In the first, a predominantly white fraternity at a major university was singled out in connection with a made-up gang rape. Most of our readers are familiar with this story.
In the second, a group of unspecified Muslim men were falsely accused of violently raping a nurse.
Both stories quickly unraveled to reveal catastrophic journalistic lapses. But defenders of one of the imaginary victims stuck by their hero while defenders of the other immediately jumped ship. The unspecified falsely accused men in one story were treated as victims while the falsely accused men in the other story were not.
You can easily guess which story was which. Let's recap the first story--which is well-known to our readers--before telling you about the second.
In 2014, "journalist" Sabrina Rubin Erdely wrote a sensationally reckless Rolling Stone article about a gang rape of a woman called "Jackie" that never really happened on the campus of the University of Virginia. The alleged rape was violent and callous:
"Grab its motherfucking leg"' she heard a voice say. And that's when Jackie knew she was going to be raped. She remembers every moment of the next three hours of agony, during which, she says, seven men took turns raping her, while two more – her date, Drew, and another man – gave instruction and encouragement.The tale was immediately believed by almost everyone--#IStandWithJackie resonated on campus and beyond to much of America. Fraternities were suspended. Gender extremists masquerading as journalists unflinchingly demonized fraternities as campus rape pits, parroted 1970s radical feminist mantras about automatically believing women. and preached that due process for college men accused of rape is a luxury college women can't afford.
When the story started to unravel, they had no hesitation sticking by "Jackie"and insisting that any blame should fall squarely on Rolling Stone for failing to jump through pro forma journalistic hoops. Few acknowledged that the victims of the story--the men of the unfairly maligned fraternity--were actually victims. Jezebel's Anna Merlan called wrote a column that branded writer Robby Soave an "idiot" in the headline for daring to question "Jackie's" story. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said that "Jackie" ought to be beyond criticism: "Victim blaming or shining the spotlight on her for coming forward is not the right approach." On CNN, a legal analyst named Sunny Hostin clucked: ". . . the suggestion that ["Jackie"] just sort of made this entire thing up flies in the face of statistics." A writer for a college newspaper decried criticisms of "the testimony of a traumatized victim who is trying to live with the effects of her trauma." And leave it to Jessica Valenti to pen a thing called this: "Inconsistencies in Jackie's story do not mean that she wasn't raped at UVA." The inanity speaks for itself.
Fast forward to today. Australia has just experienced a similar journalistic debacle about a rape that never happened. On February 21, 2016, a seasoned newspaper writer named Paul Sheehan reported an alleged sexual assault of a woman who went by her middle name of Louise. She told Sheehan she had fallen asleep in her car near a cathedral and awoke to a man pulling her leg before she was punched in the face. Then, she claimed, she was beaten and raped by six men of Middle Eastern appearance before several homeless men found her. She claimed she suffered a broken jaw, 79 fractures, a broken ankle, a broken back vertebrae and broken nose.
It didn't take long for this story to unravel, as most of them do. Only this time, the reaction was much different than the Rolling Stone falsehood because the victims of the false rape claim weren't "privileged" white men. There was no hand-wringing trying to salvage Louise's sordid tale, nor was there any question that the victims of the false claim, Muslim men, were actually victims because they'd been unfairly stigmatized.
The newspaper quickly apologized: "In a column published on February 21 headlined The story of Louise: the hidden scale of the rape epidemic in Sydney, Fairfax Media reported the details of an alleged sexual assault. A subsequent column published below acknowledged key elements of the original story were unable to be substantiated. The original story included aspersions against the Middle Eastern community and raised untested allegations of inaction against the NSW Police. Fairfax Media sincerely regrets the hurt and distress the reports caused to these groups, and our readers, and unreservedly apologises." The writer acknowledged that his story wronged Muslims: "In the story recounted to me by Louise, she made insulting references to rapes committed by Middle Eastern men. I had wrongly amplified this insult by including her words in the column."
The story was used to spark a national dialogue about how Muslim men are unfairly stigmatized. The writer was branded a reckless journalist with a supposed racial animus and a history of writing things trashing Islam and Muslims. Academic Randa Abdel-Fattah decried the “racialised discourse” that stigmatizes Muslim men as criminals. “According to Sheehan … sexual assault is foreclosed as a Muslim/Middle Eastern crime,” she wrote. Further:
The thread that Sheehan uses to stitch together his story is a racist, matter-of-fact, common doxa that constructs a taken-for-granted figure of the Muslim/Middle Eastern/brown man as rapist. This figure reifies a racialised discourse that stigmatises and maligns Muslim men wholesale via the rhetoric of criminalisation.A columnist for The Canberra Times and Daily Life wrote this to the writer of the false rape story:
And it works. Because these have become the acceptable terms of how the media presents any story connected (even wrongly) to Muslims. And they are acceptable to a readership that largely takes their truth value for granted.
The production of this image of the Muslim man to be feared depends on what Goldsmiths' academic Sara Ahmed calls ‘past histories of association’. The label rapist becomes a metonym that slides between words, remakes connections and stirs a history of Islamophobic narratives.
. . . .
When it comes to Muslims, professional practice, critical faculties, editorial checks and journalistic integrity are suspended.
Paul, a word to you now.Another writer explained the problem: "One of the reasons we need to be wary of adding weight to Islamophobia is because it is on the rise: Islamophobic attacks spike after news breaks of Islamic extremist terrorism."
If only you could sit in a room with . . . all the . . . Muslim women and men who are devastated every time you write about Muslims.
If you were really sorry, you'd apologise to them, and to us.
In short, the real lesson from the false rape story about "Louise" is not that journalists need to exercise restraint and objectivity when writing about unconfirmed rape allegations. The real lesson was that anti-Muslim hysteria is wrong.
This blog was pointed out that rape lies often include a "scary" black or Hispanic male suspect in an attempt to lend plausibility to the fabrication. Add Muslims to the list. In 2011, a Brooklyn "nun" from a fringe Christian sect falsely claimed "that she was choked and raped by a black man." The New York Daily News reported that black men in the neighborhood were angered, but not surprised. According to the Daily News: "Cops even released a sketch of the phantom suspect and pleaded for the public to help catch him. After more questioning, [the accuser] admitted she concocted the assault to cover up her sexual shenanigans with a bodega worker." The men in the neighborhood were "pissed," as one man put it. "I don't know why they must accuse falsely like that. I think it must be prejudice," said a 56-year-old advertising worker who lived across from the house where the "nun" lived.
In 2010, WABC weather forecaster Heidi Jones invented a Hispanic man as her attacker. Many expressed outrage on behalf of the Hispanic community.
A rape lie is all the more despicable when it is seasoned with racial animus because it stokes awful stereotypes. But a rape lie is sufficiently despicable without racial animus to warrant our outrage. Sadly, for too many commentators in the mainstream media and for practically all who write for progressive Internet news outlets, if the particular rape claim doesn't present a morality play about a perceived victim group--and young white men don't qualify--the injustice isn't treated as an injustice.
The real lessons from both the "Jackie" and "Louise" disasters and from every other high-profile false rape claim is that it is never right to rush to judgment and treat an accusation as tantamount to a conviction even where the accuser "seems" credible. It is both journalistic malpractice and morally grotesque to refuse to concede even the possibility that there might be another side to the story. And men who belong to minority communities are often treated unfairly, but, yes, white men can be victims, too, even when they belong to fraternities.