News Flash: Many Reporters Don’t Care about — or Understand — the Truth

By Heather Wilhelm Published on April 9, 2015

This week, the Columbia School of Journalism released its long-awaited report on what went wrong with Rolling Stone’s sensational, now-infamous University of Virginia fraternity gang rape story. The short answer? Pretty much everything.

Based on the testimony of “Jackie,” a would-be rape victim later revealed to be a serial liar, the now-retracted article was the journalistic equivalent of a drunk party clown tripping over his giant, squeaky red shoes and tumbling off the roof of a grungy bouncy castle before a crowd of awestruck children. Except in this case, the clown also has a criminal record. Oh, and he was also smoking a cigarette when he fell, crushing the $200 party piñata before setting it — and the surrounding grass, and his own socks — on fire.

This is not an exaggeration: “A Rape on Campus,” as the article was called, was really that clumsy, preposterous, and just plain bad. So, naturally, no one got fired.

No, seriously: No one got fired. Not even Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the now-disgraced writer behind the piece: According to a spokesperson for publisher Jann Wenner, she will continue to contribute to Rolling Stone. This is astounding. After such a phenomenal blow-up — and a story so sensational that many writers, including yours truly, smelled an obvious rat — why would the magazine keep her on board? What about reviewing some of her past stories, which are starting to look just as fishy as her explosive fraternity gang rape report?

The reason is a sad one: For some, the truth doesn’t matter. Jackie’s story, Wenner told Columbia, was “extremely strong, powerful, provocative … I thought we had something really good there.” For her part, Erdely admitted that she was a woman on a mission, looking to highlight a supposed epidemic of campus rape. “It just goes to show that she likely operated with some kind of agenda,” one of Jackie’s acquaintances, Alex Stock, told the press, “because she was looking for a story and it didn’t matter if it was true or not.”

Agenda-driven journalism is nothing new. But today’s media landscape boasts a growing cadre that might be even scarier than those who don’t care about the truth: those that are incapable of processing or understanding it.

Just this week, media consumers witnessed a bumper crop of writers who seem to have been educated beyond their intelligence. These are people, in other words, who have all the right credentials. They are perfectly comfortable tossing out phrases like “hegemonic social structures” or “ontological vacuums” or “privileged skeeball obliteration serums.” Unfortunately, if available evidence is to be trusted, they might not be thoughtful enough to understand what these words mean, let alone place them into coherent sentences.

Witness Sally Kohn, a woman who has a TV spot at CNN, a regular opinion column, almost 50,000 Twitter followers and an NYU law degree. She is, as her website puts it, “one of the leading progressive voices in America.” Ms. Kohn seems like a nice enough lady, but I shudder to think how she scored on the logic section of her LSAT. Responding to last week’s gay marriage pizza uproar in Indiana, Kohn had this to say: “You may have heard that the government is forcing businesses not to discriminate. It isn’t. If you chose to run a business, you have to follow the laws. If you don’t, that’s a choice — and you choose to suffer the consequences.”

I honestly don’t know where to begin. Sean Davis at the Federalist highlighted the absurdity of this mental circle — and the fact that Ms. Kohn appears “not to understand how laws work” — while helpfully pointing out the TV host’s past panics over the use of “government force” when the wind blew against her favored policies. This puts us in a bit of a pickle: Does Ms. Kohn simply not “get” logic? Or does she simply not care about the truth? Hey, maybe it’s both! Tune in next week to CNN!

Two other top-notch media moments came via the New Republic, a once “serious” magazine now dedicated to half-baked “academics” who write Onion-esque, can’t-make-‘em-up headlines. Here are this week’s winning entries, but then again, it’s only Thursday: “Rolling Stone’s Article Failed Because It Used Rightwing Tactics to Make a Leftist Point” — not, say, because it was based on blatant lies — and my personal favorite, “Does The Holocaust Discount Jewish White Privilege?

Well. What can one say? If you read the pieces, which I don’t recommend, you’ll find them chock full of high-end, academic-sounding phrases which, when joined together into sentences, make no sense. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the writer of the first article is a Ph.D. student in Religion and Critical Thought at Brown University; the latter holds a doctorate in French and French Studies from, you guessed it, NYU. Yikes.

This is not meant to be unkind. Consider it a cautionary tale. After all, when it comes to, say, general relativity, I’m no Norman Einstein, to paraphrase the great-yet-name-forgetting former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann. But here’s the thing: I don’t pretend that I am, and I don’t spend my days lecturing people on advanced theoretical physics.

Today’s media, unfortunately, is chock full of people who not only don’t know what they’re talking about, but who also manage to dress up their cluelessness in fancy academic garb, all while promoting a more powerful, expansive government that will micromanage everyone’s lives. That’s not a pretty picture. It’s also the opposite of smart.


Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin, Texas. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.

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