In a 1969 memo, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote to the Chicago field office that “facts are immaterial” in pursuing its goal of harassing and disrupting the Black Panther Party.
Facts frequently can interfere with an agenda-driven narrative, such as the one the FBI pursued against the Panthers in the late ’60s, and more recently the one that Rolling Stone magazine pursued Nov. 19 of an alleged rape at the University of Virginia.
Writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely found the rape story she was searching for at Thomas Jefferson’s university deficient on fact but tailor-made for her narrative agenda that included a brutal gang rape, rich, arrogant frat boys, and an indifferent, image-obsessed administration.
“Erdely and Rolling Stone had a politically correct narrative they wanted to impose and they published it whether or not the facts fit their narrative,” Ball State journalism professor David Sumner told the Washington Examiner.
There’s no doubt that college sexual assault is a national problem that needs to be seriously addressed. Jackie, as the victim was named in the story, also may have truly suffered a real traumatic episode on campus. But Erdely undermined her own point by building the narrative of such a horrendous crime around misleading and deliberately incomplete facts from a single witness, implicating innocent lives and making future rape claims suspect.
American history is loaded with examples of law enforcement, political groups and media outlets treating facts as expendable if in their opinion the overall narrative arc serves a higher good. Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted and executed for the robbery and murder of a shoe company paymaster in Massachusetts in 1925, despite worldwide support for their innocence and the fact that much of the evidence against them was discredited. Anti-radical sentiment was pervasive, and the narrative of two immigrant anarchists committing such a horrible crime against a lowly shoe company employee was too good to pass up, immaterial of the facts. Gov. Michael Dukakis exonerated Sacco and Vanzetti in 1977.
In 1932, an extensive manhunt for the kidnapper and murderer of the son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh led authorities to Richard Bruno Hauptmann, who maintained his innocence, blaming the crime on business partner Isador Fisch. Despite a paucity of facts against Hauptmann, his German heritage coupled with the rise of the Nazi Party overseas fit a narrative concocted by agoraphobic police and conspiracy theorists, who executed him in April 1936.
More recently, in March 2006, North Carolina Central University student Crystal Mangum accused three members of the Duke men’s lacrosse team of raping her at a party in Durham, North Carolina. The potential narrative of a lower-middle-class black student getting raped while working as a stripper for the entertainment of entitled white frat boys simply was too alluring, and swiftly took shape before the facts were fully explored. Duke University President Richard Brodhead suspended the team then canceled the remainder of the 2006 season. Coach Mike Pressler was forced to resign. Professors wrote public letters condemning the team members while decrying campus fraternity rape culture. The Duke police even allowed prosecutor Mike Nifong to tag the alleged assault a hate crime, standing by as the “rogue prosecutor” — as labeled by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper — with the lead investigator distributing a poster presuming the guilt of the suspects.
Cooper exonerated the players in 2007 when the facts proved the narrative false. Nifong was fired, fined and disbarred for “dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation.”
Supporters (#IStandWithJackie) of Rolling Stone’s narrative arc — the need to address the proliferation of campus rape, the dark side of fraternity culture and uncaring college administrators — echo a similar sentiment expressed by supporters of the Washington Post’s Janet Cooke, who in 1980 won the Pulitzer Prize for her story “Jimmy’s World,” about an 8-year-old, inner-city heroin addict. The story was fabricated, the Pulitzer had to be returned and Cooke resigned. Some in Washington government tried to temper the outrage by explaining that the story still served a greater good — that it spurred a national conversation about inner-city poverty and drug use.
Though well-meaning, these explanations miss the point: An agenda-driven, subjective narrative, no matter how noble, that’s built on rigged, misleading and ignored facts, transforms narrative journalism into advocacy journalism. Worse, it becomes outright libel and destroys its own argument. Dan Rather in 2004 may have been trying to sway the presidential election by reporting the existence of some Texas National Guard documents, but the fact that the documents were forgeries seemed immaterial to him because they didn’t fit his narrative. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been cleared by no less than three legislative and special committees in the Bridgegate scandal. Not one fact exists to support the hyperventilating condemnations of Christie by MSNBC commentators, who devoted wall-to-wall speculation of his supposed involvement.
“When I think back through the whole complex history of this episode,” Duke President Brodhead said to that university’s law school in 2007 about the lacrosse scandal, “the scariest thing to me is that actual human lives were at the mercy of so much instant moral certainty, before the facts had been established. If there’s one lesson the world should take from the Duke lacrosse case, it’s the danger of prejudgment and our need to defend against it at every turn.” S
Dale Brumfield is an author and graduate student living in Doswell.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.