The re-creationist myth



The journalistic missteps, errors, and omissions in Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” began to be exposed shortly after it was published last November. They were exhaustively described in an Columbia School of Journalism report, issued April 5, that’s even longer than the original article–13,000 words versus 9,000. (Rolling Stone removed the article from its website but it can be viewed courtesy of the Internet Archive.)

The commentary has detailed many poor decisions made by the writer of the article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and how the magazine’s editing and fact-checking processes failed to correct and in some cases compounded the errors. But not much has been said about how this enterprise was led astray by genre.

Something like 90 percent of the criticism of the article relates to not much more than 10 percent of it — less than 1,300 words. These are the passages that are that narrated in the manner of omniscient fiction — built around scenes, and describing thoughts, action, and dialogue with no attribution. It’s the style of the beginning of the article, with its vivid account of the gang rape of the pseudonymous victim, “Jackie.” Here’s the opening:

Sipping from a plastic cup, Jackie grimaced, then discreetly spilled her spiked punch onto the sludgy fraternity-house floor. The University of Virginia freshman wasn’t a drinker, but she didn’t want to seem like a goody-goody at her very first frat party — and she especially wanted to impress her date, the handsome Phi Kappa Psi brother who’d brought her here. Jackie was sober but giddy with discovery as she looked around the room crammed with rowdy strangers guzzling beer and dancing to loud music. She smiled at her date, whom we’ll call Drew, a good-looking junior — or in UVA parlance, a third-year — and he smiled enticingly back.

“Want to go upstairs, where it’s quieter?” Drew shouted into her ear, and Jackie’s heart quickened. She took his hand as he threaded them out of the crowded room and up a staircase.

At the risk of stating the obvious, Erdely was not at the party. The way traditional journalism would report on such an event is with attribution: “she said,” “according to … ” and such phrases. Just looking at the quote above, you can see some of the advantages of this different method, which is based on what I’ll call re-creation. The details, the characters, the dialogue, and the point-of-view approach all draw us in and make us want to read on, as in a novel.

But there are problems with re-creationism. There is a “tension,” as the Columbia report notes, “between crafting a readable story — a story that flows — and providing clear attribution of quotations and facts. It can be clunky and disruptive to write ‘she said’ over and over.” However, once a journalist starts simply asserting things that he or she did not witness — or couldn’t possibly have witnessed, such as a character’s thoughts — the work becomes much less trustworthy and verifiable, and becomes subject to what George Packer in The New Yorker has called a “tyranny of narrative.” It becomes less like journalism.

Re-creationism hasn’t been attempted very often since its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, in part because of these issues, but also because it’s very hard to do well. Its first and to some extent still most prominent example was John Hersey’s 1946 New Yorker article “Hiroshima,” which of course became a book, still very much in print. The other outstanding works in the genre, I’d say, are Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Piers Paul Read’s Alive, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, and Richard Ben Cramer’s book about the 1988 presidential race, What It Takes.

All of the books except In Cold Blood have something in common: The main characters — Hersey’s bombing victims, Read’s plane-crash survivors, Wolfe’s astronauts, and Cramer’s candidates — are presented as good people, and to some extent as heroes. Cramer and Read allowed their subjects to read their manuscripts before publication. I believe that each of the books, inevitably and through no fault of the author — asserts things that aren’t true. But the absence of harsh depictions minimized objections, and hence there have been no scandals. (When Read showed the book to his subjects–the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes, who had resorted to cannibalism to stay alive, some of them objected to the way they were portrayed. He writes on his website, “They said they would be stoned in the street of Montevideo and forced to live abroad.” He convinced them to let the book stand, and, he writes, “Rather than being stoned in the streets, the Survivors became heroes in Uruguay and throughout the world.”)

There has been a sort of continual scandal about the accuracy of In Cold Blood. It tells the stories of two men convicted of first-degree murder. Capote spent many hours interviewing them, and, without a doubt, had some sympathy for them. But he shrewdly delayed publication until after they were executed. If he hadn’t, I have no doubt the scandal would have been much bigger.

My conclusion: re-creationism is a device that can work really well in the telling of stories in which a protagonist does not encounter an antagonist, but that in other kinds of stories has inevitable flaws.

In Erdely’s story, the character she calls “Drew” is presented as the ringleader of the gang rape. She has been widely and justly criticized for not interviewing him, or even making a good-faith effort to reach him. Doubts have been raised that he even exists. If he does, and if she had talked to him, she surely would have gotten a narrative that contradicted Jackie, and she wouldn’t in good conscience been able to write the key passages as re-creation.

Erdely didn’t seek out the perspectives of anyone, other than Jackie, who had witnessed or participated in the events she describes. That allowed her to write passages that flow like a dream. But in the process she sacrificed accuracy and damaged both her reputation and the cause she set out to advance.