left tends to view oppression as something that operates within systems, sometimes in clearly identifiable structural biases, and other times in subtle but persistent ways. Mortgage discrimination against black families over the last century is an example of a structural, on-the-books bias that had an extraordinarily damaging impact on African Americans; but the fact that black children are read as older and less innocent than their white peers, while neither a law nor a regulation, is of a piece with the overall oppression of black folks in America, resulting in subtle treatment by teachers and authority figures that alienates black children from wider society starting at a very tender age. These disparate forms of discrimination come together, in the left imagination, to form a tightly composed set of prejudices and policies that are difficult to disentangle. Making sense of oppression, therefore, requires looking at entire systems of oppression, not just specific instances or behaviors.

The right, on the other hand, tends to understand politics on the individual level, which fits in neatly with a general obsession with the capital-i Individual. Thus, the right tends to pore over the specific details of high-profile cases like those of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, concluding that if those particular situations were embattled by complications or mitigating factors, then the phenomena they’re meant to represent must not be real either. And if a few highly publicized rapes turn out to be murkier than first represented, then rape itself is not a crisis, just a regrettable and rare anomaly. The positive version of this approach is the elevation of people like Joe the Plumber, individual cases that purportedly show the value and effectiveness of conservative politics. It isn’t great reasoning, but it is very appealing on a sub-intellectual level. 

Which is perhaps why, coupled with a leftist tendency to attempt to correct procedural injustices in representation, liberal activist journalism appears to be joining in the wider journalistic slide from big-picture work (anything from Upton Sinclair’s The Brass Check to John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World to Rolling Stone’s own investigation of the Fox News fear machine and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed) toward pieces wherein structural analysis is unwholesomely pegged to personal tales. Pinning an indictment of a system on the story of an individual is essentially a rightwing tactic with a dodgy success rate; it’s a way of using an individual as a metonym for systematic analysis that both overplays the role of individual heroism and effort and underplays the complicated nature of oppression as a feature of institutions, policies, traditions, and persons. There is room in left journalism for the individual story, but the positioning is important: Individual narratives can give glancing glimpses of the effects of oppressive systems, but they can’t reveal their sum total. Here, pieces like ProPublica's longform investigation of workers' compensation are instructive: The personal story is supported by a hard frame of systematic analysis. The individual just isn’t enough.

In balancing a systematic critique on a single person’s story, Erdely essentially used a rightwing strategy to make a leftist point. The trouble is only that the right is skilled at this game, and correctly deduced that undoing Jackie’s story would go a long way to endangering Erdely’s larger structural point. It’s an opportunity they never should have been given, both for Jackie’s sake, and for the sake of the victims who really do find themselves struggling for protection within a hostile justice system.