The Biggest Problem With Rolling Stone’s Retraction Of Their UVA Rape Story
Earlier today, Rolling Stone dropped one hell of an editor’s note, in regards to a story they had published two weeks earlier — a blistering investigative account of a brutal gang rape that took place at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia. The cowardly note, published on a Friday no less, came after two weeks of thinkpieces from other media outlets pointing out holes in Rolling Stone’s reporting of the events (particularly their decision not to speak with the men Jackie claimed attacked her). From managing editor Will Dana, the note dials back on the claims made by Jackie to reporter Sabrina Erdely, claiming that the magazine’s trust in Jackie was “misplaced.”
Needless to say, reactions to the retraction came even swifter than those for the original piece. But the problem here? It’s just another example of shifting the focus away from the real issue at hand: how we talk about rape, and how hard it is for survivors to come forward. And this time, it’s not just Rolling Stone’s fault. It’s the media in general, and ‘media Twitter’ specifically.
Hanna Rosin and Alison Benedikt were correct in their piece on Slate earlier this week — Erdely did make a huge mistake as a reporter in not trying to track down statements from the assailants in question. (The Washington Post has done a bevy of research on this topic as well, specifically in regards to whether these alleged rapists even existed, and if the attack occurred.) Rolling Stone should be taken to task for this. But the many, many bloggers and journalists who make up ‘media Twitter’ and who are now tweeting about Rolling Stone’s failure of judgment in reporting are missing the point. Rolling Stone has a huge readership, but for many of those readers, the editor’s note comes sans the context of pieces like Rosin and Benedikt’s. It comes sans the context of the articles about Erdely’s own issues with spotty reporting in the past. Instead, it reads as though Rolling Stone is trying to minimize their culpability by writing, “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.” They’re essentially screaming, “Hey, this woman maybe told us some things that are not true, blame her not us, sorry bye!”
Given that we live in a time where victim-blaming is near constant, making it harder for rape victims to self-report, it should be no surprise why this is a huge blow to victims that may not be able to come forward. (Earlier this week, Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston delivered a statement alleging that the woman who accused him of rape fabricated her claims entirely. He also sickeningly likened himself to a rape victim, claiming “the only thing as vicious as rape is falsely accusing someone of rape,” which is idiotic, at best.) Rather than just labeling this a reporting debacle, we should be having a conversation about the difficulties for both reporter and subject in even TELLING a story like this. The danger and fear that victims feel about coming forward, the heavy burden of proof that society puts on victims, the counter-attacks on women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted, the impact that trauma can have on a person’s ability to remember details. I can safely assume that most of my colleagues and friends in the blogging world know that just because Jackie’s story is conflicted doesn’t mean it’s an all out lie or that every other rape story is also seemingly untrue — but the many, many readers of Rolling Stone who will only have the magazine’s vague, mealy-mouthed retraction to go on? I don’t know that they have the same perspective.
To be clear, Rolling Stone is wrong. Not just in their failure to do due diligence in their original reporting, but more so for their tone-deaf editor’s note. Just because they have egg on their face is no reason to victim-blame — and let’s be real, victim-blaming is something rape victims have to contend with all too often. But for me? The real sadness doesn’t come from what Rolling Stone did, or even from media Twitter co-opting the issue at hand to pontificate on responsible reporting. It’s that we are once again failing to discuss how we talk, report and write about rape victims in the first place, and that this debacle is yet another piece of ammunition in the battle rape victims deal with constantly — the battle to believed.