original article: More College Rape Hype — This Time from the Washington Post
June 16, 2015 by K.C. Johnson and Stuart Taylor Jr.
Since 2012, the New York Times has led the way in systematically biased coverage of on-campus sexual assault allegations and how colleges are responding. The paper has relentlessly hyped the issue, has smeared quite possibly innocent students while omitting evidence that they were innocent, and has cheered efforts to presume guilt and deny due process for the accused. It has also parroted egregiously misleading statistical claims used by the Obama administration and others to portray the campus rape problem, which is clearly serious, as an out-of-control “epidemic,” which it clearly is not. (In fact, the campus rate rape has plunged in the past 20 years.)
Now the Washington Post has joined a race to the bottom among the legacy media, in a June 12 package of two very long front-page articles and a third inside the paper that includes both the results of a Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll and detailed interviews of some respondents. The main headline: “1 in 5 women say they were violated.” The articles and the poll purport to confirm claims by the administration, its congressional supporters, most of the media, and campus activists that around 20 percent of female college students are sexually assaulted while at school. In this portrayal, the nation’s campuses are hotbeds of violent crime.
But like many other advocacy polls on sexual assault, the Post-Kaiser poll misleads readers—most of whom surely will assume that “sexual assault” means criminal sexual assault—by using that criminally charged phrase for shock value in the articles while deliberately avoiding it in the survey questions. As detailed below, those questions are so broad as to invite survey respondents to complain about virtually any encounter that they later regretted, including many that were not sexual assault or rape as defined by law.
According to the Post’s accompanying articles, the “survivors” of these sexual encounters experienced enormous pain and suffering. But it’s not entirely clear how the Post determined that the students with whom the paper spoke are in fact “survivors” of sexual assault, although some clearly were. Virtually none of these students went to the police, nor did most report any incident to their colleges, whose adjudication procedures are all but designed to find the accused student guilty. Instead, the Post reporters simply assumed the truth of most of their sources’ claims and thus the guilt of the accused.
Details from the few subjects who did report matters to police reflect badly on the Post’s credibility. Take, for instance, the student with whom one of the Post’s front-pagers leads, Rachel Sienkowski. Reporters Emma Brown, Nick Anderson, Susan Svrluga, and Steve Hendrix say in their second paragraph that a few weeks after arriving on the Michigan State campus, Sienkowski “had become a survivor” after an afternoon of tailgating ended with a man she didn’t know in her bed. She went to the police, the Post reported, because she awoke not only having been violated, but with her head bloodied.
But the end of the article lets slip that in fact this, the paper’s lead example of a campus sexual assault, seems instead to have been a regretful, but not atypical, drunken hookup that neither party remembers well. The scary bleeding was apparently self-inflicted when Sienkowski fell out of her loft bed onto the floor, while the male was asleep. The person she brought back to her room wasn’t a Michigan State student (and might not have been a college student at all). And, the Post disclosed in the last 120 words of a 2,870-word article, even Sienkowski conceded that “she doesn’t know for sure whether she had wanted sex in the moment.” She said this after seeing the police report, including photographs of the hickeys that the accused said her lips had branded on his neck as evidence that she “was very into everything that was happening.”
If she hadn’t been drinking, Sienkowski tells the Post, the hookup was “not something I would do.” There’s no reason to doubt this. But there’s also every reason to doubt that any serious prosecutor in the country would see what Sienkowski experienced as sexual assault—although, unfortunately for civil liberties, many colleges would see it as just that.
Some of the Post’s most harrowing “survivor” stories, meanwhile, have nothing to do with the issue of campus sexual assault. A student from Eastern Michigan, visiting New York City, got drunk and separated from her friends, and then was raped by a stranger in the Port Authority. A student from Wisconsin-Eau Claire was found passed out in a Minneapolis bar and thought he was drugged and raped, though he never went to the hospital for tests. Both of these experiences are awful, and raise disturbing questions as to why neither of these seeming victims of violent crime reported the offense to law enforcement. But from either a public policy or a journalistic perspective, do offenses allegedly committed hundreds or thousands of miles away from campus, by perpetrators who were not fellow college students, have any relevance to the question the Post series hopes to address?
And Post journalists also offered a most unusual description of the claims of unnamed “survivors.” In the second paragraph of the second June 12 front-pager that some interviewees “say they were coerced into sex through verbal . . . promises.” In normal English usage, a promise cannot be coercion of any kind, let alone sexual assault.
These “survivor” stories form the background for the Post’s highly misleading analysis of the poll results.
