To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Rolling Stone UVA ‘Rape’ Hoax, Did Time Magazine Get Suckered Too?

It’s hard to imagine how the Rolling Stone UVA rape debacle could involve any more journalistic malfeasance than what’s been demonstrated by the reporter who wrote the story, the editors who shepherded it and the fact checkers who vetted it.

Yet Saturday’s Washington Post suggests that Time magazine also may have been remiss in some of the attention it paid to Rolling Stone's dubious "campus rape" story, specifically to the angry backlash the Rolling Stone story has fueled. The Post's T. Rees Shapiro, who who has led the Post’s on-the-ground reporting effort in Charlottesville that has revealed so much about the case that Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely had not, conducted an interview with author and rape activist Liz Seccuro. Seccuro had been a key source for the Rolling Stone piece and had gone to to bat for it in Time after skeptics began to attack it in early December. According to the interview, Seccuro not yet read the Rolling Stone piece when she defended it. The revelation suggests, without saying so directly, that Time got bamboozled too.

Seccuro, who was gang raped in 1984 at the same UVA frat as the undergraduate in the Rolling Stone piece and served as one of Erdely's main informants, told Shapiro that she has since developed doubts about the Rolling Stone piece. Her turnabout was prompted by "evidence appearing in news reports” which highlighted “inconsistencies in the magazine’s account,” as Shapiro put it. The reversal made Seccuro “the latest among a growing group of sexual assault survivors, U-Va. students and fraternity members to raise concerns about the Rolling Stone account." According to Seccuro:

I think it’s important, for a gang-rape survivor at U-Va. who was portrayed in this story, to say what was a red flag to me. I became frustrated in that I felt like the work of so many other people in the article went down the toilet.

The Post explains that Seccuro gave lengthy interviews to Rubin Erdely about her 1984 assault and the woeful response to that assault at the time on the part of UVA deans, establishing a culture of institutional indifference on UVA’s part that stretched back thirty years. As Seccuro told it, she also served as one of Rubin Erdely’s shadow advisors, helping to hook up the writer with other experts on college sexual assault. Describing an almost sisterly bond, Seccuro said she was on the phone with the author on the eve of the story’s publication. Seccuro was excited, sure that the piece “was going to rock the world and shake it to its core.”

Shapiro notes that in the face of early challenges to the article by bloggers like Richard Blow and columnists like the LAT’s Jonah Goldberg, Seccuro did some serious damage control on Rubin Erdley’s behalf.  In a Time Magazine essay that she published on December 4th, Seccuro wrote that

Like many Americans, I read the gruesome account of a gang rape at the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, as told by reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely in a recent issue of Rolling Stone. Unlike most people who read the article, I was not shocked by it.

The similarities between my experience and Jackie’s story are astounding because the culture has remained almost identical in the three decades separating our rapes. 

Seccuro urged readers not to doubt a rape survivor’s story just because the details sounded "horrific." False reporting of rape was very rare, she wrote, adding:

Those who make false accusations are despicable, and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But we cannot choose to disbelieve an account simply because it’s too awful to fathom. I am living proof — verified by the Virginia courts — that the horror is all too real.

Seccuro also told Shapiro that she now thinks Jackie might have cribbed details of her alleged Phi Psi gang rape from the 2011 memoir Seccuro published about her ordeal, Crash Into Me. The Post said that Seccuro “was struck by how her own story was ‘similar in so many, many ways,’ to Jackie’s account in Rolling Stone.” While she said she didn’t know whether Jackie’s story was influenced by her book, the “horrifying thought” had been suggested to her. Seeming to want to have it both ways, Seccuro declared:

I don’t want the attention to be on me. But there’s only been one documented gang rape at Phi Kappa Psi, and it’s mine, so do the math.”

Seccuro’s suggestion that Jackie plagiarized the details of her attack from Seccuro’s memoir echoes charges made by some caustic bloggers who noted similarities between details and imagery used in Rolling Stone's depiction of the gang rape scene and "Gone Girl," Ben Affleck's recent Hollywood movie. But the real bombshell in the Post interview was the revelation that as excited as Seccuro was about the piece’s impending publication---and as ardent as she was in its defense afterwards---when the story actually went live, Seccuro said she couldn’t find the will to read it.

“I decided I was not strong enough to read the entire article” she confessed to Shapiro, adding that she “had no reason to read it because I knew what was going to be in there.”

Seccuro told Shapiro however that when she did finally sit down to read the magazine in early December, she immediately spotted red flags in the narrative and “decided to take it apart with a fresh eye.” As the Post put it: 

Armed with a highlighter and pen, Seccuro began to circle, underline and annotate in the margins.

She highlighted the detail that the room where Jackie alleged she was attacked was pitch-black. She underlined a section that described how Jackie crashed through a low glass table, causing shards to cut into her back as the men raped her. In another section, Seccuro wrote in the margins: “Not possible.”

Seccuro’s change of opinion on the Rolling Stone piece and her explanation for that change very definitely suggests that she hadn’t yet actually read the piece when she used a platform given to her by Time magazine to bash early critics of the Rolling Stone piece. Many of those critics sensed, as Seccuro eventually would, that almost all the forensics involved in the description of Jackie’s assault were “not possible.”

Shots In The Dark blogger Richard Bradley, who has been aces on the Rolling Stone story from the get-go, has a slightly more ambiguous take on the question of whether Seccuro read the piece or not before publishing in Time. But like me, he senses disingenuousness on Seccuro's part, as well as blatant opportunism, explaining that   

If I had to guess—and I do—when things were going well for the (Rolling Stone) article, she was trying to piggyback on the positive publicity it was getting, particularly among women. Now that the article has been thoroughly discredited, she wants to get back on the right side of history.

Neither the Post nor Richard Bradley make it explicit, but it is hard not to conclude from Seccuro's about-face, as well as her explanation for it, that when Time Magazine gave her the green light they were giving it to someone who wasn’t telling them the truth and in turn told a lie to their readers. Essentially, she spoke with authority about something she had not really read and impugned the integrity of skeptical journalists who had in fact read it quite closely.

I was curious: Did the editors at Time have the same takeaway I had from the confession Seccuro made in the Post?  If so, how had Time magazine gone about letting someone write about a piece she hadn’t really read. Who brought Seccuro in, who edited her piece, and who fact checked it? And now that Seccuro has admitted she hadn’t actually read the Rolling Stone piece she so ardently defended, was Time going to run a correction, or append an editor’s note to the text online? If so, it might be kinda tough to get the wording right. I mean, what do you say: “The author told us she read the piece that she stood up for here but in fact she later admitted she had not really read it. We regret the fact that her defense it was basically bogus”? 

Repeated calls and emails to Ryan Sager, the deputy editor I was told handles guest contributions like Seccuro’s, were unreturned. So were outreach efforts to Liz Seccuro herself and to the many representatives listed on her contact page: a literary agent, a film agent, a freelance magazine agent, a speaker's bureau agent. 

I did get an auto reply from Seccuro’s literary agent that among other things explained that if I wanted to book “Liz” as a speaker for my institution or firm, I should get in touch with her speaker’s bureau guy. The email also noted that “Liz is not empowered to give legal or financial advice regarding individual cases.” Like the Time magazine piece she authored, this caveat seems to need a bit of amending too. To the list of things Liz Seccuro might not be “empowered” to give, add "journalistic criticism" as well as "second guessing." 

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