What’s a Little Confirmation Bias Among Friends?

A number of years ago an author, Stephen Glass, worked for The New Republic.  He also wrote for a number of other publications, including George.  He wrote a number of stories, most of them well-received.  He was well-regarded by his readers and employers.  He turned out to have only one slight problem.  He made stuff up.  As in, a lot of stuff.  As in, story after story containing completely invented quotations, events that never occurred, sources that didn’t exist.  Over the course of several years he completely snookered his editors.

Eventually, of course, he was caught and fired.

His most immediate victims (if you discount the people and institutions about whom or which he lied, and the readers to whom he lied) were his editors, at the publications whose reputations he disgraced.   Being an editor at anything that aspires to reportage exceeding the who-won-the-junior-pro-football-game-last-weekend fare of the usual small-town weekly paper must be a nerve-wracking experience.  You can’t replicate your reporters’ work before it’s published, at least not to a statistical extent that would provide you any reasonable comfort level.  About all you’ve got, in fact, are review of your reporter’s own work product (which can be just as made up as anything else), ex post confirmations of your boy’s work, either by your competitors (assuming you’ve got the scoop), and admissions by the subject(s) of the stories themselves.  But how many times do “confirmations” turn out to be no more reliable than the original reporting?  In fact you’ve really got only your reporters’ reputation for honesty and diligence.  And strong drink to steady your nerves.

Well, you do have the articles themselves.  Taken on their faces, do they hold up?  Bearing in mind that there’s a first time for just about everything, is what an article describes plausible?  Possible?  Does it describe reasonable actions and reactions of the people mentioned in it?  Are its statements capable of being falsified (as Popper showed, it’s much easier to prove that something is false than that it is true)?

Among the folks who had the pleasure of editing Comrade Glass’ work was a boy name of Richard Bradley.  He was an editor at George.  He still bears the emotional and professional scars of that experience, and as someone who got so publicly euchred by a rogue reporter he brings a rare perspective to the contemplation of reported matter.

Bradley has turned his attention to the subject of the (in)famous University of Virginia gang rape case.  Very briefly, a woman, “Jackie” (the victim’s real first name, apparently) has alleged that roughly two years ago she was held captive in a “pitch black” room at a UVa fraternity party and gang-raped over the course of three or so hours.  Repeatedly.  She was lying on her back amidst a sea of broken glass this whole time (which necessarily means her attackers were kneeling or lying in it as well, by the way).  She counted seven separate attackers, who were egged on by two others, including the boy who had invited her to the party in the first place.  The attack is presented as a rite of passage in this fraternity (the seventh attacker, whom she claims to have recognized, has trouble getting it up and, when he’s asked whether he wants to be a brother in the fraternity or not, finally gives up and penetrates Jackie with a beer bottle); we are invited to conclude that it’s common in the Greek system generally.  That’s horrific enough.  It is also alleged, however, that her own friends discouraged her from reporting it to the police, or even going to the hospital (this despite the wounds from the glass shards that had dug — no, must have been deeply ground — into her back repeatedly over the course of three hours).  This conversation is presented as having occurred within minutes after Jackie has come to her senses and walked through the crowd at the (still-going-strong) party.  She would have — must have — been covered in blood across her entire shoulders, back, buttocks, head, and likely large areas of her arms as well (they’ve been held down, according to the story).  She would, in short, have looked like hamburger over much of her body, and her dress that she’s pictured as having so carefully selected for her date would have looked like something salvaged from an army field hospital after an unsuccessful battle.  She would very likely bear scars on those areas of her body to this day.

The university itself, when presented with the allegations, did nothing.

The attack is the subject of an article in Rolling Stone by a reporter named Sabrina Rubin Erdely.  Her narrative of the attack covers the first several paragraphs, but the bulk of the pretty substantial article deals with Jackie’s  experiences when, months later, she finally did tell someone at the university about what she says happened to her.  At the risk of over-simplifying things, the article describes a pretty classical institutional shuck-n-jive.  According to Jackie and several other victims or alleged victims of sexual violence at UVa, they pretty much blew off her allegations and they routinely do others as well.

I’d point out that the Rolling Stone article does contain a number of very specifically named other victims of other assaults, and even shows photographs of more than one of them.  Their experiences are in part related and they all experienced or claim to have experienced the same sort of dismissive attitude.

