John McWhorter on Truth, Lies, the University of Virginia, and Ferguson


by John McWhorter

Rolling Stone’s ‘Jackie’ retraction is just the latest example—from O.J. to the Duke lacrosse team case—of political correctness dividing the metaphorical truth from the actual truth.

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To many, the Columbia Journalism School report on Rolling Stone’s account of an alleged University of Virginia rape case will seem to be a story about media addicted to seeking sensationalism over accuracy. But the whole sordid affair has been about something much larger: the idea that the pursuit of justice can be separated from facts; that metaphorical truth can be more important than literal truth.

In the UVA case, a young woman known only as “Jackie” claimed that she was repeatedly gang-raped at a fraternity party, a shocking allegation that the Columbia report determined was not even an exaggeration, but a fabrication. In other words, it was a lie.

Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely has been pronounced guilty of “confirmation bias”—she wanted Jackie’s story to be true because it felt dramatically emblematic of the story she wanted to write: universities’ inadequate response to accusations of sexual assault. The report notes one of her many lapses was not “confronting subjects with details”— an odd omission for a journalist.

That kind of willful noncompliance is hardly unique to this UVA debacle; it is, as one phrases it lately, “a thing.” It was also demonstrated resoundingly in the wake of the Ferguson case.

Justice Department investigators have proven that Michael Brown was not simply pulled over and shot in the back with his hands up, but shot while attacking police officer Darren Wilson. However, black Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capeheart, after urging us to admit that the initial MSNBC take on the Ferguson encounter was inaccurate, has been deluged on Twitter with vicious slander for his insistence on admitting the truth. That slander is founded on an assumption: America needs to understand how disproportionately cops kill black men, and facts incompatible with that mission are irrelevant. To stress inconvenient truths is still unenlightened, missing the “larger point.”

The gravitational pull of “story-over-facts” has a way of making the frame of mind seem like wisdom. In the UVA case, Ryan Duffin, an undergraduate friend of Jackie’s, has internalized the story-over-facts gospel: “It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, because whether this one incident is true, there’s still a huge problem with sexual assault in the United States.” And there is, especially on college campuses. But that is not the lesson we should learn from the UVA case, which has simply shown the fine line between enlightenment and medievalism when it comes to seeking justice, and how it pollutes journalistic culture—and therefore enlightened conversation—in today’s America.

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SOURCE: The Daily Beast

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