Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Rolling Slander

Left: Protesters against the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. How do they feel now that they were revealed to be protesting innocent classmates? 

Against the backdrop of serious social issues on college campuses, the Columbia School of Journalism statement shows that academia is perfectly willing to turn a blind eye when members of the media abuse their position.

Even as President Obama has dubiously proclaimed that the path to a prosperous middle class is for every American child to  have access to a college education, news headlines are showing that this can often be a gateway to discrimination, physical violence, sexual assault, and racial tensions. In fact, judging by the incidents of the past few months, it may be just as well that the President weigh in on these issues, just as he entered the debate about police shootings. Well, maybe not if we want an unbiased opinion about it.

Let's look at a selection of those incidents:

  • In March a chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity is shut down at the University of Oklahoma after a number of its brothers are caught on camera singing a racist song. This follows a pattern of similar incidents for SAE chapters across the US, including a sexual assault at Iowa State University.
  • The Fisher vs. Texas lawsuit regarding affirmative action policies continues to bounce between federal appeals courts and the US Supreme Court.
  • University of Kentucky students riot in Lexington following the school's April 5 loss in the Final Four tournament.
  • A University of Virginia student is beaten by alcohol enforcement agents on March 18, an incident that may legitimately be one of police brutality.
  • A UCLA Pre-Law student is scrutinized during a hearing for approval of her appointment to the school judicial board on the grounds of her affiliation with Jewish organizations, despite admissions that she is fully qualified.
  • And the subject that this will focus on: Rolling Stone magazine publishes "A Rape on Campus" by Sabrina Erdely which claimed to expose in graphic detail a gang rape of a female student by frat brothers that occurred at the University of Virginia on September 28, 2012 from the viewpoint of the victim, known only as "Jackie". The publishing of that story led to the suspension of all fraternities. Even prior to the actual publishing, violent attacks and threats were reported against the fraternity's property, and demonstrations were mounted against it. However, in January 2015 the Charlottesville Police Department revealed that the events reported in the article could not be confirmed, and by January 30 UVA's president declared that it had been discredited. On April 5 the Columbia School of Journalism released a report that outlined all of the journalistic errors that were committed in writing, editing, and publishing the piece.

Men preventing sexual assaults

As a male graduate student, I sometimes am oblivious to the other experiences on my college campus, especially those of female students. I have only two courses this semester, both of which have only two women enrolled in them. My department currently has only one woman on the faculty. Last year there was an all-female group in my senior design course, and they were discouraged from forming as such for reasons that were never explained. The university has numerous events catered toward encouraging the entrance of women in engineering, yet to look at a lot of our average course populations they could easily appear to be an all-male religious seminary class.

Recently I had a casual conversation with a couple friends during which one, who I'll call Becca, said that she had to leave before dark. When I asked why before dark, she said that she was afraid to walk to her car once dusk fell due to the rumours of robberies and sexual assaults on our campus. I realized at that point that she had to deal with a contingency that I could not relate with. The best help I could offer her was to borrow a screwdriver to use as a gouging tool; campus escorts are already available, and she wasn't the type to ask for a dude to accompany her.

Just this week I advised my sister not to park too far away from campus once she started classes there. I later found out she was taking day classes, so the advice does seem ridiculous in retrospect. However, I am not alone among my friends; one of them had bought his sister mace in order to protect herself from an assault when she went to school.

Women preventing sexual assaults

Men are not threatened nearly as much with the threat of sexual assault as women, but we are affected as observers. During my military service I remember one of the women soldiers, a cook, had been gang assaulted by three acquaintances. She had to deal with the same stigmas about sluttiness and asking for it that many feminist advocates rightly criticize. But at the same time, the circumstances of her case were as such:

  • She was invited to her friends' dorms at a late hour of night.
  • She was then imbibed with vodka until becoming intoxicated.
  • The three others then took advantage of her to a degree that was never revealed to the rest of us. We are not aware if they were simply caught in an improper state of undress, if she was forcibly raped, or somewhere in between.

I think that the small gestures that I and others have made are the best form of preventive measures for sexual assault. Our campus happens to offer women's self-defense classes as well. As independent people, women cannot be expected to seek shelter from their male colleagues and relatives in every situation. The best measures they can take are through their own decisions:

  • Be aware of their surroundings.
  • Not presenting themselves as a vulnerable target.
  • Learning to defend themselves if needed.
  • Not becoming intoxicated to the point where they are easy prey; that follows the same principle as not becoming a vulnerable target.
  • Keeping a mobile device or whistle handy if they would need to call for help. 

