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Rolling Stone and UVA

December 20, 2014

Rolling Stone magazine ran an article two months ago describing the horrific treatment a young UVA co-ed experienced at a fraternity party where she became intoxicated and was raped repeatedly. The story was picked up by mainstream media and became national news. The UVA President closed down all fraternity parties, began serious exploration of the complete elimination of fraternities, and called for soul searching about the toxic atmosphere at the college. The story, as it turned out, had some holes… and ultimately led to the Rolling Stone editors apologizing for failing to validate the facts in the case.

The whole incident brought to mind personal encounters with the media and, especially, the Tawana Brawley incident in Wappingers Falls NY where the community was still putting the case behind them when I worked there a decade after the incident. In brief, Ms. Brawley was found in a garbage bag with racial slurs written on her body and covered with feces. She claimed to have been abducted and raped by six white men, one of whom was the Dutchess County Assistant DA Steven Pagones. Ms. Brawley’s allegations drew national attention from the media and much sympathy from those who were convinced of the veracity of the story, a story some believe to be true to this day. A grand jury convened and determined that the entire episode was fabricated by Ms. Brawley to avoid severe punishment from her mother and step-father for staying out overnight. In the aftermath, Mr. Pagones sued Ms. Brawley and her advisors (one of whom was Al Sharpton) for defamation and won some restitution but lost his marriage and his reputation since the coverage of the accusations far outstripped the coverage of the defamation trial. A decade later, when I applied for the Superintendency in that district, my brother sent me an email reminding me of this case, as did virtually everyone who learned that I was appointed to the job. In the minds of the public, Wappingers was defined by the case and, presumably, had a shadow cast over it. Some of the staff members I worked with rolled their eyes when I mentioned this, with one in particular recalling the turmoil it created in the secondary schools in the district where he served as Principal at the time.

I have long been suspicious of media coverage given my first experiences as a student teacher in Philadelphia and my admiration for George Orwell’s analysis of political writing. By over-reporting on salacious incidents that prove to be untrue and under-reporting the slow, steady improvements that are taking place, the media play into the hands of those who claim the fundamental issues (e.g. racism and sexual assaults on campus) are groundless. And the collateral damage to the institutions and/or communities under attack is irreparable.

This post was triggered by an article in today’s NYTimes, titled “University of Virginia Officials Blast Media Coverage”. The article quotes the University of Virginia’s rector, George Keith Martin, and President Teresa Sullivan:

“Our tightly knit community has experienced the full fury of drive-by journalism in the 21st century — of callous indifference to the truth and callous indifference to the consequences,” he said, adding, “our great university’s reputation has been unfairly tarnished.”

Before reciting a long list of things the administration is doing to make the campus safer, Teresa A. Sullivan, the university president, said, “Our concern with sexual assault was not something that started with the Rolling Stone article.” And she said she felt compelled to state that “UVA’s climate and culture are generally healthy.”

As it turns out the rush to publish a salacious article has become a lose-lose proposition. UVA and fraternities on all campuses have their reputations tarnished and, as the penultimate paragraph notes, the false story will have negative percussions for those trying to change the culture on campuses as well:

Activists have voiced concerns that the Rolling Stone episode could undermine people’s willingness to believe victims, and weaken the university’s resolve to address the problem.

The solution? When someone approaches the media with a story like the Brawley incident or the UVA episode the writer should make certain that the source has done everything possible to seek redress through administrative and/or legal channels and if not, do thorough and complete research before publishing. As the Brawley incident indicates, it takes years to heal and as UVA is learning, the aftermath outlives “…the full fury of drive-by journalism in the 21st century”. 

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