Making up a story, if it’s about a designated villain, is hip in certain quarters but it’s never cool, as Rolling Stone magazine is learning in the sordid wake of its account of a gang rape at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia. It was a gang rape that by all recent accounts never happened. The magazine retracted the story, but the damage was done. Now law suits are accumulating, the editor who presided over the story at the magazine walked the plank this week, and there’s talk that the White House may have been involved in advancing the story.
Like all good stories, this one has legs.
Nicole Eramo, an associate dean at the university, has sued everybody, saying she was held up to ridicule because the story cast her as callous and uncaring of young women on her campus. A second suit was filed Wednesday by three members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity whose house was the site of the fictitious story, who say they were implicitly identified and were defamed, too. They have since graduated. Will Dana, the managing editor of Rolling Stone, “resigned.”
That, however, is only the beginning of the story. Emily Renda, a UVA advocate for sexual assault victims, has been identified as the person who helped steer the author of the Rolling Stone article to the student identified in the story only as “Jackie” who said she was gang-raped by seven university students. Ms. Renda had previously met with the White House Task Force to Protect Students Against Sexual Assault, a committee created by President Obama. The administration says it sought her input as a “stakeholder” on the issue.
A review of the 9,000-word Rolling Stone rape account was subjected to an examination by the Columbia Journalism Review, and its authors concluded that the rape story was marked by sweeping failures and deficiencies. The review concluded that Rolling Stone “may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations.” It did exactly that, to the magazine’s shame, and it further spreads the notion that bearing false witness is not so bad if the cause is considered just.
The U.S. Department of Education has declined to answer Freedom of Information requests for telephone logs and other information that might show to what degree, if any, the White House orchestrated the rape story at a time when it was pushing hard to expand the role of the federal government in combating sexual violence on college campuses. The Institute on Government and Media Integrity has asked Congress to further inquire.
If the Obama administration planted a story that collapsed under scrutiny, the public deserves the full particulars. Rape is a horrific crime, and must be punished harshly. So is bearing false witness a crime, particularly if the government connives in it. That must be punished, too.