Rape culture and Rolling Stone

rolling-stone-rape-on-campusWith just the title of his article, a Washington Post writer has unwittingly spoken volumes about the issue of rape and sexual assault under capitalism.

“Why do high-profile rape cases keep falling apart?” asks the writer, Radley Balko.

He just can’t seem to fathom why the allegation of rape — already vastly under reported and under prosecuted in everyday society — is so consistently invalidated in “high-profile” cases.

Is it really such a mystery — when the cases he cites involve allegations against members of 1%-connected institutions?

Ralko’s article, despite its thoughtful — but deeply reactionary — tone, is part of a new growing journalistic niche: investigative rape-skepticism, where the concern is overtly for the truth, but the approach is one of aggressively rooting through the accuser’s history, social media communications and apparent inconsistencies in order to brand her a liar, hysteric or unstable.

To cast doubt on allegations of rape, these pieces often rely heavily on instances where an accused rapist is exonerated by a university panel. Yet the whole point of the recent anti-rape documentary “The Hunting Ground” — as well as the federal investigation into over a hundred campuses — is that universities routinely cover up rapes.

Saying that a university panel has cleared someone of rape is like saying that a police department has decided not to indict a cop for police brutality.

“The Hunting Ground,” made by the Academy Award-nominated team behind the 2012 documentary “The Invisible War,” about sexual assault in the military, has come under attack by the investigative rape-skeptics, who are focusing on a Harvard University case featured in the film. “How ‘The Hunting Ground’ blurs the truth — filmmakers put advocacy ahead of accuracy” is the description from the website “Slate.”

Emma Sulkowicz, who carried her mattress around Columbia University to protest the fact that her attacker was still on campus, was branded a “jilted love interest” by the right-wing website “Daily Caller,” which claimed she made a false accusation against Jean-Paul Nungesser because of a “savage hatred” for him.

The rape-skeptic investigative pieces are easy to spot, appearing mostly in the “Daily Beast”; the right-wing “Daily Caller,” or the libertarian site “Reason.”

What is not as easy to spot are the instances when rape-skeptic journalism bleeds into mainstream news sources like “Slate” or the Washington Post, both of which played a leading role in attacking the Rolling Stone article by Sabrina Rudin Erdely about rape culture at the Thomas Jefferson-founded University of Virginia.

Behind all the manifestations of rape-skeptic journalism lie the interests of the 1%, who want to preserve the exploitative, oppressive relations that exist under capitalism and prop them up.

A striking fact is that the “jilted love interest” story spread about Sulkowicz is similar to the story that was spread about “Jackie” — the pseudonym for the University of Virginia student who said she was raped in a fraternity house and whose story was told in the November 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

But the magazine retracted Erdely’s article in December, and eventually took it off its website. Thus began a chorus of anti-Rolling Stone condemnation that ultimately landed on Jackie as well — complete with a narrative, similar to the one used against Sulkowicz, claiming she had invented the rape in order to attract romantic attention.

Using Fox News-speak, TV host Megyn Kelly said to one of Jackie’s male classmates in a live interview that “some” have concluded that this “entire thing was a ruse to win your affection.”

The Rolling Stone case was largely portrayed as a case of journalistic negligence. After the magazine retracted the article, the Columbia Journalism School “audited” the story. By the time the Charlottesville, Va., police suspended their investigation of the incident, it was widely assumed to have been fabricated.

However, both the Columbia Journalism School’s auditors and the Charlottesville police made a point not to rule out the possibility that a rape had occurred.

The auditors said they were primarily aiming their guns at Rolling Stone’s reporting lapses — and Charlottesville’s police chief publicly made a distinction between “suspending” a case and “closing” it, saying, “I can’t prove that something didn’t happen.”

Nevertheless, in the media flurry that followed the Rolling Stone retraction, the hand of rape-deniers and misogynists was strengthened. The pile-on included everything from demands that the accuser be expelled from campus to Fox host Kelly asking her guests, “What do you think should happen to her? Should she be publicly named?”

This all-too-familiar backlash against a rape accuser was blamed on Rolling Stone and the article’s author, Sabrina Rudin Erdely. It was argued from every quarter that now, people who disbelieve rape accusations will be able to use this fabricated story as ammunition, which wouldn’t have been published if the magazine had properly fact-checked it.

