"It's unclear, however, how a reporter could hope to validate or invalidate something that happened behind closed doors a decade ago"

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

[UPDATE, 12/10/14, 12:30 pm Eastern: I'm glad to see that the passage that I was responding to has since been deleted from the TIME post.]

The Lena Dunham story has finally hit the mainstream media (not counting rogue blogs like ours). One of the posts about this, though, at TIME.com, struck me as quite odd. The post begins by noting that Random House has acknowledged that "Barry" wasn't named Barry, and that the publisher will change the passage accordingly. And, unlike some coverage I've seen, it does give credit to Breitbart.com for basically single-handedly investigating this. But such credit!

Following the book's publication, the conservative news site Breitbart.com launched an investigation attempting to disprove Dunham's claim of sexual assault, concluding that the claim could not be verified. It's unclear, however, how a reporter could hope to validate or invalidate something that happened behind closed doors a decade ago. And, the details of this particular case strike a sensitive chord at a time when discussions about sexual assault on college campuses are more charged than ever. [Emphases added.]

Dunham appears to have predicted some of the fallout from the story. She told Howard Stern back in October, "This was an essay I was very anxious and self-conscious about putting in the book because we are in a current culture where everything is turned into a game of telephone and it turns into a headline." Still, she hoped speaking out would make an impact on the many young women who blame themselves for being sexually assaulted.

It's unclear how John Nolte at Breitbart.com could "invalidate" Dunham's claims—but somehow he managed. How was this miraculous feat accomplished? By the remarkable innovation of trying to track down the outside-closed-doors facts that Dunham included in her book.

He looked for a Barry, and indeed successfully "invalidate[d]" Dunham's statement that she was raped by a man named Barry. He also looked for corroboration of other details, such as campus conservatives with flamboyant mustaches and purple cowboy boots and a radio show called "Real Talk with Jimbo," other details mentioned by Dunham. There, his results weren't as conclusive, and Random House hasn't said that those details were mistaken—but (if his report of his research is indeed correct) his investigation does cast some doubt on those details.

To be sure, the "behind closed doors a decade ago" point is valid as to an attempt to show that Dunham wasn't sexually assaulted at Oberlin—and the Breitbart story doesn't claim to show that she wasn't sexually assaulted. Instead, the first sentence of its Summary says:

Lena Dunham might have been raped at Oberlin College, but the "Barry" she describes in her memoir is a ghost.

So Breitbart set out to verify the factual details that Dunham offered—not to determine the broad-picture claim of whether Dunham was indeed raped at Oberlin by someone matching some unknown description (which is indeed usually impossible to disprove, absent details that can be checked), but to determine whether the actual description she did give was accurate. That sort of limited "invalidat[ion]" is usually all that reporters "could hope" for. And here it actually happened.

It thus seems that the TIME.com account isn't quite fair to Nolte and Breitbart.com here. But my concern is much broader than that: The dig at Breitbart seems to me to reflect a dangerous attitude towards journalism. The implication, as I read the first quoted paragraph, is that an investigation of a story is hopeless—and thus pointless and even suspicious—as long as all one can prove is that some parts of the story are false. So long as Dunham might have been sexually assaulted (and she certainly might have been), something that of course can't be proved or disproved at this point absent someone's confession, what's the point of checking into whether particular factual allegations are accurate? Details, details.

But it seems to me that a basic tenet of journalism is that details matter. First, they matter to people's reputations. Maybe the fact that Dunham's alleged rapist wasn't named "Barry" is irrelevant to those who care about "sexual assault on college campuses." But they matter to a particular man named Barry, whose reputation was jeopardized by Dunham's labeling the alleged rapist Barry without stating that this was just a pseudonym. Likewise, while there's no legal cause of action for libeling a political group, if it turns out that Dunham's alleged rapist also wasn't a campus conservative—the Breitbart story casts some doubt on that detail, though it doesn't conclusively disprove it—then this little detail isn't really fair, either.

Second, the inaccuracy of some details that a person gives does cast doubt on the accuracy of other details. Of course, even honest people make mistakes. Of course, it's eminently possible that all the other details Dunham gives are accurate, and the only thing that was fictionalized was the name. Of course, more generally, that a person who says she has been raped makes a slight mistake as to one detail doesn't that she's lying about other details that relate to the alleged rapist's identity or actions.

Yet ultimately, when we—as journalists, as readers, as jurors—judge the credibility of sources, often the only way we can tell what happened "behind closed doors" is precisely by looking at how accurate and candid the witness has been as to other matters. An error or an unacknowledged falsification doesn't categorically, automatically invalidate everything else a person is saying. But it does shed some light on the degree of trust we should place in that person.

To casually dismiss an investigation—an investigation that actually succeeded in getting a publisher to correct a statement—on the grounds that the investigation couldn't directly verify another aspect of a story is, it seems to me, to miss this basic point about journalism, and about truth-seeking more broadly. I hope this attitude expressed by the Time writer is not characteristic of newspaper and magazine writers more broadly.

"Dunham appears to have predicted some of the fallout from the story," the writer says, quoting Dunham's statement that "This was an essay I was very anxious and self-conscious about putting in the book because we are in a current culture where everything is turned into a game of telephone and it turns into a headline."

But what's noteworthy about "a game of telephone" is that people mishear something and then repeat what they misheard. Here, the original error wasn't a poor listener's: It was Dunham's own conscious decision to misstate a fact (here, the alleged rapist's name), and not properly acknowledge that the fact was indeed changed. And, yes, Dunham should certainly have "predicted" that the "fallout" from such deliberate misstating of the facts would be criticism, and doubt cast on other factual details as well.

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