Rolling Stone, Lena Dunham, and the 'Rape Culture' Backlash

Why sensitivity to rape victims might have led to flawed reporting.

Lena Dunham visits 'THE VIEW,' 9/30/14, (11:00 a.m. - 12:00 noon, ET) airing on the ABC Television Network.

Photo by Lou Rocco/ABC via Getty Images

Where to begin with the Washington Post’s woeful “profile” of blogger/activist/doxxer Charles C. Johnson? You could start with the View from Nowhere, which posits that Johnson’s threat to release the name and address of the alleged University of Virginia rape victim at the center of Rolling Stone’s widely challenged story—he would defer, if she told “the truth about making it up”—was “pugnacious.” You could continue with how Johnson is described as a “one-time Daily Caller contributor,” without any mention of how his imploded stories alleging that then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker did not live in Newark, and that a New York Times reporter once posed for Playgirl, marked the end of his relationship with the site. (The Post only notes that Johnson contributed to the “hooker” stories about New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez that were “shredded” by other reporters.) You might wonder why the profile fails to mention Johnson’s “doxxing” of two New York Times reporters, and his subsequent reporting about how one of the reporters was calling police about the threats she was getting. Your eyebrow might levitate at how Johnson’s stories alleging criminal behavior from the victims of police shootings are described as “lampoon[s].”

The gist, as Matt Lewis writes at the Daily Caller, is that the Post was “romanticizing the work of someone who is threatening to reveal personal details about an alleged rape victim.” And I think it missed the context. (That’s truly strange, because Post reporters have driven the skeptical, debunking coverage of the Rolling Stone story.) Johnson, like any good exploiter of the news cycle, is attempting to tap into a backlash against the way the media reports on rape. The Rolling Stone story was initially embraced by the media, and especially by the ideological media that had recently explored the idea of “rape culture.” Holding back the identities of rape victims was a standard media practice, but Rolling Stone was seen to be pushing the envelope, allowing its subject, “Jackie,” to tell her story without rebuttal from the alleged rapists.

“UVA has a rape culture problem,” wrote Bonnie Gordon, in a representative example of the genre, for Slate. “Rape culture normalizes rape as part of a larger system of attitudes and understandings of gender and sexuality. Rape culture can include victim blaming, and assuming that rapists are strangers. Rape culture accepts rape as a norm that women have to work to avoid. Rape culture reflects a community grounded in patriarchal privilege and gender inequity.”

Only when reporters at Slate, the Post, and other traditional media poked holes in the story did Rolling Stone explain why the accusers were not represented. “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie's story,” wrote editors, “we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. “

Those ad hoc standards crashed against the standards of typical journalism. Conservatives, who had been accused of “rape denialism,” were happy to point that out. “When a person is described as a ‘rapist’ or an ‘apologist’ or a ‘holocaust denier’ simply for asking good questions about a report that doesn’t ring true,” wrote National Review’s Charles C. Cooke, “you should expect that person to be vocal when his suspicions are confirmed and his detractors are proven wrong.”

And conservative media was doing its own reporting. For the better part of a month, Breitbart News’s John Nolte has been raising questions about how Lena Dunham’s memoir names “Barry,” a “campus conservative,” as a man who may have raped her in college. The site’s reporters scoured Dunham’s campus and found the story flawed, especially as it concerned a real-life “Barry.” That Barry responded by starting a legal fund. Only then did Random House announce that it would alter Dunham’s book so that, in future editions, no one would mistake the real-life “Barry” for the person accused, by her, of rape.

Breitbart News was pilloried for investigating this. The attacks were of the sort Cooke was arguing against; they seemed to imply that anyone questioning a rape story was endorsing the culprit over the victim. That wasn’t what Nolte was doing. As Eugene Volokh explained in the Washington Post, Dunham might have opened herself to a libel suit from “identifiable conservative Barry.” To many people, not just conservatives, the media's sensitivity to "rape culture" seemed to lead to lower standards that damaged peoples' reputations. Hence the backlash.