This week the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism issued its damning report about the journalistic lapses by Rolling Stone magazine when it published a salacious, and now-discredited, story about a supposed gang rape at a University of Virginia frat house.
The report blasted the magazine for failing to engage in “basic, even routine journalistic practice” to verify the veracity of the story. This only amplified the finger-pointing of those who believe the issue of college rape is an overhyped fallacy or an ideological instrument and the hand-wringing among activists who fear real damage to a real issue.
Last year, Kevin D. Williamson wrote in National Review under the headline “The Rape Epidemic Is a Fiction” that the issue of sexual assault on college campuses was “bound up in a broader feminist Kulturkampf only tangentially related to the very real problem of sexual violence against women.” He cited what he called the “thoroughly debunked claim that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted in her college years,” a claim repeated by President Barack Obama, as part of his evidence.
However, it should be noted that The Washington Post Fact Checker has refused to rule on the reliability of that claim, saying only that: “Readers should be aware that this oft-cited statistic comes from a Web-based survey of two large universities, making it problematic to suggest that it is representative of the experience of all college women.”
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The Fact Checker went on to say: “As an interesting article from the University of Minnesota-Duluth newspaper makes clear, sexual violence is too rarely reported. So the White House should be applauded for calling attention to this issue.”
A Fox News host last month even suggested that the Rolling Stone story was evidence that “there is a war happening on boys on these college campuses.”
On the other side, the author of the Rolling Stone article acknowledged the effect her story might have on sexual assault victims, writing in a statement: “I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard.”
Sexual assault on college campuses is not the only issue to be caught in the cultural crossfire
when some of the facts of a well-publicized case unravel. The same could be said of the Michael Brown/Darren Wilson case in Ferguson, Missouri. Protests born in the wake of Brown’s killing by Wilson frequently invoked the phrase “hands up, don’t shoot,” a reference to the posture that some witnesses said was held by Brown when he was shot. The Department of Justice found little evidence to support that narrative.
Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee went on Fox News to declare a “war on our nation’s finest, the American police officer” based on a “false narrative out of Ferguson, Missouri, this ‘hands up, don’t shoot.’” He continued, “We know now for a fact that that never happened.”
Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post wrote a much-talked-about column under the headline “‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ Was Built On a Lie.” And yet Capehart was careful to make this caveat: “Yet this does not diminish the importance of the real issues unearthed in Ferguson by Brown’s death. Nor does it discredit what has become the larger ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
Cases like these raise the questions: What happens when one particular case is shown to have flaws although the overall condition that it illustrated holds true? How much damage is done when ammunition is given to deniers? How do you balance an impulse toward immediate empathy with the patience necessary for a reservation of judgment until a proper investigation can be performed?
Is there an ultimately unhealthy need to identify a “catalyst case” that will shock the conscience and lay waste to civic apathy, a case that will arrest the sensibilities of the weary and dispassionate and move them to action? I would argue that the integrity of truth and the honor of righteousness know no era. They don’t need to win the moment because they will always win the ages.
And, therefore, these cases stand as cautionary markers that we can never be so eager to have our convictions confirmed that deliberation is abandoned and our truth-detectors are disarmed. That goes for those in the media as well as the public. Sometimes justice dictates a glacial fortitude, even in a modern period of instant gratification.
In these cases, the error must be acknowledged and absorbed without distorting the mission. One measure of the merits of a movement and a cause are their resilience in the face of tumult, their ability to take a blow and scamper back to their feet, to stay homed in on the beacon of light even after the darkness falls.
Remember what Malcolm X said: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against.” When you are in honest pursuit of justice, the truth will never hurt you.
The New York Times