Part 4—The age of the perfect story: How can you tell that you’re reading a novelized account of some situation, as opposed to a real news report?
How can you tell that a journalist is fashioning a preconceived narrative—a well-shaped story designed to lead you in a preferred direction?
Sometimes, the novelized elements of the report are staring you right in the face! For one possible example, this was the third paragraph of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s now-famous report, A Rape on Campus:
ERDELY (11/19/14): Four weeks into UVA's 2012 school year, 18-year-old Jackie was crushing it at college. A chatty, straight-A achiever from a rural Virginia town, she'd initially been intimidated by UVA's aura of preppy success, where throngs of toned, tanned and overwhelmingly blond students fanned across a landscape of neoclassical brick buildings, hurrying to classes, clubs, sports, internships, part-time jobs, volunteer work and parties; Jackie's orientation leader had warned her that UVA students' schedules were so packed that "no one has time to date—people just hook up." But despite her reservations, Jackie had flung herself into campus life, attending events, joining clubs, making friends and, now, being asked on an actual date. She and Drew had met while working lifeguard shifts together at the university pool, and Jackie had been floored by Drew's invitation to dinner, followed by a "date function" at his fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi. The "upper tier" frat had a reputation of tremendous wealth, and its imposingly large house overlooked a vast manicured field, giving "Phi Psi" the undisputed best real estate along UVA's fraternity row known as Rugby Road.Just for the record:
As it turns out, the lifeguard called “Drew” actually wasn’t a member of Phi Kappa Psi. Meanwhile, did Jackie come from a “rural Virginia town?” According to the Washington Post, she comes from northern Virginia, the state’s population center. According to the Post, there were 700 students in her high school’s graduating class.
Whatever! We were struck by Erdely’s description of the UVA student body. Here’s our question:
Is the student body at UVA “overwhelmingly blond?”
That description might set a nice tone for an ideological novel—a novel about the depraved behavior of “preppy” white students who hail from “tremendous wealth.” Given the facts about UVA, we’d have to say that that description is more novelistic than factual.
Are the students at UVA overwhelmingly blond? “Overwhelmingly” is an imprecise term, of course. But according to this official fact sheet, the student body at UVA is currently 28.4 “minority” (mainly black, Hispanic and Asian).
Forget about being overwhelmingly blond; is that student body even overwhelmingly white? Journalists should avoid such imprecise claims. We’d be inclined to call that strange description part of an Erdely novel.
A cynic would say that Erdely was setting a tone for the story to come. Her story would pack a tremendous punch—and it seems it was too good to fact-check.
Cynics are saying that Erdely had an ideological message she wanted to convey through the story she told in her now-famous report. To convey that message most strongly, she constructed a “perfect story” about the most heinous sexual assault a person could ever imagine—or so the critics have said.
If you have an eye for novels, we’d say a novel was already forming in the use of that phrase, “overwhelmingly blonde.” Was Erdely trying to inform her readers? If so, she probably should have omitted that loaded description.
By now, it’s clear that Erdely utterly failed to perform the most basic tasks of a journalist. Her fact-checking was basically non-existent. She didn’t interview obvious people, including the three friends who went to Jackie’s assistance on the night in question, immediately after the alleged assault.
In her report, Erdely says that one of the three—the friend she called “Randall”—refused to speak to her about the events of that night. The actual “Randall” has now said he was never approached for an interview.
The other two friends who helped Jackie that night aren’t quoted in Erdely’s article either. In her report, Erdely never says why their accounts of the night in question aren’t included. (They have now contradicted basic parts of Erdely’s report.)
Erdely tells a compelling story; it just isn’t clear that her story is true. Let’s consider two other people Erdely never spoke to.
In Erdely’s telling, Jackie is subjected to a vicious sexual assault in her first month on campus. By the end of her sophomore year, matters have gotten worse.
In Erdely’s telling, Jackie has been violently attacked by a bottle-throwing student outside a campus bar. Even worse, she learned that two other women have been gang-raped at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity in recent years.
The violent gang rapes have claimed two more victims. Given Erdely’s overall performance, a cynic can guess what happens next:
ERDELY: She e-mailed Eramo so they could discuss the attack—and discuss another matter, too, which was troubling Jackie a great deal. Through her ever expanding network, Jackie had come across something deeply disturbing: two other young women who, she says, confided that they, too, had recently been Phi Kappa Psi gang-rape victims.“Neither woman was willing to talk to Rolling Stone?”