Overall the article paints an alarming picture of a school so much more caught up in its reputation, its donors, its culture of alcohol-sodden depravity, and its oh-so-helpfully-Southern ethos that it’s willing to suppress reports of sexual violence that are matched only by the tales out of Rotherham, England (you’ll need to scroll to the end of that post to see the point).  That’s the Big Picture, and apparently it’s exactly the picture the article was intended by its author to convey.  From The Washington Post’s story:

“Erdely declined to address specific questions about her reporting when contacted on Sunday and Monday.  ‘I could address many of [the questions] individually . . . but by dwelling on this, you’re getting sidetracked,’ she wrote in an e-mail response to The Post’s inquiry. ‘As I’ve already told you, the gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie — a person whom I found to be credible — told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way — i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.’”

Erdely is coming in for some pretty stout criticism of her reporting.  She’s been busted for not naming the attackers, even though the victim claims to have recognized two of them (one being of course the boy who’d asked her to the party).  The article gives information from which those two can winnowed down to one or a tiny group of potential perpetrators, as Megan McArdle points out.  Over at Just One Minute, there’s what purports to be a quotation from some gal name of Claire Kaplan, program director of UVa’s “Gender Violence and Social Change,” (no, really, there is such an outfit and such a person) on an unfortunately not-linked Facebook thread:

“This is what Claire Kaplin [Kaplan – TM], a faculty member at the Women’s Center whose title is Program Director of Gender Violence and Social Change, had to say on a Facebook thread:

‘I’ve learned from some of the students involved or interviewed that the reporter actually made some of that up. The scene about whether or not to go to the hospital never happened, and that when they wanted to take her to the police, she didn’t want to go. That jibes with what I heard from administrators.’

Then, in a second post, responding to another person in the thread, she wrote:

‘Cora[:] what I understand is that she [Jackie, the alleged victim] had much more support than the reporter stated. That some of the comments by friends were not said at all (the whole conversation telling her not to report). Both survivors were devastated when she called them to clear quotes. They learned that their “off the record” comments were not off the record. Also she really got the students riled up when she characterized them as passive, conservative, and not “radical” enough. You and I both recall some pretty creative protests from years past.'”

Let’s call things by their correct names.  If this quotation from Kaplan is genuine, then this person whose bio on the program’s website describes her as being “a feminist social justice activist for longer than she’d like to admit” is point-blank accusing Erdely of lying and fabricating quotations.  These are not trivial accusations.  Those are the sorts of carryings-on which will pass current at The New York Times or CNN, but which will get your country ass fired from any other reporting job.

So it seems that Erdely could run down witnesses and other acquaintances from two years ago and interview them, but couldn’t run down the perps to get their side of things.  From the WaPo story linked above:

“’I reached out to [the accused] in multiple ways,’ Erdely said in the Slate interview. ‘They were kind of hard to get in touch with because [the fraternity’s] contact page was pretty outdated. But I wound up speaking . . . I wound up getting in touch with their local president, who sent me an e-mail, and then I talked with their sort of, their national guy, who’s kind of their national crisis manager. They were both helpful in their own way, I guess.’

Sean Woods, who edited the Rolling Stone story, said in an interview that Erdely did not talk to the alleged assailants. ‘We did not talk to them. We could not reach them,’ he said in an interview.  However, he said, ‘we verified their existence,’ in part by talking to Jackie’s friends. ‘I’m satisfied that these guys exist and are real. We knew who they were.’”

OK, now I’m really puzzled.  Rolling Stone “knew who they were,” and the whole point of the story is that nothing has happened to these people, but no one has given those names to the police?  Or perhaps the Rolling Stone editor has it wrong?  Again, from the very same WaPo story:

“Erdely declined to say whether she knows the names of the alleged perpetrators, including ‘Drew.’  ‘I can’t answer that,’ she said. ‘This was a topic that made Jackie extremely uncomfortable.’”

