Chomsky Critiques the News Part One: “A Rape On Campus”

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I feel like going down a rabbit hole whenever I write a news story. Hence why I’m reluctant writing anything that could be called journalism, because most journalists these days must research the Internet to find credible sources, and doing so is like getting lost in a labyrinth; an honest skeptical writer easily gets overwhelmed by all the information online.

I sometimes play a game where I follow online sources as far as I can, to see how far I can dig down in the mine before I hit the bottom. For instance, while doing research on The Rolling Stone’s article, “A Rape On Campus”, I hit a pit of PDFs of legal documents or get lost in a zone with nothing do with The Rolling Stone. You should try it sometime; sail into the sea and watch where the flighty winds take you.

For example, I begin with the Columbia Journalism Review article on the Rolling Stones[1], then follow a link to a source from the Huffington Post describing one of the high profile rape cases of the year 2013[2], then follow the link to Yale University’s Report of Complaints of Sexual Misconduct[3], then follow the link in the report to a Yale webpage storing all reports to the present day[4], which leads me back to Yale’s 2013 report. I reach a dead end.

Another example; I follow another link in the Huffington Post article, leading to an article about Yale facing a $165,000 Clery Act Fine[5] – I admit seeing Huffington Post site itself as a source gives me some suspicion and contempt, since right wing websites cite themselves and each other all the time to deceive gullible readers. – I follow a link to a Cornell Law School webpage describing a section of the Clery Act[6]. I have strayed far from Rolling Stones by this point, leaving the drug-addled hipsters in the basement to meet the poor unpaid interns in the office learning the fine arts of diffidence, greed, and trickery.

So why did I lure you into a wild mole chase for sources for a rape case four years old, and not cut to the chase, as a so-called good journalist should? Because I want to show you an important truth, that our knowledge of the world is unreal, that falling into error of bias or the snares of a propagandist i too easy, that we have no right in our so-called Information Age to hold confidence in our grasp of the truth. We must, instead, hold a severe suspicion to all the powers of the world, including the stories we tell our friends or write about in news articles, because no matter how you spin it, we are always taking someone’s word for it.

Enter Noam Chomsky, a scholar and activist who earned his fame rebuking our country’s fine statesmen for their commitment to justice, such as in his book Who Rules the World. While Chomsky spends most of his time describing our ceaseless wars against the poor at home and against the poor overseas, he devotes one chapter to critique The New York Times for one little day; April 6, 2015. He mentions an article from the Columbia Journalism Review critiquing the flawed Rolling Stones report on the campus rape of a student named Jackie in the University of Virginia in 2014, which also condemns our press for invention, plagiarism, and lack of skepticism[7].

Chomsky quickly moves on to discuss the New York Times articles regarding our imperial wars in Laos, Cuba, and Iran, subjects closer to him, to show more examples of invention and lack of skepticism in the press. I will devote this article to the Rolling Stones to show how an example of how journalists fail us in researching a rape case before showing how journalists fail us in reporting our grand global wars.

A boiler plate summary of the events to jog our memories; a student under the false name “Jackie” confesses to the journalist Sabrina Erdely the story of her rape, which occurred in a Phi Kappa Psi frat party hosted by a third year lifeguard named “Drew” on September 2012. Erdely sincerely cared for Jackie and published her article on The Rolling Stone called “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA”, but her story fell apart when police could not find more evidence for the case. Sean Woods, principal editor of the story, retracted the article[8].

What went wrong? Let us discuss the errors of Erdely and The Rolling Stones in a list fitting for BuzzFeed.

1. Erdely let her convictions cloud her judgment when researching Jackie’s rape case. As the Columbia Journalism Review states, men often rape women on campus, citing high-profile cases from Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Vanderbilt, and Florida. Erdely, rightly moved by compassion at the plight of those young women, rightly indignant at such injustice, vowed to report a compelling rape case, one that revealed “what it’s like to be on campus now… where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture”[9]

History professor KC Johnson in Minding the Campus, who obtained a full recording of Erdely’s interview with Jackie[10] and cropped select moments to make his case[11], claimed Erdely and Jackie both held rigid beliefs; both despised fraternities, Erdely saying campus groups value so-called social capital more than the students’ safety[12] and Jackie wishing to punish fraternities for being chauvinist in general[13]. Erdely did hold righteous anger but she also held deep prejudice against people she judged abusive to women.

2. Erdely used only one source, her interview with Jackie, and did not bother sniffing around campus for more evidence, especially from people without bias. To Erdely, Jackie had “a stamp of credibility”, telling her everything she wanted to hear, so she took Jackie’s word for it. Without much surprise, she ran into many problems. For one, neither Erdely nor Rolling Stone could contact “Drew” to confirm if he even existed, and Erdely disparaged Jackie’s friends and Dean Nicole Eramo, which required her to present strong sources to prove her charges; otherwise it would be slander, which is what Erdely did in effect[14].

Neither did the police around campus find any evidence to support Erdely’s story. Haven Mohan, the first man Jackie claims to have raped her, never existed. Phi Kappa Psi never held a frat party the night of the rape. There was no evidence Jackie was assaulted by four men after she was raped. Jackie claimed the frat members assaulted two other women, which never happened. Lastly, Jackie did not help verify any details to the police.[15].

