And that is just what the story of "Jackie" did. It jibed perfectly with the Democratic Party campaign strategy of fetishizing rape on college campuses, framing a felonious crime and its prevention into an identity-politics female empowerment movement. It deflected our attention from the inconvenient truth that the party of the New Deal and the Great Society has become the party of Wall Street and Permawar.
At the exact same time (last summer and fall) that Rolling Stone contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely began issuing what amounted to a casting call for the ideal college rape victim to star in her blockbuster article, the White House was rolling out an anti-rape branding campaign called "It's On Us." The Democrats desperately needed a narrative to differentiate themselves from the Republicans for the upcoming midterms. They desperately needed a new wedge issue variant to counter the GOP's "war on women." The perceived epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses fit the bill perfectly. Rather than talking about the rape of a nation by a gang of unprosecuted financial predators of Wall Street, we could talk about the rapes of young women by their unprosecuted predatory male peers on elite college campuses.
Mass post-meltdown public angst and outrage could be safely channeled by liberal leaders of the media-political complex. Nobody is a fan of rape, after all. We all have daughters, granddaughters, sisters and nieces. We can all relate.
Rolling Stone, an establishment magazine of "popular culture," knew a trending topic when it saw one. Sabrina Rubin Erdely found the ideal victim, and went on a sensationalistic rampage. Since the magazine was on a mission -- the cultural equivalent of William Randolph Hearst's fraudulent but splendid little warmongering, sparked by the explosion of The Maine -- no corroborating evidence, witnesses or basic fact-checking were required. "Jackie" was the co-invention of both Jackie and Sabrina. Facts would only have gotten in the way of the yellow journalism. It is a conspiracy by any other name.
Columbia University, in its "scathing" report of the fraud, called it a failure of journalism. It should be called a botched, failed, criminally dishonest marketing campaign. The magazine officials themselves are in "mistakes were made" mode. Nobody is admitting to perpetrating a fraud. Nobody will lose his or her job over the unfortunate little episode. The worst tragedy that could come out of the whole thing is if we stopped believing that campus rape is a real problem, if we automatically assume that every rape victim is lying. And that is why Rolling Stone "reached out" to a panel of independent investigators in order to discover "where they went wrong."
Editor Will Dana practically brays out the noblesse oblige as he humblebrags about his own innate decency:
Painful and sad.... but oh so fascinating, too! From now on, they will police themselves, just like a Wall Street bank. We apologize if you were offended. Your comfort is our deepest concern. If you are now afraid to report your rape, that makes us sad. But not sad enough to fire ourselves. Because even though the story was retracted, it got an amazing number of clicks when it was published. It attracted more than 2.7 million views, the most ever for an article "not about a celebrity."This report was painful reading, to me personally and to all of us at Rolling Stone. It is also, in its own way, a fascinating document — a piece of journalism, as Coll describes it, about a failure of journalism. With its publication, we are officially retracting 'A Rape on Campus.' We are also committing ourselves to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report. We would like to apologize to our readers and to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students. Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.
To its credit, the Columbia investigating team didn't buy Rolling Stone's self-protective altruism as an excuse. From the report:
Yet the explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong. Erdely's reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain. The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie's position.
It would be unfortunate if Rolling Stone's failure were to deter journalists from taking on high-risk investigations of rape in which powerful individuals or institutions may wish to avoid scrutiny but where the facts may be underdeveloped. There is clearly a need for a more considered understanding and debate among journalists and others about the best practices for reporting on rape survivors, as well as on sexual assault allegations that have not been adjudicated. This report will suggest ways forward. It will also seek to clarify, however, why Rolling Stone's failure with "A Rape on Campus" need not have happened, even accounting for the magazine's sensitivity to Jackie's position. That is mainly a story about reporting and editing.