But with attacks from rape-skeptic investigative journalists growing, both on Columbia’s Sulkowicz as well as the Harvard case featured in “The Hunting Ground,” maybe it is possible to see the attacks on Rolling Stone in a different light.

Maybe the attack on the Rolling Stone piece was a flagrant example of why it is hard for survivors of sexual assault to come forward in the first place. Rolling Stone’s “flawed article” is the excuse, in this case, for the classic and time-honored practice of putting the victim of rape on trial.

Is it possible to take seriously the attack on Rolling Stone for not properly fact-checking its story? That the standards of journalism are taken so seriously by society that apparent inconsistencies in the accuser’s story mean support for her is dropped?

The reality is that, in the media that support capitalist property relations, the standards of journalistic integrity are violated every day, all the time, with impunity.

Every media account of a murder of an unarmed African American features a prominent lie by the police that the victim was charging at the officer or “using their car as a weapon.” Every war, every bombing campaign, is sustained by multiple falsehoods spread by newspapers and TV networks that don’t do an iota of fact-checking when it comes to government claims.

That’s because the primary role of the media under capitalism is to portray reality in a way that benefits the interests of the 1% — Wall Street, the banks and the rich.

The most obvious example of this was the “weapons-of-mass destruction” lie spread by every news source in the country in the lead-up to the disastrous war against Iraq.

Today, everybody knows this was made up by the Bush administration in order to go to war with Iraq. But in September 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney held up the New York Times as he was alleging Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and said: “You don’t have to believe me. Believe the New York Times.”

The role that papers like the Washington Post and New York Times played was so bad that the Times issued a public apology in May 2004. But by that time, Wall Street had gotten the war it wanted. The Columbia Journalism School was not called in to investigate. No articles were retracted.

So, in this case: why did Wall Street and the 1% want the Rolling Stone article killed and buried?

Regardless of what happened at the University of Virginia, what Wall Street wants is to discredit a story that exposes on a national scale the violently misogynist culture of fraternities — which function as pipelines and training grounds for trading firms, stockbroker houses and banks.

The media focus on the accuser’s inconsistencies served to keep the issue one of “he-said-she-said” — where the possibility exists that one side is not telling the truth. But in addition to depicting one instance of assault, the article was a full frontal attack on the rape culture perpetuated by fraternities and enabled by the elite universities that host them.

Those institutions felt that attack and responded. The fact that this story was being told in a national magazine was a qualitative difference from the issue’s usual local-headlines exposure, where the role of universities, as well as local police, is to quiet the issue down in some way — whether by silencing the victims or simply refusing to find the perpetrators guilty.

In this case, the rape story was in a nationally distributed pop-music magazine read by millions. It couldn’t be swept under the rug. The article itself got a record 2.7 million views — the most non-celebrity-related hits in the magazine’s history. The nexus of donor-dependent universities, Wall Street-backed fraternities and lawsuit-averse national fraternity organizations could not allow this story to exist as a credible piece of journalism.

Misdirection from campus rape culture

In addition to the usual practice of blaming the victim, the focus on the inconsistencies in the accuser’s account — inconsistency being a phenomenon not at all unusual for trauma survivors, especially in the case of rape — served a strategic function: misdirection from the article’s devastating portrayal of the systematic campus rape culture.

Erdely’s article in Rolling Stone relates examples of known rapists, whose guilt was established by the university’s own adjudication process, being allowed to stay on campus; of failure by the administration to warn students when rapes had been reported; of university officials either trying to talk victims out of pursuing actions against their attackers or silencing them.

The November 2014 article published the fact that, since 1998, 183 people had been expelled for honor-code violations such as lying or cheating on exams. But during that time, not one student had been expelled for committing sexual assault.

None of these facts are being disputed — but Rolling Stone’s website no longer carries the article, now forever referred to as “discredited.”

University of Virginia

In 2013, the magazine The Economist, essentially the voice of the London stock exchange, ranked the University of Virginia’s business school as the third best in the world. The college’s law school is second only to Harvard’s in producing graduates who serve as counsel to Fortune 500 companies.

The University of Virginia is an elite institution, known as the Ivy League of the South. Some of the school’s graduates have included Woodrow Wilson, Ted Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Katie Couric, Janet Napolitano and hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones.

It is also the focus of an investigation by the federal government – which was forced to take action after decades of activism and demands by anti-rape activists — to determine whether it violated Title IX of the Education Amendments Act by failing to protect female students from sexual assault — i.e., interfering with their access to education. Even though it has a $5 billion endowment, the school does not want to risk the government’s penalty — cancellation of federal funds — which could affect the money it gets from donors as well.

