In the end, it was a big journalistic train wreck. Earlier this month, the Columbia Journalism Review determined that a 2014 article in Rolling Stone magazine about sexual assault was likely totally fabricated. The article, written by Sabrina Erdely, focused on a University of Virginia undergrad who was gang-raped by her peers. Erdely, who has been criticized for fabricating details in the past, apparently ignored every journalistic commandment in the book: elevating fact-gathering over moral narratives; hunting down info; asking pointed questions. She made Rolling Stone hopelessly foolish, and a writing career that was already on the rocks is likely sinking into the abyss. Erdely's piece wasn't so much literary non-fiction as it was agenda-driven mythmaking. The story behind the story has become more interesting than the original article itself.
Part of the public outrage behind this scandal is fueled by the "rape culture" discussion that has hit fever pitch in recent years. Feminists have argued that rape is pervasive and has been normalized in the broader culture as a result of generations of traditional gender roles, and such instances are quickly and wrongfully dismissed. Erdely assumed that by interviewing the victim only and glossing over the frat brothers that she demonized, it would both sustain the brutal perspective she desired as well as cater to the audience she was preaching to. The editors of Rolling Stone, famed equally for somewhat archaic music journalism and left-leaning muckraking, thought this was the eye-opening scare story that this burgeoning controversy needed to start a broader discussion. Instead, it created a whole different scandal.
Just because one woman exaggerated allegations of sexual assault --or a second woman made up details about the first woman's encounter-- does not downplay the fact that rape is a serious issue, especially on college campuses. It happens on campuses across the country almost on a daily basis, yet most cases of rape are never reported or swept under the rug. This is a major issue that has been pandemic for several years (if not decades), but there is hardly anything to indicate that the collegiate rape crisis is under control, if not going away. Instead, Erdely and her lack of ethics has nearly trivialized a crisis without solution or resolve.
Next Week: my latest "Seasons of Love" TV essay.