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.”