In fact, the article depicts campus officials lying to trustees about the nature of the federal government’s investigation of the school. They described it at a trustees’ meeting as a “routine compliance review.”

This is a school with the motivation to discredit the story and the connections to do so. Did its officials get the Washington Post to go after the story? One of the paper’s columnists, Erik Wemple, wrote, “If Erdely had chosen some other campus, perhaps her skewed reporting wouldn’t have attracted such scrutiny.”

He was referring to the school’s geographical proximity to the paper. But the University of Virginia was not the only powerful institution that wanted to discredit the story.


Erdely’s article also put a gigantic spotlight on the culture of fraternities that makes on-campus rape inevitable.

Erdely quoted a 2002 study of college sexual assault that describes how the frat drinking-and-hookup culture provides the perfect cover for serial rapists to go after first-year students. “They’re not acting in a vacuum,” said the study’s author. “They’re echoing that message and that culture that’s around them: the objectification and degradation of women.”

The public image of fraternities is that of college institutions that have crazy parties and hazing rituals that sometimes go too far.

In reality, they are standalone institutions that pay for their own dwellings (thus allowing universities to admit more students) and are backed to the hilt with lawyers, painstakingly written insurance policies that routinely exempt them from responsibility when drinking causes injury or death, and national fraternity organizations that lobby on their behalf in Washington.

Not to mention the hidden and not-so-hidden hand of Wall Street. A Bloomberg News article reported : “Donors [i.e., rich alumni] rebelled when Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, made fraternities go co-ed after a drunk student broke his neck in a shallow Psi Upsilon pool. … With a private-equity veteran, real estate investor and stock analyst among grads condemning the school’s efforts, Trinity President James Jones decided to resign a year earlier than planned.”

The fraternity-Wall Street pipeline

In December 2013, Bloomberg News did a study to investigate why Wall Street was so male-dominated.

The answer: an interwoven network of connections between colleges and Wall Street the authors dubbed “the fraternity pipeline.” Interviews with three dozen fraternity members, the article stated, “showed a network whose Wall Street alumni guide resumés to the tops of stacks, reveal interview questions with recommended answers, offer applicants secret mottoes and support chapters facing crackdowns.”

The article focused primarily on how Wall Street players guided fraternity members into lucrative jobs — but noted, “The fraternity pipeline works in reverse, too.” Meaning that members of firms use their considerable resources to offer money, help and influence to any fraternities that find themselves in trouble.

And what do fraternities typically do when they find themselves in trouble? Huddle and get their stories straight. The book “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy” describes how a tepid Dartmouth university investigation into hazing rituals at the SAE fraternity was met by a well-organized wall of denial. The frat members denied all charges — even though they were true — and discussed in detail how to respond when questioned.

“That night I realized the frat brothers were far more clever than the administration, not to mention many steps ahead,” wrote the book’s author, Andrew Lohse, a former member of that frat. “The pledges lied admirably in their interviews. The investigation was dropped.”

Later in the book, Lohse writes, “I needed two hands to count all of my friends who’d been raped at Dartmouth.” Dartmouth is also the school where, in January 2014, a student posted a how-to-rape guide on a school website.

Dartmouth is the epitome of the frat-dominated university whose administration is powerless in the face of routinely dangerous activity that threatens the lives of students and endangers women. Efforts by the school’s administration to address the fraternity culture have ranged from ineffectual attempts to outright capitulation.

Not long after he was elected president of Dartmouth in 2009, Jim Yong Kim met with alums and reassured them he had no intention of overhauling the fraternities. “One of the things you learn as an anthropologist,” he said in an interview, “you don’t come in and change the culture.'” Kim is now head of the World Bank.

Dartmouth is also one of the Ivy League schools most closely tied to Wall Street. “Statistics show,” reported a 2012 Rolling Stone article, “that roughly a quarter of each graduating class find jobs in finance and business — a figure many students consider low, given Dartmouth’s prominent ties to its Wall Street alumni, who often come back to campus to recruit.”

The article continues with this fraternity student quote: “I’ve been at our house when a senior partner from a financial-services firm and a chief recruiter from someplace like Bain are standing around drinking with us as we haze our pledges.”