The reporter (as opposed to her editor) who allegedly made all manner of attempts to “reach out to” [N.b.  “Reach out” is an expression that makes me throw up a little in my mouth.] the perps won’t even say whether she knows their names.  It would seem to me that if you want someone to take the initiative to turn himself in, on the theory that there will be exactly one and only one plea-bargain cut from those nine, you publicly observe that you know who they are.  And besides, we have an on-the-record quotation from Jackie’s suite-mate, Rachel Soltis:  “‘At the beginning of the year, she seemed like a normal, happy girl, always with friends. Then her door was closed all the time. We just figured she was out.’ Soltis is also quoted this way: ‘The university ignores the problem to make itself look better. They should have done something in Jackie’s case. Me and several other people know exactly who did this to her. But they want to protect even the people who are doing these horrible things’.”  (emphasis added)  I’ll observe that if she knows “exactly” who did this, but she didn’t go to the police during all those months, shouldn’t she have used the first person pronoun in her last sentence?  Further, how do you square the exactitude of her knowledge of who the rapists are with her “we just figured” statement?  I mean, if you’re so obtuse that you can’t connect a young girl’s obvious emotional trauma with a horrific sexual crime of which she’s the victim, are you really smart enough to be in college in the first place?

Jonah Goldberg at Los Angeles Times takes issue with the overall believability of Erdely’s story.  Erik Wemple, also at the WaPo, notes that Erdely herself is going squishy on her own story-framing narrative:  “She told Slate, ‘The degree of her trauma — there’s no doubt in my mind that something happened to her that night. What exactly happened, you know, I wasn’t in that room. I don’t know and I do tell it from her point of view.’”  Bradley relates his chief lesson learned from his scorching by Glass:

“The lesson I learned: One must be most critical, in the best sense of that word, about what one is already inclined to believe. So when, say, the Duke lacrosse scandal erupted, I applied that lesson. The story was so sensational! Believing it required indulging one’s biases: A southern school…rich white preppy boys…a privileged sports team…lower class African-American women…rape. It read like a Tom Wolfe novel.

“And of course it never happened.

“Which brings me to a magazine article that is causing an enormous furor in Virginia and around the country; it’s inescapable on social media.”

When at a large Midwestern school in the mid-1980s I went Greek.  The Greek system overall wasn’t too strong at that school, and my fraternity, although very prominent nationally, was most definitely the un-Greek fraternity of the tribe.  In fact, the year before I pledged, during Greek Week our house put on a Turk Week.  Most of my house was engineers; I was among the very few innumerate actives.  I can say that I neither saw nor heard of anything during my years as an active in that chapter, during two of which I lived in the house, which even approximates a rape as defined by criminal law.  In fact, I never saw or heard of anything which would classify as a sexual assault, not myself and not anyone else.  Drunks gettin’ busy?  Certainly.  Am I willing to swear that no co-ed, ever, got naked with one of us under circumstances she later on wished she hadn’t?  Of course not.

I also never heard rumors of any such goings-on at any other house, although in truth there’s no reason I necessarily would have heard such rumors even had those sorts of things been common occurrences.  But even on a campus that size, behavior that common and that egregious simply cannot be hidden.  Someone is going to talk.  Not everyone is Greek, and not everyone who attends those parties is Greek.  At UVa, according to the picture Erdely paints, it’s an accepted fact of life for such sexual crimes to occur.  And over all these years, no one has ever publicly blown the whistle until now?  No little freshman co-ed has ever shared with her mother over Thanksgiving break what goes on in those houses, and had Momma grab Washington-Beltway-Power-Broker Daddy by the short-and-curlies and demanded he go slash and burn?  Never once?  That’s a degree of omerta that the mob itself has difficulty maintaining.

On the other hand . . . I have a very dear friend who survived the Greek system at Alabama, home of The Machine (link is to an article that appeared in Esquire in 1992).  My friend has kindly steered me, over the years, to several accounts of what has gone on in that system.  As the Blogfather would say, read the whole thing.  But especially the footnote at the very end of the article:

Note: The following year, Minda Riley, daughter of current Governor Bob Riley, was assaulted in her home by representatives of Theta Nu Epsilon. Miss Riley, a member of Phi Mu sorority, had decided to run for the office of SGA President, against the wishes of The Machine. The resulting fallout and national attention caused the University of Alabama administration to abolish the SGA until 1996. Miss Riley has publicly stated that she has no intention of ever returning to Tuscaloosa.” 

