A bad story shouldn't derail a good fight.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Rolling Stone May Have Crushed Anti-Rape Bill

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
Read More.
a | A

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand could be among the immediate collateral damage from the apparent unraveling of the Rolling Stone article about an alleged brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity.

The New York Democrat has been leading the congressional fight against college and military sexual assaults. In these closed systems, perpetrator and victim know, or know of, each other, and victims are destroyed twice: first when they are attacked and second when the institution they report it to lets them down. 

When her legislation to remove the handling of assaults from the military chain of command failed to clear a 60-vote hurdle last spring, she vowed to revisit the matter after the Pentagon reported on progress to make the system work better. That report, showing mixed to no progress, came out last week. This week, she will attempt to get her bill through again, either as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, or in a separate vote. In addition, she is scheduled to testify today before a subcommittee on her proposal for having campus assaults dealt with by a system of justice outside the university.

But a fight that was always uphill is now much harder given that any attention to sexual assaults will be shadowed by the awful disservice the slipshod Rolling Stone story has done to women, especially victims whose truthfulness will now be called into question. Gillibrand acknowledged the article made her job harder.  "I refuse to let this story to become an excuse for Congress to do nothing and accept a broken system," she said. 

Rolling Stone issued a second semi-retraction over the weekend, in an attempt to erase the impression given by its first semi-apology that the magazine blamed the accuser, not itself, for the article. 

Those working in the trenches of sexual assault see the Rolling Stone fiasco setting back years of work and making it all the harder for skittish victims to come forward. In no other crime does the accuser get grilled about her marriage, her sexual history, what she was wearing or doing. There’s a market for stories that provide a pretext for playing down the extent and severity of sexual assault.

And, yes, there are horrendous false accusations. 

Still, studies show that fewer than 10 percent of charges are shown to be false. Nonetheless, when one woman is caught lying, all women are tarred as liars. How come the misbehavior of one man doesn’t indict the entire sex?

With the Pentagon report, Gillibrand has what she needs to show the current system isn’t obtaining justice for victims. When her bill fell five votes short last spring, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he knew the military had to clean up its act.

We are currently on the clock," he said, "just because Senator Gillibrand’s vote was defeated yesterday doesn’t mean that a year from now it may not be reintroduced and if we haven’t been able to demonstrate we’re making a difference, you know, then we deserve to be held to the scrutiny and standard."

The bell has tolled for Dempsey. Despite the highly touted reforms in last year’s defense bill, the military isn't seeing the kind of reporting that would indicate more trust in the system. In 2011, 78 percent of victims allowed themselves to be named in reports, that number declined to 75 percent this year.

More significantly, the number of victims who experienced retaliation has stayed the same. In 2012 and 2014, 62 percent of military women who reported being sexually assaulted said they felt shunned -- given bad assignments, told to move themselves and their families to another base -- and isolated. Those who make it to court find they sit alone while character witnesses and cheerleaders for the defense crowd the benches around the accused. Congress made retaliation a crime, but the Pentagon says they have no information on any prosecutions under that authority.

The Pentagon says the lack of progress makes it "extremely concerned." Shamed is what it should be. Gillibrand expects the president to weigh in this week -- on her side given the Pentagon report.

After she testifies on campus assaults today, Gillibrand will be trolling for five votes. Among her likely targets, Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who voted no last year but said he would change "down the road if what they're doing now doesn't work." He should be a yes now.

Another is Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican who co-sponsored Gillibrand’s bill, yet voted against it. Gillibrand already has Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and two more Republicans: Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

Despite the growing attention to the problem of sexual assault on college campuses, the statistics about its prevalence aren’t as widely accepted as those for the military. According to the Justice Department, 19 percent of undergraduate women reported experiencing completed or attempted sexual assault. Most of the assaults were committed by someone the victim knew.

The confusion surrounding the Rolling Stone article is further muddying the waters. The University of Virginia's fraternities and sororities are using the holes in the story as exoneration, asking the university to reinstate the Greek system, which has been suspended until Jan. 9.

Even so, UVA President Teresa Sullivan said last week that her new focus on curbing sexual assault on campus (until now, no one has ever been expelled for an assault) isn’t compromised because of the doubts over the victim’s account. And UVA, like dozens of other schools, is already under a controversial federal review by the U.S. Department of Education for its handling of sexual assault cases. There’s a debate over whether in a rush to comply with DOE and advocacy groups, schools are adjudicating cases without observing basic due process. Pendulums can swing too far.

DOE said Friday that the review "predated the Rolling Stone article and will postdate it, too." At the state level, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has named the law firm O'Melveny & Myers as independent counsel to conduct an "aggressive and consequential" investigation. 

Conduct away. It has to be better than Rolling Stone's. Let's hope it gets as much attention.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net