Like everybody else this week, I read the Rolling Stone article about the University of Virginia, how women who were raped there had their complaints minimized and ignored.
On the content of the article itself, there’s little to say that isn’t obvious: The crimes are horrific, the university’s response was appalling, the systems for preventing and adjudicating rape claims are pathetic. It’s self-evident that all of that should be fixed.
But as I read it, that’s not what I was thinking about. I was thinking about the tremendous power of journalists, and how scared I am that I am now sort of one of them.
The first power of journalism is highlighting. The author of the article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, chose the University of Virginia, from all the colleges across the country, to investigate. Maybe UVA has the biggest rape problem in the nation and maybe it doesn’t. But by pulling out this one university for scrutiny, everyone who read that story, me included, has the impression that it’s the fucking worst ever and has to be stopped.
The second power is condensing. I’m sure Erdely spent weeks at the school. She must have interviewed dozens of people, heard hundreds of stories. She has chosen, as a journalist, as a person, which of those to retell.
There’s a part in the story where she quotes a letter from the fraternity where the rape happened, responding to her investigation.
UVA chapter president Stephen Scipione recalls being only told of a vague, anonymous “fourth-hand” allegation of a sexual assault during a party. “We were not told that it was rape, but rather that something of a sexual nature took place,” he wrote to RS in an e-mail. Either way, Collinsworth says, given the paucity of information, “we have no evidence to substantiate the alleged assaults.”
I’m sure the letter was longer than that. Maybe Erdely sent him 10 points for clarification and he responded to each one in turn. Maybe he detailed the history of the fraternity’s response to sexual assault, how it has changed over time. Erdely quoted the part that was relevant and moved on.
The third power of journalism is conclusion. The way the facts are presented, how they are ordered and described, Erdely has done this in a way that makes ugh these fucking people the only sensible response.
I do not believe that Erdely has wielded these powers irresponsibly. She has taken an important issue and presented it grippingly and urgently. I trust that she has fairly summarized the e-mail from the fraternity president, that she investigated the veracity of the claims made against it.
I’m not even making an argument here, just an observation: The power that she, this one person, holds is profound. Rolling Stone reports, rather gleefully, that the governor of Virginia has issued a statement in response to the story. The university has suspended all its fraternities, amid protests from (justifiably!) livid students.
The J-school cliché is that journalism is supposed to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. That appears to be what happened in this case. Erdely could have told a similar story (I fear) about many universities across the United States, but she didn’t, she chose this one. And, in so doing, afflicted it.
But what are the mechanisms to prevent journalists from afflicting the afflicted? From choosing their targets unwisely? From condensing ungenerously? Rolling Stone has every incentive to play up its stories, to megaphone the ways it changes the world from which they are drawn. This is what journalism is supposed to do, what journalists are always telling us is its primary virtue, the one making up for all of its vices—its celebrity news, its comic strips, its listicles.
Rolling Stone, every magazine, has no mandate to provide proportionality, only entertainment. And outrage, like humor, like crossword puzzles, is one of its forms.
Except in extreme cases—libel, fabrication—the only accountability mechanism for journalists is their own story. Erdely didn’t quote that e-mail from the fraternity president (I assume) because it was long, it was boring, it wasn’t in her voice. She didn’t include all the stories she heard from her other interviews because they would have been detours from her primary narrative.
We condense, we highlight, we conclude, as people who want to tell a story in its shortest and interestingest form. This process is, by nature, intrasparent and autocratic. We’ll never know everything lost from Erdely’s story due to her cuts, nor the criteria she used to make them. We share her conclusions, but we easily forget that it was she who fed us the information on which to make them.
Shit, I sound like I’m criticizing her, don’t I. I’m really not. These are just the structures she works in. The same ones that, I guess, I do now too.
I read Erdely’s article the same week that something I wrote for The New Republic got a lot of attention. People have e-mailed me to thank me, to ask me to give them advice and interviews and speeches and join their organisations. I’m happy that something I wrote has been enjoyed by other people across the internet, but I am also nervous. These powers wielded by Erdely, by journalists everywhere, now they are mine. I am not confident that I am ready for them.
I’ve already talked about my own unworthiness here, how I try to make my summaries transparent, my judgements accountable to those upon whom I make them. I could have been more of a dick in my article, I tell myself, could have condensed less charitably, could have wrung the evidence for my own perspective more tightly. Maybe you already think I have.
The reason I am scared is that there would have been no punishment for doing so. A slightly boringer story, maybe, a polemic, something that could have been titled ‘the case for’. As a reader, that incentive is enough. As a writer, sometimes I fear that it is not.
Update: Oh man, so this non-argument of mine just got pretty darn concrete. I’m going to leave the text as it is—I’m too lazy to change it and no one reads this blog anyway!—but it looks like Erdely’s story is less a hypothetical parable about the powers of journalism than an instance of this power improperly applied. Me making this all about my own fears and insecurities still applies.