Opinion

Your Rape: Is It Clickbait? Does It Pop?

Chris Bray Writer and Historian

Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story in the November issue of Rolling Stone about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia frat party has produced waves of skepticism from other journalists. Writing in Slate, for an example at the higher end of thoroughness, Allison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin discuss “The Missing Men,” the nine alleged perpetrators of the gang rape — that Erdely didn’t interview.

What no one seems to have discussed, though, is the missing women in Erdely’s reporting. Look at these three remarkable paragraphs from a story in the Washington Post:

Magazine writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely knew she wanted to write about sexual assaults at an elite university. What she didn’t know was which university.

So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

What Erdely eventually found in Charlottesville shocked her, and it eventually shocked the nation.

“None of those schools felt quite right.” But what’s clear is that it wasn’t the schools that didn’t feel right. Here’s what the same story says Erdely was actually doing at the University of Virginia:

Erdely was introduced to Jackie — her real name, unlike the pseudonyms given other figures in the article — by Emily Renda, a leader of the One Less group and one of Jackie’s confidants.

She was rape shopping: going from campus to campus auditioning rape victims, contacting advocacy groups and asking for introductions. But the rapes she found at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Penn didn’t have the right narrative feel. They were just rapes, and she needed a cover-worthy rape. So she kept shopping until she found someone who would tell her a version of the story she had already decided to tell. She needed a big rape — something splashy, something with wild details and a frat house. She needed a rape that would go viral. You can’t do that with just some regular boring rape.

Here’s another story in the Washington Post that describes the same shopping:

In explaining the origins of the piece to Slate, Erdely said, ‘I made contact with a student activist at the school who told me about the culture of the school … and then I asked her to put me in touch with other rape survivors and she had mentioned a bunch of people with different situations and she had kind of casually mentioned that she knew somebody who had been gang-raped.’ When she chose her opening anecdote, that is, Erdely opted for a sensational and undocumented gang-rape case over other cases, which were perhaps more prosaic and documentable.

Prosaic rape cases. Yeah, you definitely don’t want to report on those.

This is what she does. Here’s a blog interview with Erdely on the craft of magazine writing, discussing an earlier story on a high school student who had sex with a teacher:

Sabrina had two months of false starts while looking for a good “character,” a must for all nonfiction narratives. She was looking for a semirecent case in which the teacher was convicted of something.

“Also one of the qualifications was that the teacher be hot,” Sabrina admitted. “You want the readers to kind of understand the chemistry between them.”

Again, the narrative is set before the reporting begins. The teacher is hot; there’s chemistry between them. That’s what happened — now I have to go find it. It’s not Stephen Glass-level invention, but it’s still a Glass act. Sabrina Rubin Erdely auditions reality until it sits up and barks for her like a trained seal. More than that, this is what so many journalists obviously do, settling on a narrative and then going shopping for sources who will give them the story they’ve decided to write. And so we end up always discussing the most extreme examples, the most colorful instances of a thing, as the essence of the thing itself.

Reporter decides to write about the epidemic of drug addiction among kindergarten teachers, talks to a thousand kindergarten teachers, doesn’t find any drug addicts; talks to kindergarten teacher number 1,001, who admits to drug addiction. Headline: AMERICAN CRISIS: THE EPIDEMIC OF KINDERGARTEN DRUG ADDICTION.

Meanwhile, real problems go unreported, because boooooring. Look again at how casual the discard pile is: “She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right.”

Get better rapes, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Penn. Let’s face it: For magazine journalism, yours just aren’t colorful enough.