By the time Rolling Stone's editors assigned an article on campus sexual assault to Erdely in the spring of 2014, high-profile rape cases at Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Vanderbilt and Florida State had been in the headlines for months. The Office of Civil Rights at the federal Department of Education was leaning on colleges to reassess and improve their policies. Across the country, college administrators had to adjust to stricter federal oversight as well as to a new generation of student activists, including women who declared openly that they had been raped at school and had not received justice.
There were numerous reports of campus assault that had been mishandled by universities. At Columbia, an aggrieved student dragged a mattress around campus to call attention to her account of assault and injustice. The facts in these cases were sometimes disputed, but they had generated a wave of campus activism. "My original idea," Dana said, was "to look at one of these cases and have the story be more about the process of what happens when an assault is reported and the sort of issues it brings up."Erdely, ironically enough, boasts on her own website that she specializes in writing about fakes and frauds and weirdos: "She has written about con artists, murder investigations, vicious divorces, power brokers, lovable eccentrics, bioweapons, cults, sexual violence, medical ethics, hackers, LGBT issues, and teachers who have affairs with students—among other subjects."
Jackie's story seemed a powerful candidate for such a narrative.
She is a graduate of the Hearst School of Yellow Journalism. No, she isn't. I just made that up. She truthily dropped out of the Hearst School of Yellow Journalism before ever getting her degree. I didn't need a fact-checker for that fact, because there is, in fact, no such school. But it enhances my narrative.
The celebrity mattress-toting student was, in actual documented fact, a special guest at the narrative that was President Obama's State of the Union Address. (I am not making that up.) During February's televised Grammy Awards show, Obama himself in fact made a special cameo appearance to announce that "Rape is Not O.K." (although permawar and drone assassinations and financial crimes and deep-sea drilling and job-destroying secret corporate trade deals are still good to go.)
The Obama White House's campus rape fetish of a marketing campaign went into full swing last September, relying heavily on the same click-baiting culture of celebrity that Rolling Stone does.
Wired --another edgy culture-tech magazine -- called it "a smart branding campaign against sexual assault." (even though Obama's claim that one out of every five college women is sexually assaulted turned out to be wildly non-factual.)
The pre-midterm elections stunt was pure Madison Avenue, a direct creation of an advertising agency. It used celebrities (including, ironically, Jon Hamm, who plays an alcohol-soaked sexual predator on Mad Men) and a slogan -- "It's On Us" -- to deliver the heretofore unknown message that sex crimes are not cool. The subliminal message? Vote Democrat. GOP fetus-detecting vaginal wands, rapists' penises, they're all the same in the grand electoral scheme of things. From the Wired article:
After the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault compiled a report on sexual assault in April, the White House and Generation Progress (an arm of the nonprofit Center for American Progress) decided to launch a campaign promoting “bystander intervention.”It's only a cynical hop skip and jump to the Tee shirts and testimonials and corporate sponsorships and interactive video games. You can even log on to take the It’s On Us pledge, and the website will generate a profile with your mug shot framed in the shape of the logo. (with the ultimate destination being the NSA Utah storage facility? It's an Obama two-fer!)
This is a new tack for these kinds of public service announcements: Rather than telling men ‘no means no,’ and instead of imploring women to report attacks when they happen, a bystander campaign calls on everyone to keep their eyes peeled and to create a culture that won’t tolerate sexual misconduct.
From there, Mekanism (the ad agency) essentially had free rein to whittle down the message. They pitched five ideas, almost went with “Get in the way,” and then settled on “It’s on us.” “The way most sexual assault messaging in the past has been, there’s a perpetrator and the victim and those are the two parties involved,” says David Horowitz, Mekanism’s creative director.
The Rolling Stone rape story has been lambasted as a travesty of journalism. But it's not journalism. It's political marketing. It never would have been made possible without a tacit grant from the big money-driven media-political complex. The article is not part of any problem. It's simply a part of the neoliberal solution: keeping the masses alternately ignorant, sedated, entertained, and terrorized.
That is a fact.