Nearly five months after the end of the nationally publicized Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial, an article in The New Yorker takes a new look at the case -- a look that shatters some of the myths surrounding the story and offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of zealotry for a noble cause.
Author Ariel Levy's account, based on extensive research and interviews, documents the repulsive details from the attack which took place a year ago this week. A teenage girl who got drunk at a party was sexually abused while unconscious or barely conscious, with demeaning photos of her circulated via social media hours later; one of the boys bragged about his exploits in crude text messages.
But what also drew attention to the case was the claim that the accused perpetrators -- both star players on the Steubenville High School football team -- and other boys possibly involved in the assault were being protected by local authorities and by a culture that condones male abuse of women and girls.
Levy confirms that the "cover-up" was a fiction. Despite the widespread impression that local authorities ignored the case until intrepid bloggers and activists intervened, the investigation actually started as soon as the girl and her parents contacted police; the two boys were arrested days later. While three other teens who witnessed the assaults were granted immunity for testifying, this decision did not come from Jefferson County prosecutor Jane Hanlin (who was accused of trying to shield the culprits because her son plays on their football team) but from Ohio State Attorney General Mike DeWine.
The Internet vigilantes from the hacker activist group Anonymous, who championed the victim, have been treated as heroes by mainstream media, including CNN. But Levy's account leaves little doubt that the "hacktivists" did far more harm than good -- to the case, to the victim whose name they inadvertently leaked and to many other innocent people.
After the two main suspects were convicted of rape, people were rightly outraged when two teenage girls threatened the victim on Twitter. But little attention has been paid to Steubenville residents who were harassed by the zealots because they were labeled "pro-rape." Levy reports that Hanlin received death and rape threats to her and her family, as did county Sheriff Fred Abdalla. Steubenville was besieged by protest rallies denouncing it as a rapists' haven. At one point, the city's schools were put on lockdown because of a shooting threat.
The New Yorker story is the second report in a publication with arguably liberal and feminist politics to correct the Steubenville narrative. Earlier this summer, an article by Adrian Chen for Gawker.com profiled Deric Lostutter, the Anonymous hacker arrested in connection with the case. Chen confirmed that the online warriors spread wild misinformation -- including claims that the girl was drugged and kidnapped and that the assailants were part of a "rape crew" of athletes. These lurid tales were amplified by such respectable media outlets as The Atlantic magazine's website.
Chen writes that "it's puzzling why so many others repeated Lostutter's outlandish claims so credulously." One reason is that the vigilantes had a noble cause -- protecting victims of sexual violence -- and anyone questioning them risked being seen as colluding with rapists. Lee Stranahan, a writer for the conservative Breitbart.com who traveled to Steubenville to cover the case, was slammed on left-wing blogs as a rape apologist paid off by corrupt Steubenville officials. Now Chen, whose politics are the opposite of Stranahan's, vindicates him as "a competent reporter" whose criticisms of Anonymous were on target.
The right-wing media are often lambasted for letting ideology supersede facts. Liberals would do well to look at the mote in their own eye.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.