Erdely made an official apology on April 5, 2015, after Jackie’s rape case was refuted, confessing: “I did not go far enough to verify her story. I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts. These are mistakes I will not make again.”[16]

I will not condemn Erdely too much, as rape cases are extremely difficult, by nature, to bring to justice. It is very hard for police and detectives to gather evidence; a woman who was raped must willingly undergo a second invasion of her person soon after the first offence made against her to collect evidence in a rape kit; women delay in pressing charges for years, if they press charges at all, as they fear the community will strike back at them, especially men; and traumas such as rape, by their nature, afflict a person’s memory of the event.

Still, a journalist can approach a rape victim in an adroit manner. Kristen Lombardi, the staff writer for Sexual Assault on Campus, for example, makes it clear to any victim who wishes an interview that she must collect evidence, obtain documents, and interview the accused person; yet she also allows victims the power to determine the time and place of the interview, giving them the room to speak when and where they feel comfortable[17].

You, if you are a tender reader, may find Lombardi cruel and unyielding for setting herself such strict boundaries when researching a rape victim’s case, but researching a case in such slapdash manner, as Erdely did, would be truly cruel, as it will ensure the rape victim the crime committed against her will never be brought to justice and make men more hostile to any woman who wishes to press charges in the future. Doing shoddy research in the name of justice only hurts the people who need justice the most.

Next article, I will cover Chomsky’s critique of the New York Times article about the American bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War, and how he sniffs out the propaganda America created about the war to justify it to her people.

[1] Coronel, Sheila, et al. “Rolling Stone’s Investigation: ‘A Failure That Was Avoidable.’” Columbia Journalism Review, 5 Apr. 2015, http://www.cjr.org/investigation/rolling_stone_investigation.php.

[2] Kingkade, Tyler. “Yale Fails To Expel Students Guilty Of Sexual Assault.” Huffington Post, 1 Aug. 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/01/yale-sexual-assault-punishment_n_3690100.html.

[3] Spangler, Stephanie S. “Yale University Report of Complaints of Sexual Misconduct Brought Forward from January 1, 2013 through June 30, 2013.” 31 July 2013, big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/FINAL_Jul2013.pdf.

[4] “Reports: Complaints of Sexual Misconduct.” Reports | Office of the Provost, Yale University, provost.yale.edu/title-ix/reports.

[5] Kingkade, Tyler. Yale Faces $165,000 Clery Act Fine For Failing To Report Sex Offenses On Campus. Huffington Post, 15 May 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/15/yale-clery-act_n_3280195.html.

[6] “20 U.S. Code § 1092 – Institutional and Financial Assistance Information for Students.” LII / Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/20/1092.

[7] “One Day in the Life of a Reader of the New York Times.” Who Rules the World?, by Noam Chomsky, Peguin, 2017, p. 213.

[8] Coronel, Sheila, et al. “Rolling Stone’s Investigation: ‘A Failure That Was Avoidable.’” Columbia Journalism Review, 5 Apr. 2015, http://www.cjr.org/investigation/rolling_stone_investigation.php.

[9] Coronel, Sheila, et al. Rolling Stone & UVA: Columbia School of Journalism’s Report. Rolling Stone, 5 Apr. 2015, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/a-rape-on-campus-what-went-wrong-20150405.

[10] Box, clarelocke.app.box.com/s/gr2awhxzywjard0fmjzi4jlgs9q2p2ub.

[11] Johnson, KC. “Erdely-Jackie Conversations.” Academic Wonderland, 24 Oct. 2016, academicwonderland.com/2016/10/24/erdely-jackie-conversations/.

[12] Schow, Ashe, and Ryan M. Kelly. “4 Things We’ve Learned about a Rolling Stone Author’s Rape Bias.” Washington Examiner, 24 Oct. 2016, http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/4-things-weve-learned-about-a-rolling-stone-authors-rape-bias/article/2605396.

[13] Johnson, KC. “THE ‘JACKIE’ INTERVIEW IN THE UVA FAKE RAPE.” Minding The Campus, 25 Oct. 2016, http://www.mindingthecampus.org/2016/10/the-jackie-interview-in-the-uva-fake-rape/.

[14] Coronel, Sheila, et al. “Rolling Stone’s Investigation: ‘A Failure That Was Avoidable.’” Columbia Journalism Review, 5 Apr. 2015, http://www.cjr.org/investigation/rolling_stone_investigation.php.

[15] “Cops Shoot Holes in Rolling Stone’s UVa Rape Story.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 23 Mar. 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/cops-shoot-holes-in-rolling-stones-uva-rape-story?ref=scroll.

[16] Sabrina Rubin Erdely, Writer of Rolling Stone Rape Article, Issues Statement. The New York Times, 5 Apr. 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/06/business/media/statement-from-writer-of-rolling-stone-rape-article-sabrina-erdely.html.

[17] Coronel, Sheila, et al. “Rolling Stone’s Investigation: ‘A Failure That Was Avoidable.’” Columbia Journalism Review, 5 Apr. 2015, http://www.cjr.org/investigation/rolling_stone_investigation.php.

 

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