WaPo's Volokh: Critics of Breitbart's Lena Dunham Rape Investigation Fail to Grasp 'Basic Tenet of Journalism'

WaPo's Volokh: Critics of Breitbart's Lena Dunham Rape Investigation Fail to Grasp 'Basic Tenet of Journalism'

Eugene Volokh, of the Washington Post blog The Volokh Conspiracy, takes to task a TIME article accusing Breitbart News’ John Nolte of attempting to disprove the claim that Lena Dunham was raped. 

The TIME piece in question states:

Following the book’s publication, the conservative news site Breitbart.com launched an investigation attempting to disprove Dunham’s claim of sexual assault, concluding that the claim could not be verified. It’s unclear, however, how a reporter could hope to validate or invalidate something that happened behind closed doors a decade ago. And, the details of this particular case strike a sensitive chord at a time when discussions about sexual assault on college campuses are more charged than ever. [Emphases added.]

Dunham appears to have predicted some of the fallout from the story. She told Howard Stern back in October, “This was an essay I was very anxious and self-conscious about putting in the book because we are in a current culture where everything is turned into a game of telephone and it turns into a headline.” Still, she hoped speaking out would make an impact on the many young women who blame themselves for being sexually assaulted.

Volokh confronts the attack with a broader discussion of the purpose of investigative journalism:

To be sure, the “behind closed doors a decade ago” point is valid as to an attempt to show that Dunham wasn’t sexually assaulted at Oberlin — and the Breitbart story doesn’t claim to show that she wasn’t sexually assaulted. Instead, the first sentence of its Summary says:

Lena Dunham might have been raped at Oberlin College, but the “Barry” she describes in her memoir is a ghost.

So Breitbart set out to verify the factual details that Dunham offered — not to determine the broad-picture claim of whether Dunham was indeed raped at Oberlin by someone matching some unknown description (which is indeed usually impossible to disprove, absent details that can be checked), but to determine whether the actual description she did give was accurate. That sort of limited “invalidat[ion]” is usually all that reporters “could hope” for. And here it actually happened.

It thus seems that the TIME.com account isn’t quite fair to Nolte and Breitbart.com here. But my concern is much broader than that: The dig at Breitbart seems to me to reflect a dangerous attitude towards journalism. The implication, as I read the first quoted paragraph, is that an investigation of a story is hopeless — and thus pointless and even suspicious — as long as all one can prove is that some parts of the story are false. So long as Dunham might have been sexually assaulted (and she certainly might have been), something that of course can’t be proved or disproved at this point absent someone’s confession, what’s the point of checking into whether particular factual allegations are accurate? Details, details.

But it seems to me that a basic tenet of journalism is that details matter. First, they matter to people’s reputations. Maybe the fact that Dunham’s alleged rapist wasn’t named “Barry” is irrelevant to those who care about “sexual assault on college campuses.” But they matter to a particular man named Barry, whose reputation was jeopardized by Dunham’s labeling the alleged rapist Barry without stating that this was just a pseudonym. Likewise, while there’s no legal cause of action for libeling a political group, if it turns out that Dunham’s alleged rapist also wasn’t a campus conservative — the Breitbart story casts some doubt on that detail, though it doesn’t conclusively disprove it — then this little detail isn’t really fair, either.

Read the rest of the article here.