The biggest failure in the Rolling Stone rape hoax story comes not from the editors, the reporter, or the single source who made up this improbable story and pushed it onto the front pages. No, the biggest failure is on the part of the audience. Any reader who still takes Rolling Stone seriously after this debacle is a bigger problem than the magazine’s activist editors and fabulist writers.
This long, agonizing tale of journalistic malpractice ended with not one person losing a job. Nothing changed at all, beyond a vague promise from the people who suspended all of the magazine’s alleged editorial standards to run a politically useful, too-good-to-check story that they probably won’t do it again. Sure, the last potion this traveling snake-oil show peddled made a bunch of people sick, but trust them, the next bottle they sell you will contain the promised miracle cure!
When the lack of responsibility from a media organization is this complete, after a story this high-profile, with so many astoundingly obvious warning flags that the facts didn’t add up, and the reputations of so many innocent people were damaged, it’s an active insult to the audience. Presumably Rolling Stone is pronouncing itself A-OK, despite all evidence to the contrary, for legal liability purposes – they’re about to spend a great deal of time and money in court, so they don’t want to take actions that could be construed as an admission of guilt. (At the time of this writing, the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity had just announced plans to “pursue all available legal action” against Rolling Stone, for defaming the fraternity and its members with a “reckless” story.)
That’s a rather perverse result of the laws that ostensibly protect innocent Americans from journalistic malpractice. Then again, Those Who Work Hard and Play By the Rules don’t have much protection against the depredations of the elite in any area these days. God help the Little Guy or Gal who catches the eye of a political or media aristocrat.
The conclusion of the Rolling Stone story is such a perfect capsule of our narcissistic, Narrative-obsessed culture. The perpetrators of this journalistic crime couldn’t stop talking about themselves even during their “apologies,” which were mostly navel-gazing exercises – professions of surprise that people as wonderfully intelligent, compassionate, and politically correct as the Rolling Stone crew could produce something so wrong. It’s as if they expect sympathy for the tribulations they brought upon themselves by running a shoddy report. The author didn’t bother to apologize to the actual people harmed – and I do mean “harmed,” as in punished – by her story. The young men at the fraternity remain very small blips on the edges of the media radar screen.
That’s no surprise, because the magazine, much of the remaining media, and their favorite politicians are still desperately trying to keep the entirely, one hundred percent false narrative of a “campus rape epidemic” alive. Even now, with the story in ruins, there is more explicit concern for the Narrative than for the actual victims. No amount of white male lives is too high a price to pay for the preservation of a sacred Narrative.
If you still buy Rolling Stone after the zero-accountability finale of this hoax, or if you’re a member of the media who still treats the magazine as a serious source, you’re signing off on all this. You’re sending a signal that lies in the service of political narratives are acceptable, or at worst survivable. In a nation founded upon the ideal that the ends do not justify the means – that is the essence of small-r republicanism – you’re agreeing that some ends are desirable enough to authorize any means necessary, at the discretion of zealots, political hacks, and those who make a buck by packaging and selling sensationalism.
It would be different if Rolling Stone had acted swiftly to contain the damage, dismiss all those responsible, and present itself as a reborn organization committed to higher ideals in the future. They didn’t do that. They were dragged kicking and screaming into the pretense of accountability. The people who dragged them were relentlessly attacked as “rape apologists” and misogynists, until it became too obvious that they were right… whereupon their accusers fell silent, rather than confessing error and apologizing.
On the popular TV show The Walking Dead, one of the battle-hardened apocalypse survivors recently said of a sheltered, dangerously naive community: “These people are children. Children like stories.” That’s how too much of the media culture views its audience now: you’re children, and you need pre-packaged stories, because you can’t process facts. You might come to the wrong conclusions.
We just went through another narrative-journalism outrage, in which reporters hunted down a pizza shop owner in Indiana, asked her a politically loaded hypothetical question, and then misrepresented her response to get the story they wanted. This crap is going to keep happening until and unless you, the audience, make it stop.
You have the power to prove you’re not children by punishing the storytellers, and forcing their profit-conscious bosses to start dispensing actual journalism again. Don’t stop with the media, either – there’s a huge zero-accountability storytelling government out there in need of reform.