Rolling Stone

If it seems odd to quote a 2012 Rolling Stone article when recently the magazine was publicly reprimanded for bad reporting, it helps to know that the magazine’s consistent exposure of Wall Street crimes is part of the story.

Through the corporate media, Wall Street’s attack on Rolling Stone is also fueled by vengeance. The basis of this vengeance is not based on the magazine practicing bad journalism, but based on it practicing good journalism — in a series of articles exposing how Wall Street caused, profited from and never went to jail for the 2008 housing crash.

That’s not to say that Rolling Stone is to be commended for its handling of the University of Virginia story — most notably because when the attacks on the story came, it jumped on the blame-the-victim bandwagon. The magazine’s publisher, Jann Wenner, called the student “a really expert fabulist storyteller” in the New York Times on April 6.

But it was a series of Rolling Stone articles after the housing-bubble crash — most famously including the 2010 piece calling Goldman Sachs a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money” — that exposed exactly how Wall Street caused the crisis and never went to jail for it.

With articles titled “Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail?,” “Looting Main Street” and “The Scam Wall Street Learned from the Mafia,” Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi relentlessly exposed corporate crimes.

Kill the messenger

For anyone with a political memory, the media attack on the Rolling Stone article should remind them of the mid-nineties attacks on journalist Gary Webb.

Webb was the San Jose Mercury News reporter who exposed the CIA for selling drugs in U.S. cities to finance its war in Nicaragua. With the crack epidemic destroying cities, Webb’s articles were welcomed by communities as proving the drug war was aimed at them.

Led by the Los Angeles Times, which hired 17 reporters to debunk Webb’s reporting and was then joined by the Washington Post and the New York Times, the mainstream media served as attack dogs for capitalism’s interests in Central America. Webb’s editors at the Mercury News backed off the story and wrote a public apology for it in 1997. The very next year, Webb’s reporting was vindicated by the CIA itself.

In 2014, 10 years after Webb’s death, he became the hero subject of the Hollywood movie “Kill the Messenger.” The New York Times’ reviewer called it a movie about a reporter “wrongly disgraced.”

Why do high-profile rape cases keep falling apart?

Everybody saw Eric Garner’s killer choke him to death on video, and his case never went to trial. Technically, his case “fell apart” — a grand jury somehow decided there wasn’t enough evidence to even charge the officer.

Obviously, institutionalized racism is the key to understanding this. Similarly, if you don’t take into account the way rape is a function of women’s institutionalized oppression, then it could seem mystifying why rape survivors’ stories get picked apart by people who want to invalidate the claim and silence the accuser.

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) says that 97 out of 100 rapes receive no punishment at all. The culture, institutions and legal system all routinely make it so that it is the accuser who gets put on trial or is afraid to report in the first place.

Then, when it comes to the cases mentioned in the Washington Post article that asked this question – where the accused are tied to powerful institutions — rape goes from being an unaddressed crime to an outright hoax.

The Rolling Stone case took on the University of Virginia and Psi Kappa Phi, a fraternity founded in 1852. The women who accused the Duke lacrosse players took on Duke University and lacrosse teams, which also serve as a pipeline to Wall Street. Emma Sulkowicz took on Columbia University. Kamila Willingham took on Harvard University.

While you’re at it, throw in Nafissatou Diallo, whose case “fell apart.” She accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn — he was head of the International Monetary Fund, one of the most powerful banking entities on the planet. Or Tawana Brawley, whose case is still widely regarded a hoax: she accused Dutchess County’s assistant district attorney, whose father and uncle were judges. The case couldn’t even proceed at first because prosecutors assigned to the case kept resigning; they didn’t want to have to put a member of the top cop’s office behind bars.

The writers who want to pick apart these cases want to promote the idea that rape is hard to prove, that it all comes down to “he-said, she-said.” Sure, rape is terrible, they say, but let’s not get carried away when it could all be based on drunken encounters. Their goal is to block out the way rape, along with sexual harassment, objectification, domestic violence and job discrimination, function to oppress women – which is why the perpetrators routinely get away with it.

The full-court-press attack on the Rolling Stone story was supposed to be for its violations of the standards of good journalism. In actuality, Sabrina Rudin Erdely’s “crime” was that she all-too-accurately portrayed the rape culture fostered by fraternities and the University of Virginia.

The entire episode epitomizes what Marxists call the difference between form and content. The form was professed concern for Rolling Stone’s failure to fact-check its article.

The content was a wholesale attack on a woman who said she was raped.

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