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Opinion New York Times publishes eye-popping correction on campus-sexual-assault book review

The New York Times Building. (Brendan McDermi/Reuters)
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In reviewing Vanessa Grigoriadis‘s new book on campus sexual assault, Michelle Goldberg credits the author for some fine reporting. “Her kaleidoscopic tour through the campus sexual assault controversy, which begins and ends with Sulkowicz, introduces readers to rape victims-turned-activists, faux-worldly sorority sisters, young men who say their lives were destroyed by false accusations and the college administrators struggling to enforce rapidly changing rules and norms,” writes Goldberg about the book, “Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus.” Sources open up to the author, credits Goldberg, who has been signed as a progressive op-ed contributor at the New York Times.

The book, however, bungles certain important things, according to the review. It’s “too sloppy with the facts to succeed”; it contains occasional “baffling errors that threaten to undermine her entire book”; it contains “other puzzling statements”; it contains still other “inaccuracies” that are “smaller, but still jarring.” More: “The mistakes in ‘Blurred Lines’ offer easy justification to anyone who wants to dismiss it.” And yet more: “But if you’re going to challenge people’s preconceptions, you have to have your facts straight. ‘Blurred Lines’ gives readers too many reasons not to trust it, even when perhaps they should.”

That assessment, as it turns out, may well apply to the book review, too, to judge from the correction that the New York Times has formulated:

Correction: September 14, 2017 
An earlier version of this review referred incorrectly to Vanessa Grigoriadis’s reporting for her book. She did in fact write about Department of Justice statistics that say college-age women are less likely than nonstudent women of the same age to be victims of sexual assault; it is not the case that Grigoriadis was unaware of the department’s findings. In addition, the review described incorrectly Grigoriadis’s presentation of statistics from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. She showed that there is disagreement over whether the data are sound; it is not the case that she gave the reader “no reason to believe” they are wrong.

Before proceeding any further, we pause to credit the New York Times for what appears to be a full-throated correction. We have contacted Grigoriadis to see if there are other issues with the review.*

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Considering that the review rips the book on factual grounds while at the same time failing on this front, we asked New York Times book-review chief Pamela Paul whether there was any consideration of scrapping — retracting — the whole thing and starting anew. “So what’s the rub here?” we asked. Her reply: “We ran the correction as we normally would do when a correction is warranted, and the review stands as corrected. No rub!”

*UPDATE: Grigoriadis, indeed, finds the published correction insufficient in light of what she considers unjustified and unsubstantiated attacks on the factual integrity of her book. In a letter that she sent to Paul, she charged, “This review is factually incorrect from top to bottom. Michelle essentially threw together some ideas she gathered during her time at Slate and punched me in the face with them. Michelle is free to dislike my book. She is not free to make demonstrably false statements that not only damage my book but my reputation and credibility as a reporter.”

Of particular concern to Grigoriadis, is the part of the review in which Goldberg originally said the author didn’t “know” about the statistics comparing sexual assault victims who are students and nonstudents. After pushback from the author, the book review addressed this matter in the correction. However, the current, corrected text still dings Grigoriadis with faulty work on this front: “I’m not sure how anyone could write an entire book about the subject of campus rape and not reckon with this,” reads the current copy.

Oh, but reckon I did, counters Grigoriadis. In a message to a New York Times standards editor, she argued:

I must defend myself against the charge that I do not “reckon” with the Department of Justice survey. The new line, “I’m not sure how anyone could write an entire book about campus rape and not reckon with this” is false. If portions of the review are being rewritten, this should be entirely removed.
Why? I do indeed reckon with this survey, and deeply, several times in the book. I will point out one of these passages here. My book includes a lengthy interview that I conducted with Callie Rennison, the foremost expert on this topic and a former Senior Researcher at the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Rennison authored a Times op-ed about the DOJ figures in the survey in question (it’s called the National Crime Victimization Survey), found here.

The editor wrote back that the use of “reckon” was more a matter of opinion than fact.

UPDATE: Goldberg emails this blog her response:

The correction turns entirely on the word “know.” Grigoriadis says that when it comes to rape, “the risk is college itself.” That’s not true; according to the Rape, Incest and Abuse National Network, “Female college-aged students (18-24) are 20% less likely than non-students of the same age to be a victim of rape or sexual assault.” I haven’t seen anyone, in Grigoriadis’s book or elsewhere, cite figures suggesting that college students are raped at higher rates than non-college students.
I made a serious, mortifying mistake in writing that I can’t believe Grigoriadis didn’t “know” about these figures. I’d give a kidney and five years of my life to be able to go back and not write that line. However, if I’d written “I can’t believe the author got this wrong,” I’d have been fine. Because although Grigoriadis doesn’t mention RAINN’s figure, she quotes a scholar on page 115 who cites the underlying DOJ numbers. (That scholar is presented as a dissenter from the consensus on campus rape.) Hence, Grigoriadis knew about them, she just ignored them in framing her book. Two things are true here. I f[–––]ed up, gravely. And one of the book’s central contentions about its subject is wrong.

Girgoriadis, in turn, has responded on Twitter to Goldberg.