Part 1—The culture of misstatement: Molly Roberts graduated from Harvard last month.
Today, Roberts is "an intern for the [Washington] Post's editorial page." We're not sure what that positon entails, but in yesterday's Washington Post, Roberts wrote an essay about "the debate over whether the standard for determining what constitutes sexual assault and rape should shift from 'no means no' to 'yes means yes.' "
Not that there's anything wrong with it! By normal standards, the Sunday, hard-copy Washington Post would seem to be a high platform for the work of someone so young. In this case, though, Roberts was writing from the younger person's perspective about a topic which is being widely debated on the nation's many malfunctioning campuses.
Needless to say, that includes Stanford. Roberts started like this:
ROBERTS (6/19/16): Brock Turner has done one good thing for the country: The former Stanford University swimmer’s case has brought the conversation about sexual assault and campus culture back onto the national stage, and with it the debate over whether the standard for determining what constitutes sexual assault and rape should shift from “no means no” to “yes means yes.”Roberts (and her editor) seemed to assume that readers would know who Brock Turner is and what his case entails. For now, we'll make the same assumption.
Eventually, Roberts would argue against a switch to a "yes means yes" standard. She did so early in her piece, in the following passage:
ROBERTS: In a country where a varsity athlete at an elite school drags a woman so drunk she cannot move behind a dumpster and then blames the attack on a culture of alcohol abuse and “promiscuity,” it’s hard to argue against the need for change.Each reader can assess Roberts' view on the appropriate definition of rape. We were struck by the highlighted statement, her attempt at describing the events of the Turner case.
Changing the definition of rape, though? That’s trickier. Because while affirmative consent might be a nice idea, it’s just not how kids have sex.
Turner was a freshman swimmer at Stanford at the time of the events in question. In March of this year, he was convicted of two charges of sexual assault and one charge of assault with intent to rape.
Two weeks ago, Turner was sentenced to six months in a county jail. This has produced a massive reaction from people who feel that the sentence is too lenient.
Each reader can assess that claim. We were struck by Roberts' description of Turner's conduct on the night in question.
According to Roberts, Turner "drag[ged] a woman so drunk she [could] not move behind a dumpster," where the assault occurred. This account is colorful and moving but, as far as we know, no one has ever said that this is what occurred.
Roberts' description appeared in the fourth paragraph of an essay in the Sunday Washington Post. In theory, her copy passed through the hands of an experienced editor at one of the nation's most elite newspapers.
In itself, Robert's description of what occurred on the Stanford campus that night is a mere blip on the screen. Little or nothing will turn on her claim, which is thrilling but rather vague, and doesn't seem to be journalistically accurate.
That said, her claim is part of a fascinating journalistic culture in which facts are embellished, invented and disappeared in service to high moral certainties. The Turner case has provided the latest examples of this familiar culture, which has suffused the journalism of the past twenty-five years.
A recent college graduate apparently embellished the known facts. When she did, an older editor let it go--or who knows? Maybe the editor amended a more careful statement by Roberts!
What actually happened at Stanford that night? Journalists have been omitting and semi-inventing facts in service to the moral greatness of the story they want to tell. We'll explore this familiar culture all week, looking at the work of major journalists and high-ranking professors.
Tomorrow, though, we'll start with the Stanford provost. We'll start by asking a basic question:
If we're so upset about this, why isn't he in jail?
Tomorrow: The provost and campus culture