Education through shame

Rather than promote the measures that I mentioned above, a lot of media outlets like the Huffington Post and MSNBC have chosen to talk about rape culture and how America must change that. This approach is destined to fail, because rape and sexual assault have been an element in every society since the beginning of mankind. The idea that rape can be eliminated by changing American culture is ridiculous; look at how well we have prevented white collar crimes by mandating business ethics courses. There is no need for more studies and debates on this matter, because in the end these crimes seem to be perpetrated under the same conditions. The best solution for women to avoid being taken advantage of . . . is to not arrive at a situation where they can be taken advantage of.

The pathetic attempt by the media to claim that a conversation needs to be held on how to cure America of its "rape culture" is just as moronic as Pres. Obama and Eric Holder's statements and inquiries into police shootings. In the end, the media cannot control the minds of sexual predators, nor can federal officials control the actions of individual law enforcement agents. On the contrary, as recent scandals show Obama and his staff are unable to control information leaks (Edgar Snowden), press leaks, and his own security (Secret Service indiscretions at home and abroad).

Who are the Fifth Estate accountable to?

Now finally to the case of Sabrina Rubin Erdely:

My impression is that it takes a certain type of person to go to a college campus, interview a claimed victim, present her version of events as true, not verify any of the details, and publish the story as fact in a magazine that relies on decades of prestigious journalism that has shaped our culture in many different fields.

I have watched the entire video of the press conference with Columbia School of Journalism officials Steve Coll (dean) and Sheila Coronel (academic dean). It is remarkable how despite all of their claims to professionalism they deliberately dodged the question of whether they would employ Sabrina Erdely themselves, even though at one point during the conference they actually admit that they know that the story as told by "Jackie" was false. Despite every opportunity that the journalists in the audience presented, these two distinguished paragons of the trade avoided giving the plain spoke response that was demanded: that "A Rape on Campus" was a feminist canard and Sabrina Erdely is a quack journalist.

It is very ironic that the University of Virginia has a student parody newspaper called The Yellow Journal. Yellow journalism was coined in the late 19th century to describe poorly researched or sensationalized reporting about current events, in particular the Spanish-American War. In those days, the newspapers were using their power to raise public support for a war in Latin America. Nowadays, their heir Sabrina Erdely used her forum to promote an agenda relating to Rape Culture.

What was the response of Rolling Stone and Erdely to the CSJ report and the clear contradiction of their article by all of the responsible authorities of UVA and Charlottesville PD? On Saturday they issued a retraction, a blanket apology (as Coronel was quick to mention in their defense), and no statement of any disciplinary action. They never apologized to the students and alumni that were portrayed in the article as perverted sex fiends, or to the university whose reputation was stained and suffered dip in applications. They never apologized to their duped readers. UVA President Teresa Sullivan rightly reproached the magazine for its portrayal of campus officials as "manipulative and callous", when in reality there is no evidence to suggest that any incident occurred or that any complaint had been filed. The fraternity chapter is now considering legal action against the magazine.

A proportional punishment

Sabrina Erdely has made a career out of claiming to be the best advocate for victims of sexual violence or discrimination. However, as a journalist she has long been one of the guardians of the supposed legitimate journalism. During the Stephen Glass controversy, when that journalist was caught fabricating entire stories in the early 2000s, Erdely called Glass a "sociopathic creep". This was somebody who had been her managing editor at the University of Pennsylvania newspaper. As of today Glass still has not repaired his career and reputation, and has even been denied admission to the California Bar on more than one occasion. 

The minimal response from Rolling Stone would have been the immediate firing of Erdely in January and an official audit of all of her stories. Instead, they've allowed all of their detractors to do that job by claiming that they were submitting her story for the CSJ to review. Since then, opponents of Erdely and her opinionated journalism have poked holes in numerous stories where she has completely misrepresented the facts, such as this one about her claims of gay teen suicides in Minnesota being linked to evangelical hatemongerers. Now that the doors have been blown off of her credibility, Erdely apparently has no remorse over the reputations that she's ruined, and therefore she should be held personally accountable to the people affected by her actions. In her apology, Erdely claimed that the past few months had been ". . . a brutal and humbling experience". Most of the three paragraph statement was about her challenges as a journalist covering rape. Apparently Sabrina Erdely now views herself as the real victim. Is that not the mark of a sociopathic creep, which is the type of epithet she used about Glass back in the day?