Last week, researchers from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism released some 13,000 unflinching words dissecting “What Went Wrong” at Rolling Stone last year when the venerable anti-establishment muckraking magazine published a now-retracted horror story about a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity.
But you don’t need to read past the long report’s first paragraph to understand the essence of “what went wrong.”
Citing reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s own notes, the Columbia investigators say Rolling Stone’s story “A Rape on Campus” began with Erdely “searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show ‘what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture.’ ”
Every inquiry — be it journalistic, criminal, scientific, whatever — involves a hypothesis being tested. But it sounds as if Erdely began not with a hypothesis but with an unshakable ideological conviction about today’s college culture. The actual truth about the specific events and people she wrote about became less important than a “larger truth” — what’s often called a “master narrative” — for which she merely required a sufficiently vivid “emblem.”
Every journalist has felt the temptation to overlook or minimize contradictions or ambiguities or factual holes that threaten to weaken or derail a big story. Prosecutors, scientists and other fact-finders also have been known to cut corners to serve their own ambitions, or (often even more corrupting) a “higher truth” or a “greater good.”
Seldom, we like to think — among what political scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson calls the “custodians of fact” — does the overriding loyalty owed to the plain, concrete truth break down so completely as it did in this instance at Rolling Stone.
Yet the absence so far of dismissals or other serious consequences at Rolling Stone suggests an unnerving casualness about, at best, reckless endangerment of the truth.
What’s frankly more worrying, though, is the possibility that it’s Rolling Stone that is merely “emblematic.” Could the errant magazine be an emblem of a “pervasive culture” of looseness about the truth in our time? A pervasive culture of mendacity, and tolerance of mendacity?
Let me offer a few other potential emblems of that culture:
Among journalists, NBC’s Brian Williams suffered painful consequences, while Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly did not, for embellishing their exploits as war correspondents.
Leaders at the University of Minnesota have been exposed for years of misleading statements related to a 2004 suicide of a patient in a psychiatric drug trial. Last week, the chair of the U’s Psychiatry Department stepped down.
Hillary Clinton has explained that it was just a matter of convenience that inspired her to seal off from public scrutiny tens of thousands of her e-mails while serving as secretary of state.
In December, the Senate Intelligence Committee released enough of its report on “enhanced interrogation techniques” during the Bush administration to make fully and finally clear how preposterous had been years of denial that this was “torture.”
The U.S. Justice Department’s decision not to press charges against a former Ferguson, Mo., police officer confirmed that the “hands up-don’t shoot” nightmare that ignited a national firestorm last summer was a lie too recklessly repeated and too grudgingly abandoned. Meanwhile, the problem of police abuses that was the “master narrative” behind the Ferguson errors came vividly on display in last week’s ugly video of a cop opening fire in South Carolina.
Republican presidential candidate — er, potential candidate — Jeb Bush has reportedly pioneered a new device to massively circumvent campaign finance disclosure rules by maintaining that despite coast-to-coast barnstorming, Bush III is “not a candidate for office at this time,” as an aide put it a couple weeks ago.
Five years ago, the Gulf oil spill was declared “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced” by President Obama and just about every “expert” any journalist in America could seem to find. Today, it doesn’t seem to have been the world-altering catastrophe proclaimed at the time.
Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was recently asked, in the wake of his announcing retirement plans, about his notorious 2012 calumny that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney hadn’t paid income tax in a decade. Reid shrugged off the notion of regrets and mused: “He didn’t win, did he?”
By this time many readers may be conjuring up their own collection of mendacity emblems — perhaps with their own ideological pattern. They may be thinking about weapons of mass destruction that couldn’t be found, or health insurance policies that couldn’t be kept, or priestly sex abuse that couldn’t be foreseen — or a hundred other whoppers.
The plain truth is that, almost everywhere you look, people in prominent positions are twisting things, stretching things and getting things wrong. And too seldom must they admit it or pay a price.
Of course, none of this is new. Ludicrous lies are as old as Cain, and Mark Twain’s quip about a falsehood getting halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on hails from simpler days.
Yet it’s often earnestly asked now: Why don’t people today trust the experts, or institutions, or the press as they once did? And it does seem that trust is more scarce than it used to be.
Might that suggest that the culture of mendacity is even more pervasive than it used to be?
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.