Monday, December 8, 2014

Rape Is Too Serious A Crime To Be Left In The Hands Of Bumblers And Sleaze Merchants

That Rolling Stone and Sabrina Rubin Erdely failed in their responsibility to check facts in their recent and explosive article about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia points out how dangerous the discussion of rape has become.   In this case it is irresponsible in two ways, one as important as the other.

One is, of course, in the conviction in the public mind of people who haven't had a chance to question accusations made against them.  A right that is so fundamental to both the discovery of the truth, a shield against the power of bigotry, stereotype and a sensationalist and lying media and gossip machine that everyone needs to understand its importance to them.   From the confusing accounts of the woman who made the accusations that are appearing on the online gossip machine, it's a right that is obviously as important to her as to her alleged attackers.

But the other is the disaster the handling of the issue of rape has been for the credibility of rape victims in general and for those who advocate forcing the police and prosecutors into bringing those cases for which there is real evidence that a crime has been committed.

I am tempted to focus entirely on the role of real evidence that stands up to examination and which could force a conclusion of guilt on a jury, what the police and prosecutors should know is their responsibility already.  But this is about the role of the media and the way in which its failure to even do the most basic of journalistic functions, examine what it presents as facts to the public, makes that even harder.  When it comes to the media, anything from very flawed accusation with some evidence to absolutely no evidence, at all, suffices.  In online media even that's not important, prejudice is the only standard of practice allowed by irresponsible hosts of comment threads.

Rolling Stone's "Note to Our Readers" about their conduct in writing, editing and publishing the piece said:

Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely reported the story, Jackie said or did nothing that made her, or Rolling Stone's editors and fact-checkers, question her credibility. Jackie’s friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported her account. She had spoken of the assault in  campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of Phi Psi, the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn’t confirm or deny her story but that they had questions about the evidence. 

If she was speaking of the assault in campus forums, the people she was accusing - and it would appear to be anyone who had pledged that fraternity at the time who could have been involved - already knew about her accusations.  If she was fearful of them attacking her, it couldn't have been on the basis of their having not been publicly accused.   So that excuse for them not talking to the man she claimed orchestrated the attack is weak.  

Her request that they not attempt to talk to the man she was accusing was a request that Erdley and Rolling Stone not do their job as as journalists.  That she seemed credible is far from adequate fact checking, it's a presumption that the accusation was a fact when that hadn't been established.

As much as I detest fraternities and sororities and as much as I think they should be banned from universities, especially public ones, the people in those have a right to not be universally presented as criminals by a magazine and the guaranteed, resulting tunami of lies and gossip that are guaranteed to come from even a perfectly "vetted" article done by the most careful and professional of reporters*.    The existence of comment threads, blogs, twitter, facebook, etc. makes the sloppy, lazy, dishonest "journalism" far more dangerous than it was in the 1950s when fascistic forces used these tactics to create the red scare.   They have been and will prove to be a disaster for anything passed off as feminism which leads advocates to discredit themselves.

As hard as it might be for a woman or man who is raped or attacked sexually to go to the authorities to make a criminal accusation or to give them information about a crime, that has to be the way those crimes are handled.  They have to make an accurate report to the authorities, that is a responsibility that no one else can assume on their behalf.  If they find that hard is not the same as it being impossible and the only basis on which a successful investigation and prosecution can rest.   In this case "successful" means finding the truth, not achieving a desired outcome that doesn't have that as a goal.  What journalism is allegedly about.

That the police, the prosecutors and the courts are going to sometimes fall short of their obligations to investigate and prosecute crimes is not a reason to hand over their accounts to the unaccountable media which is guaranteed to carry more risks of irresponsible and shoddy practice.  There is no real restriction on what they can say except the possibility of a civil lawsuit because they have no real standards of conduct that they won't ignore - often for no better reason than that they think they can get people to click on a story and produce revenue - and no real legal obligation to not do that which some idiot judge won't overturn.  As I've pointed out, with the Sullivan ruling the courts have given them a permission to lie which they have gone with.  The Sullivan ruling also presented them with the temptation to cut corners in the most basic checking of facts, I am increasingly convinced that the rise in media lying as "opinion" flows from that ruling.

It seems to me the most effective way to fix problems with the reporting of crimes against women is to have more women as police officers, to have more women as prosecutors and judges, not changing the most basic reason for the legal system to exist, its only claim to legitimacy.   Women and men should be trained and constantly reinforced in the methods and standards of investigation and law enforcement.  If there's one area in public life where professionalism is important, it's in this.

Journalism is complete mess, these days.  I don't trust them to even care if they're reporting facts with very few exceptions, the online media which I'd held a naive hope in has turned out to be even less regulated and, so, even less worthy of trust than those which sold themselves on their credibility.   Now we are all suffering the consequences in which people can be accused on anything from flawed to absolutely no evidence at all.   And that won't favor those who are already disadvantaged by popular prejudice and habits of thought, things against which facts are the only effective weapon.

The standards of judgment by prejudice and gossip practiced all over the place, now, will favor the worst of men.   When the habits of misogyny are already embedded in the culture, in peoples thinking, those will find a way to twist anything other than a system that relies on verified facts and supported evidence. The proposed fixes of changing the definition of rape to try to make an accusation into a proof or consent be refusal won't work.  They won't do anything to make things better.  They won't even fly.

* I'm going to try to reserve the most honorable title in the scribbling trade, REPORTER, for people who have the honor to look for facts instead of promote opininon and attitude, what most of the "journalists" seem to do these days.

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