I poured through the 9,000-word opus Rolling Stone put out on the University of Virginia the instant it hit my Facebook feed. I went back and read it again today, after allegations of “misplaced trust” in the victim became public and other media outlets took to sharpening their claws on the backs of their fellow scribe.
The feeling was the same both times. I was repulsed by the song these students Cavalierly sung about the way they drink and fuck. I was disturbed by the way in which the school’s processes seemed more helpful in red-taping victims to death than dealing with the Bacchanal culture at large. I was angry that I know how easy it is to hide dirt in a police blotter and how hard it is to get to the truth of stories that people don’t want told.
I also felt this eerily vivid tale evoking a single name in my head: Jimmy.
Jimmy was the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning article in the early 1980s. The 8-year-old, third-generation heroin addict wove a tale of wonder regarding drug use, drug sales and ghetto life. Every larger point the child made rang true and was in some way corroborated by an official source. Yet, the underlying thread that Jimmy was seemed too over-the-top: The mother’s boyfriend who injected him with drugs, his status-symbol clothing, his love of math…
Jimmy, it turned out, was only real in the mind of Janet Cooke of the Washington Post, who fabricated the young man and was later forced to give back her Pulitzer. In subsequent interviews, she noted that she had heard stories about boys like Jimmy, but she couldn’t find one, so she just kind of made him up.
Every year, I have my feature-writing kids read that story and every year when they hear about what happened, they have two reactions:
First, they have that anger/hatred/hurt feeling like they’re dining on ashes.
Second, they just say, “She didn’t NEED TO DO THAT. The story was THERE!”
However, in a race to be better, stronger, cooler or whatever, Cooke went the extra step in what could have been an important and yet pedestrian story about the grip drugs had on inner-city D.C. and violated everything journalists hold sacred.
I believe that Jackie is real. I believe she was the victim of something horrible. I believe that I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, so asking her to come up with every damned detail from something that happened two years ago, lest we don’t believe her, is a bullshit standard.
Still, it’s not her fault this story is now giving ammunition to every Doubting Thomas out there who believes that, to quote the story, “No means Yes and Yes means Anal.”
It’s the reporter’s fault and the culture in which that reporter operates.
I often have to remind my students and my newsroom kids that, “You’re not writing for yourself. You’re writing for your audience.” Their desire to sermonize on a topic they love leads to crappy or boring columns. Their sense of right and wrong colors their reliance on weak or unreliable sources. Their passion to be write a story that is better, stronger, faster, cooler or whatever leads them to trust blindly and view problems with rose-colored glasses.
I have too many stories of this kind: Kid finds “holy shit” story from a source, blazes after it with his balls to the wall and sees every “I don’t know” answer from officials as part of a cover up. The kid then places the story solely on the shoulders of this one source and once the story runs, everything falls apart.
In this case, the reporter for Rolling Stone didn’t NEED that one source. She had a ton of shit on the UVA culture, the other people who had filed police reports, allegations from other sources that rapes had occurred and even that stupid fucking song. If the story was to be “UVA sucks when it comes to sexual misconduct,” she had it in spades.
And yet, rape has become too blasé for most readers to care about, just like domestic violence was worth a two-game suspension until we saw the elevator video. It is so horribly commonplace that writing about it is like writing about DUI in Wisconsin: Unless you’re someone super famous or it’s your 12th one of these, we’re pretty much not getting a rise out of people.
That’s why the writer knew a narrative thread for this UVA story couldn’t just be a “I bought you a nice dinner and now I get to fuck you” story if you really want to make it in Rolling Stone. It’s got be more.
The ritual of rape and frats? Getting there…
Freshman gets gang raped? Warmer…
At the behest of her date who lured her there? Warmer still…
On some broken glass and with a kid she knows from a study group who is the one good one who can’t get it up and then is forced to do the unthinkable to prove he’s not a pussy? Leaving her in a blood-soaked dress? THAT’LL GET PEOPLE TALKING!
I don’t think the writer had the goods. I bet there were moments of doubt that could have crept in had that sense of “You’re not writing for you” ever kicked in. The underlying story remained true, and the writer could have told it, had that reporting instinct we use for politicians and police just kicked in for a moment.
Rape is horrible. Rape is vile. It takes away more than everything a victim has and potentially more than the victim will ever have.
This story has the potential to take away even more from every victim for a very long time.