So can I believe that Jackie’s story might be true?  I can’t help but accept that, however horrific, her story could be true in all particulars.  On the other hand, I really have a problem when the person who allegedly did the spade work won’t even come out and state, in plain Saxon, whether — yes or no — she knows the names of the attackers.  I mean, if Jackie’s truly scared because they’re all still on campus (and according to the article they are . . . and by the way, given how small a school UVa is, just how hard could it have been to track these boys down if that’s what Erdely really wanted?), she really hasn’t protected herself very well at all, has she?  The date of the attack is alleged to have been September 28, 2012.  Precisely how many fraternity pledges could have participated in a seven-way gang rape on that particular night, including one involving a beer bottle, at that particular fraternity house?  Can those people think their names are not going to get into the police’s hands?  Can Jackie really think that a story in Rolling Stone is not going to be read and talked about all over campus?  And this reporter won’t even say, “Yes, we know exactly who those two are.”

Now, getting back to Erdely’s larger point about how the university is alleged to have (not) responded to the allegations . . . .  I have no trouble accepting that the system is precisely as broken as it’s presented to be.

One question does occur to me:  Was this fraternity house on UVa’s campus or on property belonging to UVa?  If the answer is no, then beyond kicking them off campus — prohibiting them from participating in on-campus events, putting up flyers, recruiting new pledges, and so forth — I’m not sure what the university as such could have done.  Erdely points out that nearly 200 students have been kicked out of school in the past two decades or so for honors violations, but no one for sexual assault.  But those “honors violations” are peculiarly academic infractions like cheating or plagiarism, over which the university of course has jurisdiction.  What authority does a public institution have to eject a student who is in academic good standing, current in his tuition and fees, and attends class with sufficient regularity, but who is accused of an off-campus offense of which he’s not been convicted?  Remember that ol’ 14th Amendment?  It applies to public universities and their student relations.  Kick someone out of school because of something that happened off-campus and of which he is — legally, at least — presumptively innocent, and you just landed a helluva civil rights lawsuit.

Part of me wants this story not to be true.  I’d hate to think that there are well-regarded institutions of this nature which are this callous.  I’d hate to think that a bunch of people with the smarts and skills necessary to get into and stay enrolled in a school like that would come up with something that wicked.

On the other hand, part of me wants it to be true.  Because if it’s not true, then what is happening at UVa as a reaction to a bullshit article containing fabulous accusations which the reporter made no serious attempt to confirm or refute can happen anywhere and to anyone.  Anyone can be publicly accused and held guilty, just because one lying emotionally unstable girl has decided she’d like some attention.  It means that my three boys, when they get to that age, are completely unprotected by mere innocence.  It means that what Solzhenitsyn describes as the Soviet Union’s national sewer system has been built in this country, and is up and running.  “Teaching boys not to rape” is an exercise in futility if it doesn’t matter whether they’re rapists or not.  If their lives can be ruined — and make no mistake, bullshit accusations of sexual crime ruin the accused’s life and can even cost him his life — whether they’ve done anything or not, then what is the point of “teaching them not to rape”?  Either they will or they won’t, and no matter which they have no protection from destruction.

Erdely has either done a signal service, or she is morally indistinguishable from the German generals who thought it would be real swell thing to smuggle Lenin through Germany and into Russia in 1917.  I suppose time will tell which it is.  Although if it’s the latter, those boys she’s accusing are pretty much “for it,” as the British say.  The victims of the bogus Duke Lacrosse gang-rape hoax had their lives devastated.  And their school, which merrily joined in stoking the fires, has yet to apologize to them.  The Gang of 88 has yet to issue a retraction.

Update [05 Dec 14]:  The Washington Post reports on its having done the fact-checking that Rolling Stone claims to have done, but obviously did not.

“A group of Jackie’s close friends, who are sex assault awareness advocates at U-Va., said they believe something traumatic happened to Jackie but also have come to doubt her account.  They said details have changed over time, and they have not been able to verify key points of the story in recent days.”

“A name of an alleged attacker that Jackie provided to them [the assault awareness advocates] for the first time this week, for example, turned out to be similar to the name of a student who belongs to a different fraternity, and no one by that name has been a member of Phi Kappa Psi.  (emphasis added) Reached by phone, that man, a U-Va. graduate, said Friday that he did work at the Aquatic Fitness Center and was familiar with Jackie’s name. He said, however, that he had never met Jackie in person and had never taken her on a date. He also said that he was not a member of Phi Kappa Psi.

