Jim Geraghty could not possibly know how prescient he would be. Writing earlier this week at National Review Online, the perceptive Mr. Geraghty headlined his piece on the dangers of liberals trucking in “narrative journalism” as follows.
What If the Media’s ‘Narrative Journalism’ Harms Their Own Causes?
Jim began this way as he discussed the Michael Brown conflagration:
What if the mainstream media’s increasing devotion to “narrative journalism” – preconceived storylines that fit a particular agenda or political or ideological view, almost always progressive – as opposed to say, “factual journalism” — is actually harmful to the causes they seek to advance?
Literally within 72 hours, Rolling Stone magazine, the bulwark of what remains of supposedly hip leftism, stepped up to the plate to prove what we will here christen the Geraghty Principle of Narrative Journalism. This affirmation proceeded thusly.
It was all so easy.
The narrative was a left-wing favorite. A bunch of well-to do white frat boys at an elite university engaged in violent gang-banging when not studying to be even richer white professionals. What better story for Rolling Stone to play the leftist game that narrative journalism has become? The story had everything the left professes to detest. White boys. Money earned from those bastard capitalists. An exclusive fraternity at an exclusive elite university. And above all - thank you Jesus! - sex!
Throw all these ingredients into the cauldron of narrative journalism and…presto! Out comes a narrative that would send the liberal media acolytes swooning. On November 29th the Washington Post headlined it this way: “The story behind the story that roiled Va.’s flagship university.”
Reporter Paul Farhi began the Post’s story this way:
Magazine writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely knew she wanted to write about sexual assaults at an elite university. What she didn’t know was which university.
So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.
What Erdely eventually found in Charlottesville shocked her, and it eventually shocked the nation.
In a searing investigative piece published by Rolling Stone magazine last week, Erdely told the story of Jackie, who as a first-year student was allegedly gang-raped by seven men at a U-Va. fraternity party in 2012.
The gruesome details of the alleged assault and the hard-drinking atmosphere surrounding it were harrowing enough. But the story also focused on what happened to Jackie after she told friends and campus officials that she had been brutalized. Erdely recounted a virtually systemic whitewashing of Jackie’s allegations, from peers who counseled her to remain silent to an indifferent and conflicted school administration, caught between adjudicating a serious crime and protecting the university’s platinum reputation.”
The initial Post story reporting the Rolling Stone expose was itself a classic of the Geraghty Principle at work. Totally assumed are “the gruesome details”, the word “alleged” appearing not an obstacle to the eager swallowing-whole of this juicy piece of leftist narrative journalism fresh off the Rolling Stone grill.
The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens wasn’t buying. In a column titled UVA, Ferguson and Media Failure, Stephens recalled a March 2007 New York Times Magazine story, a 12,000 word cover piece titled “The Women’s War.” Like the UVA story seven years later the Times story was focused on, in Stephens’ words, “the story of several female veterans of the war in Iraq, of the sexual assault some had endured in the military, and of their subsequent struggles with alcoholism, depression, PTSD and other effects of combat.” One of the women featured was named Amorita Randall. And like the later UVA story, the details in the Times story were ugly. After a brief recounting of the details that appeared in the piece Stephens notes:
“Only one problem.” And that problem was? As he quotes the Times in a later acknowledgement: “Ms. Randall did not serve in Iraq , but may have become convinced that she did.” It turned out that Randall had served alright -- in Guam. Far, far away from Iraq, not to mention combat in Iraq. Stephens ends his column, which also focused on the Ferguson story and the media’s sensationalizing, by focusing on the Rolling Stone UVA story. He ended his column by saying: “Bad journalism is bad journalism…The UVA story cries out for a much closer look.”
And so it was that by mid afternoon Friday came this inevitable news from Rolling Stone. Oops. Never mind. We’re retracting. Specifically the magazine said in a statement which is reprinted here in full as a wonderfully vivid example of what happens when you ignore the Geraghty Principle:
To Our Readers:
“Last month, Rolling Stone published a story titled "A Rape on Campus" by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which described a brutal gang rape of a woman named Jackie at a University of Virginia fraternity house; the university's failure to respond to this alleged assault – and the school's troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults. The story generated worldwide headlines and much soul-searching at UVA. University president Teresa Sullivan promised a full investigation and also to examine the way the school responds to sexual assault allegations.
Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie's story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone's editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie's credibility. Her friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported Jackie's account. She had spoken of the assault in campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn't confirm or deny her story but had concerns about the evidence.
In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.
What is there to say here? What was going on at Rolling Stone was not investigative journalism. Neither was the story about the Post's story about the Rolling Stone story and its author Sabrina Rubin Erdely anything other than accepting. These were not small stories getting a small detail wrong. These were stories of narrative journalism written to confirm a leftist point of view.
They are the counterpart of all those stories on Jonathan Gruber’s lies about ObamaCare that never appeared on the network newscasts. Both the UVA story and the Gruber stories appeared and didn’t appear successively for exactly the same reason: narrative journalism. The UVA story confirmed the leftist bias about elite universities, white guys, wealth and the liberal view of “the war on women.” The Gruber story didn’t appear for the same reason - to run the facts would destroy the liberal narrative journalism about everything from President Obama to ObamaCare to the left’s beloved icon of Big Government itself.
This Rolling Stone story is - for many of the same reasons - all too reminiscent of the Duke University lacrosse story, in which a bunch of well to do white guys at an elite university were accused of raping a stripper. That story was not only wildly wrong but it led to a prosecution - a wrongful prosecution that eventually cost the liberal prosecutor his job not to mention his law license. It takes no imagination to believe that Rolling Stone has just opened itself to a huge lawsuit or lawsuits plural from the precincts of Charlottesville.
And not be forgotten here is the narrative journalism that brought down Dan Rather. The phony story about George W. Bush trying to weasel his way out of military service by joining the National Guard that proved to be completely false. But Dan Rather knew that it just had to be true because, well, he couldn’t stand George W. Bush. That jewel of leftist narrative journalism wound up ending Rather’s long career at CBS.
People make mistakes. Journalists make mistakes. But the idea should be that they are small mistakes. Unintentional mistakes. Not the kind of mistakes that are made by being so vested in leftist narrative journalism that entire stories - serious stories that affect people’s lives and reputations - are later discovered to be false. Or worse, a deliberate hoax.
What has just happened to Rolling Stone - what Rolling Stone just did to itself - is the Geraghty Principle to a “T.” This story on a gang-rape at the University of Virginia was as Geraghty was predicting without knowing a “preconceived storyline that fit a particular agenda or political or ideological view...”
Exactly. Will the liberal media learn from this particularly painful application of the Gerahty Principle?
Don’t bet the ranch.