When it comes to poking holes in the stories of rape victims, the Washington Post represents itself as being dedicated to upholding journalism’s high standards. The paper led the charge against the reporting of Rolling Stone editor Sabrina Erdely’s story about campus rape entitled “A Rape On Campus.” Erdely was criticized for for believing the account of a single source, and failing to take the most basic measures to verify its accuracy.
Yesterday, however, the Post wrote another story, a profile of a man called Charles Johnson. Johnson is a self-promoting troll who’d recently publicized the name of “Jackie,” Rolling Stone’s source in their campus rape story. The Post reported that for his role in outing Jackie, Charles Johnson was facing threats against himself and his family. The story, by Terrence McCoy, begins this way: “It’s 7:30 p.m. on Monday night, and the day’s most vilified blogger is driving somewhere in California, though he declines to specify where, and with whom. As he talks into the telephone, he confesses he feels targeted: He’s recording the conversation. Someone has already hacked him that day. He’s deluged with threats. His mom, he said, ‘is worried about me and worried about herself.’”
It goes on in that vein, describing Johnson’s fear, and his efforts to obscure his location from those who’d wish to harm him. The problem with this narrative is that it seems to have been completely manufactured by Johnson, and then reported by McCoy, apparently without any attempt to verify it or contact the people who Johnson claimed were “harassing” him.
I know this because someone I know interacted with Johnson on twitter, and her experience makes it clear that Johnson had no fear of anybody uncovering his location. To the contrary, Johnson tweeted pictures of his own house, along with his address and phone number, and dared detractors (like my source, who was critical but non-threatening in her interactions with him) to make use of his information. Although the tweet in which he told my source “Here’s my information. Use it.” has now been deleted, I saw it with my own eyes the night before the McCoy reported that Johnson had been “hacked” and was in fear of those harassing him. Anyone who was closely following Johnson’s activity could have seen that tweet, and anyone who contacted Johnson’s online detractors would likely have learned that he was publicizing his location, not attempting to conceal it.
Why did a Post reporter go with a story that uncritically repeated the perspective of a single source, with no apparent attempts to verify it? Probably for the same reason that the Rolling Stone did likewise: it was a good story, fact checking costs time and money, and they figured their source was maybe probably trustworthy. Far from being an exception to the journalistic rule, Sabrina Erdely’s reporting of Jackie’s story followed standard procedure in a world where journalism budgets are shrinking while appetites for content grow ever more ravenous.
In the Rolling Stone case every possible resource was used to discredit Jackie, and by extension the project of reducing rapes on college campuses. In the case of the Post piece, interest in journalistic lapses seems to be lacking. I contacted Terrence McCoy via email with my information about Johnson’s duplicity, and have not heard back from him, and the Post has not corrected the story or issued an apology. Nor have I succeeded in selling this story to another news outlet. That’s why I’ve decided to publish it on my own, to get it out there for the record. As a blog post this is incomplete—I don’t have the time or resources to attempt to track down Johnson or McCoy for comment, to verify that the information Johnson posted about his own whereabouts was accurate, or to find out if anyone else who interacted with Johnson on twitter had the same experience my source did. I can speculate that he was giving his contact information out widely, that the instance I saw was not the only instance of his doing so, but I have no clear proof of that.
I’m left with the suspicion that it’s not just The Washington Post and Rolling Stone that fail to thoroughly check out all single-sourced stories, or ask those being accused of wrongdoing to comment before running with them. After all, there’s no reason to think that these two examples are anomalies. In 2014, complaints about poor journalistic practices cannot be taken at face value, because those making the complaints are themselves guilty of the exact same sloppy practices. As far as I’m concerned, this makes the strategic use of such complaints to distract attention away from the problem of rape on college campus highly suspect. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.