“The fraternity also said that it has reviewed the roster of employees at the university’s Aquatic and Fitness Center for 2012 and found that it does not list a member of the fraternity — a detail Jackie provided in her account to Rolling Stone and in interviews with The Washington Post — and that no member of the house matches the description detailed in the Rolling Stone account. The statement also said that the house does not have pledges during the fall semester.”

“The Washington Post has interviewed Jackie several times during the past week and has worked to corroborate her version of events, contacting dozens of current and former members of the fraternity, the fraternity’s faculty adviser, Jackie’s friends and former roommates, and others on campus.”

“Earlier this week, Jackie revealed to friends for the first time the full name of her alleged attacker, a name she had never disclosed to anyone. (emphasis added)  But after looking into that person’s background, the group that had been among her closest supporters quickly began to raise suspicions about her account. The friends determined that the student that Jackie had named was not a member of Phi Kappa Psi and that other details about his background did not match up with information Jackie had disclosed earlier about her perpetrator.”

“Jackie’s former roommate, Rachel Soltis, said that she noticed emotional and physical changes to her friend during the fall semester of 2012, when the two shared a suite on campus. ‘She was withdrawn, depressed and couldn’t wake up in the mornings,’ said Soltis, who told the Post that she was convinced that Jackie was sexually assaulted. Soltis said that Jackie did not tell her about the alleged sexual assault until January 2013. Soltis said that she did not notice any apparent wounds on Jackie’s body at the time that might have indicated a brutal attack.”

OK.  That’s enough.  I won’t copy-and-paste the entire article.  But a couple of points emerge:

1.    The WaPo was able in a matter of days (today is December 5; the Rolling Stone article came out only the latter half of November) to verify fraternity member rolls and check to see if the fraternity in question had actually had a social function on the date alleged.  The fraternity claims to have been able to verify university employment rolls to determine none of them worked at the facility claimed.  The WaPo was able to contact and interview “dozens” of current and former fraternity members, multiple friends and former friends of Jackie’s, and others on campus.  Erdely appears to have done none of this, or if she did it, to have suppressed their statements.  This is a firing offense.

2.    Until this past week Jackie had not told anyone the name of her alleged attacker (the one whose name she alleges she knew, presumably her date).  The whole article’s premise is the story of a self-interested, callous institution disregarding a report of not just an unwanted grope, or even an outright rape, but a horrific gang rape of the kind that would put multiple people behind bars until they’re too old to get it up any more.  The disappointed reader will ask precisely what the university was supposed to do if she would not name the person against whom it was to proceed.  We’ve not heard details about the university’s attempts (if any) to verify the information she gave them; for that matter it’s not been fully disclosed what information she did give them.  But if they did what the WaPo and the fraternity have done and concluded that she was bringing them a bill of goods, their decision not to move forward becomes much more defensible.

3.    A little data point:  The one person on campus who must have seen Jackie largely unclothed if not bare-ass naked multiple times that year — her roommate — reported never having seen any of the kinds of cuts or bruises which she must inevitably had if she had been attacked as she described.  The Rolling Stone article described Jackie as being bloody from pretty much head to toe immediately after the attack.  Either Erdely never asked the question, or she asked it and suppressed the answer.  Either is also a firing offense.

4.   How do you square the quotation attributed to Soltis by Erdely that she and several others knew “exactly” who did this to Jackie with the statements in the WaPo that Jackie never told anyone the name of her known attacker until last week?   Somebody’s lying here (either the WaPo, or Jackie’s assault awareness advocates, or Soltis, or Erdely, or some combination of them), and if Erdely was given that kind of major conflicting information but suppressed it from her article, that’s likewise a firing offense.

Something traumatic happened to Jackie during her freshman year.  When it happened or what it was, we likely will never know.  What we do know is that Jackie herself is not to be trusted on the subject.  At all.  Anyone who will fabricate an accusation which can cost another person an entire life in a maximum-security prison, where sexual offenders are known to be targets for death or mutilation, is not entitled to be believed as to any matter on which she cannot produce indisputably unaltered videographic evidence.  Which is a shame, because she just might have been assaulted.

Erdely needs to be shown the door, however.  Whatever her capabilities as an advocate may be, she’s plainly not to be trusted as a reporter.

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