Over the weekend, Rolling Stone retracted its blockbuster UVA story, and apologized to everyone involved. Nobody was fired or quit, and no changes to editorial policy have been announced. Reassuring!
But if you want to know how a narrative trumps facts in the mind of journalists, look no further than this think piece published in Politico (safe Google Cache link):
I am drained. I am confused. But I keep returning to one question. If everyone here believed Jackie’s story until yesterday — a story in which she is violently raped by seven men at a fraternity house as part of a planned initiation ritual — should we not still be concerned?
There was something in that story which stuck. And that means something.
You see where we’re headed: author Julia Horowitz is trying to sell us Fake But Accurate. It gets worse:
The University of Virginia — like most American universities — has a problem with rape. Current estimates, cited earlier this year by Vice President Joe Biden, hold that one in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college.
That means that in my 200-person politics lecture, roughly a full row will be filled with survivors. In my 20-person major seminar, there are at least two. That is not a calculus I should have to work out in the margins of my Marx-Engels reader.
DIGRESSION ON THAT STATISTIC: This startling statistic is the basis for much of what follows in the piece. The statistic is also questionable. To avoid this becoming a distraction, I have created a page that discusses some of the problems with the statistic, here. Suffice it to say that it is misleading to suggest that it is ironclad, as other studies have shown far less incidence of sexual assault, or that it is representative of the experiences of women on campuses throughout the country. (END DIGRESSION)
“If we are being honest with ourselves, no matter if specifics of the article are true, …reading the article as a college student, you were thinking, ‘This could happen,’” said Rex Humphries, a second-year who pledged a fraternity last spring. Your first reaction is not, ‘This is preposterous.” I asked if he thought Jackie’s story could be true. He paused and said, “Yes.”
If Rex Humphries actually does exist, the fact that he thinks a story “could be true” when we know it isn’t seems rather beside the point, doesn’t it? Not to Horowitz:
Ultimately, though, from where I sit in Charlottesville, to let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake.
So who is Julia Horowitz, such that her musings get published in Politico?
Julia Horowitz is an assistant managing editor at The Cavalier Daily, the University of Virginia’s student newspaper.
She has a wonderful future in journalism.