The Volokh Conspiracy

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What the CIA torture report and Rolling Stone's U-Va. story have in common


Yale law professor Stephen Carter has a provocative column that suggests the Rolling Stone story on an alleged gang-rape at a fraternity at the University of Virginia and the just-released report on the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques share something in common: A failure to fully investigate where doing so risked disturbing the desired narrative. Here's a taste:

Nowadays, narratives are all the rage, and inconvenient facts and testimony are generally left out of the story. This is exactly what got Rolling Stone magazine in trouble. Even back when I was a college journalist, we never ran a controversial story without seeking a response from the other side. But Rolling Stone, in its vivid account of a rape alleged to have occurred at a fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus, did exactly that. No comments from the accused; no comments from the fraternity; no comments from the accuser's own friends. The accuser supposedly placed these limits as a condition of writing the story. Why on earth did the magazine go along?

Surely the same explanation applies. To do otherwise would have disturbed the narrative. Sexual assault is said to be rampant on campus, and Rolling Stone had a powerful story to tell. Adding even routine denials, to say nothing of the sort of widely varying accounts that a serious investigation would surely have unearthed, would have reduced the power of the tale. . . .

Similarly, had the staff of the Senate committee decided to interview CIA officials with deep knowledge of the detainee program, the report might have had more trouble reaching the bald conclusion that no actionable intelligence was ever produced. Here the narrative was caught up in the need to avoid moral nuance. It's a defensible position - and, I think, a correct one - to argue that the enhanced interrogation program was wrong whether or not it produced occasional results. . . .

In this sense, the traps into which both the Senate staff and the Rolling Stone editors fell are a predictable and unhappy result of life in a swift and unreflective era. Slogans have always been easier to repeat than arguments; the danger now is that we have come to confuse the two.

Read the whole thing.