For example, the Post asserts that “[t]wenty percent of young women who attended college during the past four years say they were sexually assaulted.” But the survey questions (the specifics of which are buried in the coverage) ask respondents whether they had experienced a much broader category of sexual behaviors. Indeed, a researcher whose views are consistent with the poll’s questions is quoted deep in the Post package explicitly stating that those questions are designed to get “‘dramatically’” higher positive answers than would “‘terms like sexual assault and rape.’” This is, effectively, a journalistic bait and switch.
What do the Post’s biased figures actually say? Of the supposed 20 percent of college females who are “survivors,” more than half claimed to have experienced sex while “incapacitated,” explicitly defined as “unable to provide consent or stop what was happening because you were passed out, drugged, or drunk, incapacitated, or asleep.” In other words, the poll invites respondents to say they were unable to consent even if they were just a little bit drunk. But “drunk” is very far from incapacitated in the usual, legal sense of the word—or, for that matter, in the longstanding cultural understanding of what constitutes sexual assault.
As David French has observed, the poll—apparently with the intent of reporting the largest percentage of “survivors” possible—also uses an exceptionally broad definition of what constitutes sexual assault. The Post defines “forced touching of a sexual nature” to include “forced kissing . . . grabbing, fondling, rubbing up against you in a sexual way (even if it is over your clothes),” and other vaguely described behaviors many of which cannot seriously be called sexual assault.
The Post doesn’t even try to deal with the argument made most consistently by AEI’s Mark Perry: At some point, the disparity between polls like the Post’s and reported sexual assaults becomes too wide to bridge. The implicit justification for figures like the Post’s so exceeding FBI and Justice Department statistics is that most rape victims don’t report their assaults; according to the administration, only 12 percent, or around one in eight, of campus rapes are reported to law enforcement. But accepting the administration’s figure and multiplying the number of reported rapes by a factor of eight would yield nothing close to 20 percent of college women being assaulted.
In sum, the Post misleads its readers by counting as “sexual assaults” numbers that are deliberately inflated to greatly exceed the legal definitions of “sexual assault” and to sweep in virtually all regretted sexual or even semi-sexual experiences, such as close dancing that a “survivor” later decides was unwelcome.
This may help explain why only 12 percent of students considered sexual assault a “big problem at their school”—while a separate Kaiser survey featured 57 percent of the general public deeming the issue “a big problem.” Students, it appears, have a far different perspective from those whose primary view of campus life comes through alarmist statements by leading politicians or equally alarmist news reports from publications like the Post.
For example, the Post tells readers that “in recent years the number of reports of forcible sexual offenses on campus has surged.” But in fact the number of campus sexual assaults per capita plunged by half between 1997 and 2013, according to the 2014 report of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, which has long been the most respected and reliable source of crime statistics. The Post unconvincingly contends that the annual BJS survey’s finding that 6.1 of every 1,000 students are sexually assaulted understates the numbers of victims. But even if the Post’s argument were valid, it would cast no doubt on the BJS finding of huge decreases since 1997.
Alarmism in coverage such as the Post’s already is having a deeply disturbing impact on attitudes toward civil liberties. The most shocking result from the Post-Kaiser poll was the finding that college students see a “person who commits sexual assault getting away with it” as “MORE unfair” than an “innocent person getting kicked out,” by a margin of 49 to 42 percent. As often occurs in periods of hysteria, these future citizens are accepting the fundamentally illiberal message that convicting the innocent is a price to pay to achieve the greater good.
This illiberal spirit is likely to intensify. It’s hard to escape the connection between the biased reporting and the Post’s just-announced decision to convene a “thought provoking conversation” on the issue of campus sexual assault. The seven presenters all appear to come from only one side of the argument; the paper did not, for instance, invite even a token defense attorney, civil libertarian, or any of the growing number of falsely accused students who have proved their innocence. The most prominent speaker will be Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), the foremost congressional champion of degrading campus due process. Another invited speaker will be victims’ rights advocate Dana Bolger—an Amherst College student who formed part of a cohort of campus activists demanding that the college change its procedures to increase the chances of guilty findings. The school did so, and is now being sued after a colleague of Bolger’s in the campus movement leveled what appears to be a false accusation of sexual assault against an innocent man.
The Post’s manipulation of campus surveys and statistics, moreover, should cause Congress to think long and hard about enacting the Campus Accountability & Safety Act. A central component of the measure, whose lead sponsor is none other than Gillibrand, is to require colleges to have an “adequate, random and representative sample size of students” complete biannual “campus climate” surveys—whose questions, no doubt, will be designed to trigger the kind of results that can be used to justify a further weakening of campus due process, and a further spreading of off-campus alarmism. And the Post, it appears, will feed the distortions instead of speaking truth to power.
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