Fraternities are having a really bad year. First came Caitlin Flanagan’s cinematic takedown  in the March issue of The Atlantic, a much-discussed and very long screed that began with an opening anecdote that captured much of what is wrong with fraternity culture, at least from a certain point of view:

One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass and blast it into the sweet night air. And perhaps it was an excellent idea. What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket. What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.

That is the sort of beginning that effectively generates propulsion. The reader is sent hurtling along Flanagan’s grand tour of the many failings of fraternities — chiefly hazing deaths, sexual assault, and the voluminous ingestion of alcohol — and how powerful alumni and weak-willed university administrators sustain a systematic avoidance of liability. Based on a year of reporting, she builds a case for change, noting that stories like hers are not infrequent:

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Articles like this one are a source of profound frustration to the fraternity industry, which believes itself deeply maligned by a malevolent press intent on describing the bad conduct of the few instead of the acceptable—sometimes exemplary—conduct of the many. But when healthy young college students are gravely injured or killed, it’s newsworthy. When there is a common denominator among hundreds of such injuries and deaths, one that exists across all kinds of campuses, from private to public, prestigious to obscure, then it is more than newsworthy: it begins to approach a national scandal.

Then came a White House-endorsed national discussion of sexual assault on college campus, a debate in which Greek houses figure more prominently as problem, or even as crime scene, than as solution, and the news that the Justice Department was investigating dozens of universities for failing to adequately investigate sexual violence. Last month another journalistic bombshell hit: a Rolling Stone piece recounting an alleged gang rape at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia. The piece and the ensuing uproar prompted university president Teresa Sullivan to suspend fraternity and sorority operations until January, making U-Va. one of several institutions to take action against the Greek system this year.

Through it all, fraternities have promised cooperation, as does a statement from the Virginia alpha chapter of Phi Kappa Psi, which said: “We remain ready and willing to assist with the fair and swift pursuit of justice, wherever that may lead, and steadfast in our resolve to ensure that nothing like this can happen, ever on our Grounds.”

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But as sometimes happens in the wake of a story with singular impact, journalists began to scrutinize the Rolling Stone piece. Author and editor Richard Bradley, a one-time editor of the famed journalistic fabricator Stephen Glass, conveyed his misgivings about the article in a blog post on Nov. 24. “I’m not sure that I believe it. I’m not convinced that this gang rape actually happened. Something about this story doesn’t feel right,” Bradley wrote.

Post media reporter Paul Farhi noted in a profile of Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the freelancer who wrote the Rolling Stone piece, that she wouldn’t say in an interview whether she knew the identities of the alleged attackers or whether she had approached the ringleader for comment. Erik Wemple, the Post’s media blogger, dissected an interview Erdely gave to Slate in which she sounds evasive on the matter of contacting the alleged attackers for comment. Wemple rendered judgment: “The charge in this piece, however, is gang rape, and so requires every possible step to reach out and interview them, including e-mails, phone calls, certified letters, FedEx letters, UPS letters and, if all of that fails, a knock on the door. No effort short of all that qualifies as journalism.” Rolling Stone, in a statement to Wemple, defended its story about the woman Erdely called “Jackie,” citing the author’s “extensive reporting and fact–checking.”

Rebecca Traister, writing Monday in New Republic, probed the effect of this scrutiny:

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The dismantling of Erdely’s storyboth by anti-feminist agonistes and by those genuinely dismayed by possible journalistic errorwould mean that Jackie’s story of being beaten and raped by seven fraternity brothers will be dismissed, and that the reading public will be permitted to slip back into the comforting conviction that stories like Jackie’s aren’t real, that rapes like that don’t happen, that our system works, and that, of course, bitches lie.

Journalism, as an institution, is in no way immune from lapse or failure or malfeasance. But journalism has one thing over the Greek system — a talent for introspection, sometimes for inquisition, played out in public, for all to see. Fraternity brothers and university administrators should take note.

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