A bruise still mottling her face, Jackie sat in Eramo's office in May 2014 and told her about the two others. One, she says, is a 2013 graduate, who'd told Jackie that she'd been gang-raped as a freshman at the Phi Psi house. The other was a first-year whose worried friends had called Jackie after the girl had come home wearing no pants. Jackie said the girl told her she'd been assaulted by four men in a Phi Psi bathroom while a fifth watched. (Neither woman was willing to talk to RS.)
By now, a cynic will wonder if Erdely actually attempted to contact these alleged victims. Given the way other parts of this report have broken down, a cynic may even wonder if these other two victims exist.
We don't know if those victims exist. That said, please note the state of the UVA campus as Erdely describes it:
Jackie has been viciously attacked by nine fraternity members. She refuses to name her attackers, even after she seems to learn that they are continuing to attack other women.
Two other women have been viciously attacked at the fraternity house. Those women refuse to name their attackers too.
Jackie has been viciously assaulted outside a bar by a bottle-throwing student. Erdely doesn’t even ask why no one was charged or pursued in the case of that (criminal) attack.
Not since the old movie “Bad Day at Black Rock” has a community been so enveloped in so much silence. Gang rapes continue at the fraternity in question. But even as the number rises to three, no one seems to be telling Jackie that she should consider naming the people who are conducting these vicious attacks.
Erdely completely skips this obvious moral question. Instead, she criticizes the dean for her alleged lack of action:
ERDELY (continuing directly): As Jackie wrapped up her story, she was disappointed by Eramo's nonreaction. She'd expected shock, disgust, horror. For months, Jackie had been assuaging her despair by throwing herself into peer education, but there was no denying her helplessness when she thought about Phi Psi, or about her own alleged assailants still walking the grounds. She'd recently been aghast to bump into Drew, who greeted her with friendly nonchalance. "For a whole year, I thought about how he had ruined my life, and how he is the worst human being ever," Jackie says. "And then I saw him and I couldn't say anything."Did Jackie ever tell the dean about these other alleged attacks? At present, there is no way to answer that question.
...That interaction would render her too depressed to leave her room for days. Of all her assailants, Drew was the one she wanted to see held accountable—but with Drew about to graduate, he was going to get away with it. Because, as she miserably reminded Eramo in her office, she didn't feel ready to file a complaint. Eramo, as always, understood.
Nor should anyone feel certain that Erdely knew the names of these other alleged victims, who may or may not exist, or actually tried to interview them. At present, there is little reason to believe any of Erdely’s claims, explicit or implied.
At present, there’s no way to know if Erdely made any attempt to do any real fact-checking. We do know this:
Starting with the portrait she drew of the “overwhelmingly blond” student body, Erdely told a compelling story with a fairly obvious point. You might say she told a “perfect story,” a story about the most heinous possible behavior of a certain type.
Depending in part on one’s sympathies, it’s easy to be swept away by such stories of perfect complete misconduct. In this case, Erdely portrayed a “town without pity”—a campus full of preppy blond children with an amazingly heinous “rape culture.”
Rape is a terrible crime, and Erdely’s portrait is compelling. It just isn’t clear that her portrait, however compelling, is accurate, fair or truthful.
More and more, our journalism features these perfect stories. Facts are changed, invented and discarded to create compelling tales which support a partisan news org's larger view of the world.
Depending on one’s sympathies, such perfect stories are easy to believe. But uh-oh! When these stories are built on bogus or selective facts, they also create tremendous backlash from those whose instinctive sympathies may differ somehow from those of the novelist/journalist.
Different segments of the society rally around their instinctive beliefs. This may make it harder for the society to agree upon a constructive course of action.
For our money, the most consequential “perfect story” in recent years was the one about Big Liar Candidate Gore. Back then, we still had a unified mainstream press corps—and that guild was very angry at Big Liar President Clinton and his chosen successor.
Over the course of two years, they created a perfect story about Candidate Gore. They kept inventing lies they said he had told. As they invented these lies, they puzzled about why he insisted on telling them.
Many people believed the perfect story of the puzzling liar. In November 2000, false belief in this perfect story changed the course of world history.
Today, our press corps is much more fragmented. Various groups have their own news orgs. Erdely told a perfect story which captured one view of the world.
Erdely described a town without pity. For some, her story was easy to believe. For others, though, her story has brought on the hate against those accursed “feminists” with their endless lies and distortions. Fragmentations harden.
Because they are so compelling, perfect stories can be easy to believe. Often, though, this true belief is actually false in various ways. And the false claims being on the hate from other parts of the culture.
Is this the path to a better world? Everything is possible! This helps the culture of the perfect story thrive.