A Cloud of Unreliable Witnesses

In recent weeks, our mainstream media have fallen into the journalism of hysterics, which might have struck the rest of us as hysterical in a very different sense, if it weren’t for the many people it has gravely harmed.

Catholics are used to the biases that lead the media into temptation: for editors, reporters, columnists who have already decided the Church is a repressive, anti-human, and hypocritical institution, there’s no need to look closely at facts. You can use time-tested slurs instead: rigid, medieval, misogynistic, homophobic. Crusades. Inquisition. The Borgias. And Galileo. Don’t forget Darwin.

Not to belabor the obvious, Christians already don’t expect fair MSM news stories or analysis because. . .well, because.

People more generally feel the same: surveys consistently rank journalists above car salesman but behind business executives for honesty.

Who knew, though, that the underlying problem was as widespread and evident as it has now become? It’s an old story that universities have lost passion for almost any subjects other than the new holy trinity: race, class, and gender. Few realize, however, that those colleges are the primary feeders of the main media outlets – and they share a common ethos now.

Once upon a time hard-boiled reporters – who may never have darkened the door of a college, quickly learned a bit about human nature in the school of hard knocks – and took everybody as an unreliable, potentially self-serving source to be approached with skepticism until his story can be confirmed. Our constitutional system was built on this same Biblical and realist sense that no one is to be entirely trusted. That, too, has mostly fallen into disuse.

The unfortunate events in Ferguson, MO, and the recent choking death of Eric Garner in New York have one thing in common: they were both drafted into a quite different conversation about racism, largely by a hysterical press that likes to trade in moral crusades – other than the obligation to tell the truth, whatever it might turn out to be.

There’s still a lot of uneasiness about race relations in America – and a not-to-be-dismissed sense among minorities that the police mistreat them. But if Michael Brown or Eric Garner were victims of racism, in any reasonable sense of the word, I haven’t seen the evidence.

A UVA fraternity libeled
A UVA fraternity libeled

Something similar happened in the past few days over a Rolling Stone story about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. Unwanted sex on campuses – and the alcohol and drug use often connected with it – is a massive mare’s nest. One women’s activist said during the coverage of the case that “our culture hates women” – absurd in the terms she meant it, but not a bad description of a sexually permissive culture. Do bowls of free condoms in dorms only encourage “safe” sex, for example, or do they perhaps also send other messages?

The Rolling Stone reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and her editors have been attacked by journalists themselves for unprofessional behavior as the gang-rape story fell apart under scrutiny. To begin with, the fraternity in question didn’t have a party the night of the alleged crime, and subsequent interviews with the victim’s friends – which good journalists would have conducted before publishing such a lurid story – are even more troubling.

Rolling Stone issued a guarded retraction: “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.” Women’s activists almost universally deplored this development as encouraging doubt towards women who report rapes. That’s certainly a problem. But if you make serious charges with serious consequences (UVA closed all fraternities and sororities pending investigations and student reputations are at stake), there needs to be proper sympathy for victims, but also proper regard for those who may be falsely accused. It’s called justice.

One of the utterly amazing facts about the Rolling Stone reporter: she openly admitted she picked that particular UVA fraternity over other potential stories for a reason: “It’s considered to be a really high-ranking fraternity, in part because they’re just so incredibly wealthy. Their alumni are very influential, you know, they’re on Wall Street, they’re in politics.” In other words, the case offered a perfect opportunity to get two of the three members of the holy trinity – gender and class – into a rape story. One journalist/critic has said that everyone involved – except the people at newsstands who sold the magazines – ought to be fired.

As with the Brown and Garner cases, to argue that these stories are not about what the press tells us they are about – simple morality tales – but are tragedies of a different kind, is characterized as denying the reality of rape, or injustice, or racism. (Garner’s own daughter denied race had anything to do with his death.)

Pondering these stories, I can’t help but think that there’s a flaw common to them all: the abandonment of the Biblical and simply human view that all people are capable of doing wrong. Michael Brown got into trouble after robbing a convenience store; a bodega owner called the police on Eric Garner for selling cigarettes illegally. Neither deserved to die, but resisting arrest – as both did – brings risks, and always will despite the most vigorous police re-training. Something bad probably happened to Rolling Stone’s “Jackie” – though not exactly what she claimed – but not primarily because of the presence of privileged young white men at Mr. Jefferson’s university.

African Americans, women, the poor suffer any number of indignities in our society. That does not mean, however, that their stories are beyond questioning, or may simply be inserted into ideologically convenient narratives. We do them no favor misidentifying the reasons for their problems. A system like ours needs accurate information and facts to function – let alone to do justice. That should be crusade enough for journalists. A reputation for honesty may still even bring success.

As someone once said, “The truth will set you free.”

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.