How the Times Handled the Rape Report

In the last couple of days, two items have appeared at the New York Times in which the paper—whose coverage of campus sexual assault issues has learned no lessons from its propagandistic performance in the Duke lacrosse case—purports to lecture other journalists on how they should cover the issue.

The first came from a blog post by Times public editor Margaret Sullivan. Commenting on what Rolling Stone now needs to do, she wrote, “Self-examination and transparency were the keys . . . I hope that the magazine will thoroughly investigate what happened, publish that investigation and tell its readers how, precisely, editors will make sure it never happens again.” I must have missed the Times’ thorough investigation of its botched lacrosse coverage—which prompted acknowledgements of error on three separate occasions by high-ranking figures at the paper, but no explanation of why the paper failed, apart from a Rolling Stone-like decision to shift blame to its sources (Mike Nifong and the Duke administration).

Sullivan also cites the paper’s own sexual assault reporting—chiefly its alleged exposé at Hobart & William Smith—as a model that other journalists should follow. Leave aside the fact that the Finger Lakes Times uncovered significant holes in the Times portrayal. How can Sullivan praise the Times for its HWS piece, in which the accuser’s “identity was far from hidden; her photograph was a part of the article, and she was identified in many other ways as well,” when the paper had published (without any retraction, as a Times reporter recently affirmed) the Yale/Patrick Witt story in which reporter Richard Pérez-Peñaacknowledged that he had no idea who the accuser was, much less what specifically she had alleged Witt had done.

Keep in mind, moreover, that this is the same paper whose news pages desperately tried to prop up Rolling Stone‘s crumbling storyline, through a faux-balanced “news” article that found two journalism professors willing to excuse the Rolling Stone decision not to seek comment from the person the magazine had portrayed as an organizer of a monstrous gang rape.

Tuesday’s paper, meanwhile, featured a bizarre editorial citing to the collapse of the UVA story as justification for Congress passing the deeply flawed McCaskill bill. More remarkable, the Times used the editorial to admit, in an almost offhanded fashion, that the administration’s claim that 20 percent of women will be raped while in college is based on a “flawed” statistic.

Nothing in the Times’ one-sided coverage would have prepared readers for this admission. Perhaps the Times was shamed by Emily Yoffe’s extraordinary longform piece in Slate, which conclusively debunked the 1-in-5 claim through both statistics and logic. (Among other things, Yoffe pointed out that the claim presumes that women on campus are raped at about the same rate as women in the war-torn Congo.) The paper stood by the assertion that false reports of campus rape are “rare,” alleging figures ranging from 2 to 8 percent—but as Megan McArdle has pointed out, on this question “what we know is that we don’t know.”

And then, of course, is the Times’ own reporting on the case. As numerous blogs (plus correspondents at Reason) joined the Washington Post in asking hard questions about the Rolling Stone story, the Times’ initial coverage (“University officials vow to combat campus rape problem”) accepted the Sabrina Erdely piece as gospel. Pérez-Peñareturned to the story as the Erdely narrative collapsed, informing readers that Rolling Stone had admitted to problems with the article—but that “victim advocates here say that even if aspects of Jackie’s account do not hold up under scrutiny [by this point, Jackie has told two, mutually contradictory version of the alleged attack], they still tend to believe that she was assaulted, and they note that survivors of trauma often have murky or inconsistent recollections of the event.” In any case, the university “still has a hard-drinking, fraternity-dominated social culture.”

Of course.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

8 thoughts on “How the Times Handled the Rape Report

  1. KC,

    It appears that Emily Renda, the UVA employee who peddled “Jackie’s” story to Rolling Stone, and perhaps thereby involved her State employer in violating the civil rights of other students at UVA, also testified to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in June, 2014, recounting a story of a UVA first year named “Jenna”, who had been raped by five fraternity men early in her first year. The rest of the details also bear a distinct resemblance to the story recounted in Rolling Stone. See the testimony at the link below:

    http://www.help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Renda.pdf

    Was Senator McCaskill or her staff aware that Ms. Renda’s testimony was not supported by any investigation? Was Senator Gillibrand or her staff aware? Have either Senator McCaskill or Senator Gillibrand been asked to disavow Ms. Renda’s testimony? Is it possible that Emily Renda’s testimony before the Senate Committee was what brought the “Jenna” or “Jackie” story to the attention of Sabrina Erdeley? Is it possible that a staffer for either Senator McCaskill or Senator Gillibrand encouraged Sabrina Erdeley to follow up on, and perhaps publicize the story presented in Emily Renda’s testimony? (Senator Gillibrand seemed, to this observer, very quick to jump on the UVA story when it was published in Rolling Stone, and it is not uncommon for Congressional offices to work with sympathetic journalists to publicize story lines in advance of moving legislation.)

  2. Maybe the NYTimes has adopted a new theory of epistemology whereby the truth of a proposition is determined by whether it “rings true for many” (verum anulum multus).

    This theory was used by an an assistant managing editor of The Cavalier Daily (U of VA’s student newspaper) in “Why We Believed Jackie’s Rape Story: Because it rang true for so many of us on the University of Virginia campus.”

    http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/12/why-we-believed-jackies-story-113365.html

  3. Just thin, before the Internet the NYT would have had no discernible pushback on this. Now, not only is there pushback, but most of the world knows more about this story than the NYT admits they know.

    Gee, I wonder it this is part of their financial problems.

  4. Deer, headlights. Clint’s timeless wisdom has finally come to the Times: “A man’s got to know his limitations”.

    But how did they not gloat about their FSU/Jameis Winsotn coverage?

  5. The story is preposterous to anyone who has ever been a member of a fraternity, let alone anyone who has children recently attending university. It now looks like the White House may have had a hand, or at least a finger, in this mess.

  6. The Times has unfortunately morphed into a mouth piece for the far left elements of the Democratic Party. The Post was slow to pick this up but they are really on a roll.

  7. Well, KC, we both are shocked, SHOCKED that the NYT once again takes a craven approach to this story. The Times is beholden to its narratives no matter how untrue they might be.

    I especially like the claim by the NYT that college campuses are as dangerous for females as it is for females in the Congo where, as Emily Yoffe so aptly pointed out, rape is used as a war weapon. Just as bad, President Obama cites the same statistics. (I remember the “three million homeless people” narrative of the 1980s. Guess some things never change.)

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