In the wake of the controversy over Rolling Stone’s story about campus rape, and the response from The Washington Post, I have a few wishes:
I wish solid reporting on sexual abuse on campus received the attention it deserved.
I wish that rape victims always were treated with the respect, seriousness and care for the truth that Kristen Lombardi so well exemplifies. Her nine-month investigation in 2009 won her several national journalism awards. But it didn’t prompt to the media attention that Rolling Stone’s story did last month. (And praise to Post blogger Alyssa Rosenberg for reminding us that telling the stories of rape victims demands special skills from journalists.)
I wish Rolling Stone’s sensational rape story had held up and that the reporter had done a better job checking her facts before questions about the veracity of her explosive central anecdote undermined in some people’s minds the fundamental premise of her story: that rape victims find it difficult to come forward on campus, scared of their attackers and unsure that the university will believe them or protect them.
The story of the woman reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely called Jackie was the vivid narrative that held our attention, but the article also contained the stories of other women who spoke on the record and allowed their full names to be used. It also contained a penetrating critique of a campus culture that seems to prefer less accountability and more genteel silence, even if that means hurting sexual assault victims and even, potentially, those who are wrongfully accused.
I wish that the collapse of this one vivid anecdote had not skewed coverage of the larger issue in the Post. Indeed in its initial follow-up to the Rolling Stone article – before the questions about Jackie’s story arose – the Post was writing solid pieces about the way U-VA responds or fails to respond to victims of sexual assault.
For example, I wish the Post had diverted some of the resources it devoted to reacting to the Rolling Stone story to covering the Senate hearing on campus sexual assaults, instead of relying on an Associated Press story.
Instead, not only have the Post’s two media critics – Paul Farhi and blogger Erik Wemple – weighed in several times about the flawed reporting, we’ve had several very long pieces on its factual errors. The Post did a public service in initially raising doubts about the veracity of certain aspects of Jackie’s account, but the the paper now risks losing sight of the larger institutional problem that the story attempted to illustrate.
I wish more stories like this one by Nick Anderson were part of the Post’s ongoing coverage.
I wish the Post had not given the sleazy blogger who recklessly chose to reveal what he claims is the name of the rape victim the attention he so desperately craves.
I wish that Post editors don’t lose sight of the balanced views the Post editorial staff has wisely conveyed.
I wish the Post had devoted as much energy, outrage, and general chest thumping to debunking the shoddy journalism that helped send us to war in Iraq, leading to more than 100,000 violent deaths, as it has to this one failure in a key part of one story by Rolling Stone.
Finally, I wish, desperately, that a newspaper that once nominated a story for the Pulitzer Prize whose central character turned out to have been fabricated out of whole cloth, would, just for a moment, stop being so self-righteous about this incident. And move on.