Rolling Stone and Rape
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Rolling Stone magazine’s announcement that it has lost confidence in its story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia strikes us as a teaching moment. It’s hard to recall a campus-related story that has had quite as sensational an impact as the Rolling Stone dispatch. It recounted the gang rape of a student named Jackie, who told of having been taken into a darkened room at a fraternity party and, for several hours, raped by several students. Rolling Stone’s dispatch prompted the university president, Teresa Sullivan, to suspend more than 30 fraternities at the institution founded by Thos. Jefferson.
Savvy reporters wondered about the story from the start. One hard-headed editor told us she was troubled by the fact that the story said that, in three cases, names were changed. Today the magazine said that new information and discrepancies had arisen that led it to conclude that its trust in the accuser had been misplaced. The paper confessed that because of the “sensitive nature” of the accuser’s story, it had “decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”
Said Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Dana: “We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.” The New York Times quoted Mr. Dana as saying: “I don’t know what happened that night. I don’t know who is telling the truth and who is not.”
All this prompted us to pull out our copy of the United States Constitution and go to the 6th Amendment. That’s the one that grants to a person accused of a crime in America the right to, among other things, be confronted with the hostile witnesses against him. It doesn’t say that the accused shall enjoy this right except in cases of gang rape. Or except in cases where it might be humiliating. It says the accused shall enjoy this right. It is just part of American bedrock.
Now we comprehend that the 6th Amendment is about the conduct of criminal trials and not about magazine work. But the underlying principle is not irrelevant to journalism. The failure to reach out to the accused is an extraordinary lapse. The Supreme Court won’t deny the right of confrontation even to individuals accused of raping children. It once remanded the conviction of an alleged child rapist because the child was permitted to testify from behind a screen in the courtroom.
That decision, in Coy v. Iowa, was written by Justice Scalia, who, in the course of his opinion, got in to the etymology of the word “confrontation.” The Great Scalia noted that “the word ‘confront’ ultimately derives from the prefix ‘con-‘ (from ‘contra’ meaning ‘against’ or ‘opposed’) and the noun ‘frons’ (forehead).” Shakespeare, Justice Scalia went on, “was thus describing the root meaning of confrontation when he had Richard the Second say: ‘Then call them to our presence — face to face, and frowning brow to brow, ourselves will hear the accuser and the accused freely speak. . . .’”
The cataract of doubts about the Rolling Stone story doesn’t mean that campus rape is not a problem. But we like the way the Wall Street Journal put it in an editorial in tomorrow’s paper. It notes that all publications make mistakes, but that this one seems to be of an author looking “for a story to fit a pre-existing narrative—in this case, the supposed epidemic of sexual assault at elite universities, along with the presumed indifference of those schools to the problem.” It strikes us that the more sensitive, the more politically explosive a story, the more the classical rules need to be applied.