‘Too good to check’: The botched attempt to discredit a horrifying post-Dobbs abortion story

Right-wing slop shops called the tune and mainstream news outlets credulously lined up to dance

‘Too good to check’: The botched attempt to discredit a horrifying post-Dobbs abortion story
The noble vulture. Photo by Artemy Voikhansky

Edited by Sam Thielman

(Content warning: This post contains mentions of rape and child sex abuse.)

Conservatives online, on TV, and in two of the nation’s biggest newspapers, attempted to discredit the horrific story by Shari Rudavsky and Rachel Fradette, published July 1 in the Indianapolis Star, of a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio who traveled to Indiana to terminate a pregnancy that new anti-abortion laws in her state would have forced her to carry to term. There was just one problem with the Right’s campaign: the story was true.

After a right-wing writer tweeted out a viral thread disputing the Star story on July 5, mainstream attempts to dismiss the story followed a path set by Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler, who questioned the Star’s reliability along similar lines in a July 9 column, leaning heavily on his assertion that, because the Star only quoted a single on-record source related to the claim (and declined to detail their sourcing to him on request), they had published a “one-source story.” The broader right-wing slop shop extended itself beyond even Kessler’s skepticism, with many outlets and pundits speculating that the story was a full-blown fabrication. Some mainstream outlets echoed their purported concerns.

Politicians followed. On July 11, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost appeared on Fox News to attempt to discredit the story, telling the network he had heard “not a whisper” about the alleged rape. Yost doubled down on that claim and took it even further in an interview with the USA Today Network’s Ohio bureau, telling reporters, “Every day that goes by the more likely that this is a fabrication.” (The Star, like USA Today, is owned by Gannett.) Right-wing media grabbed Yost’s quotes and charged forward blindly, accusing liberals of making up the story to support their own biases.

On July 13, The Wall Street Journal ran an abhorrent headline on a similarly undisciplined and unbylined editorial board piece about the reporting, calling the story of the rape of 10-year-old girl “too good to confirm.”

Even ignoring this industry-wide clusterfuck’s many other embarrassing problems, Yost was never a reliable source. State attorneys general are not appointees; they are elected officials often belonging to political parties and as such, have every incentive to pander to hyper-partisan crowds for support they’ll need in the next election. Though the word “attorney” appears in their titles, they are often about as reliable in a contentious news setting as other politicians, which is to say not very. Yost used his discretion as AG to personally fight for the Ohio “trigger” law, which went into effect when Roe was overturned, and successfully challenged an injunction requested by plaintiffs in a lawsuit that asked the Ohio Supreme Court to guarantee women’s rights where the federal Supreme Court would not. Then he took a victory lap on Twitter.

Members of the national media—even those who should know better—committed two common sins: They thought that anyone with a shred of insight into law enforcement activity (Yost, in this case) automatically makes a reliable source, and they treated bad-faith, partisan accusations from the right’s Potemkin village of media organizations as valid factual considerations. It ought to humiliate those national newspeople that, of all the corporate publications and reporters who dedicated their time to impugning the Star’s sourcing and questioning their ethics, the only person who actually showed up to the courthouse when the story broke was a local beat reporter. Columbus Dispatch journalist Bethany Bruner said she was the “ONLY reporter in the courtroom” when the man who confessed to raping the 10-year-old girl was arraigned.

My formally trained journalist brain also hesitated when I first encountered the original single-sourced reporting about the 10-year-old victim in Ohio. Good reporters are taught that a single source cannot support compelling journalism. My professor used to joke, “Even if your mom says she loves you, get a second source.”

But what we see in print rarely reflects the totality of work any journalist has done, and after some consideration I decided to trust that reporters who broke the story had done their diligence. (There were two bylines on the piece, for one thing.) There are plenty of valid safety and privacy reasons why additional sources may not have been named in print. Laura Hazard Owen wrote in Nieman Lab that we may have to get used to these kinds of single-source stories when it comes to abortion reporting, going forward:

In America after the end of Roe v. Wade, one brave source on the record in the final story will often be the best we can get. Obviously, reporters and editors must make sure that their reporting is accurate and true! But those who believe that the end of legal abortion in many states is newsworthy will need to figure out how to report and publish these stories with a few more constraints than they’d prefer. If performing or receiving an abortion now counts as activism, well, then journalists will need to be okay quoting “activists,” unless they only want to tell the anti-abortion movement’s side.

The various hacks who claimed the story was false have sent bouquets of flowers and letters of apology on company stationery to Rudavsky, Fradette, and their editors.

Wait, no, actually they refused to acknowledge their error at all.

Instead, most made hard pivots into anti-immigrant talking points, based on the reporting that a local prosecutor said the man who confessed to the rape was “not believed to be in the country legally.” Predictable racism and xenophobia has followed. The right also turned on the doctor who performed the abortion on the 10-year-old; conservatives demanded she be investigated criminally for not reporting her patient’s rape to the proper authorities. (She had reported her patient’s rape to the proper authorities.) Junk-rag PJ Media, the first outlet to publicly question the Star’s work, had the audacity to suggest that it was their blog posts that led to the rapist’s arrest—a truly delusional claim.

All of it is as shameful as it is predictable; a byproduct of a partisan media ecosystem as uninterested in reality as it is accountability. You can’t fact-check people who are actively seeking to confuse their readers and trivialize profound suffering to shore up power.

There is no “gotcha” moment to revel in here. There’s only the horrible reality that a 10-year-old was raped and will for the rest of her life carry the additional trauma that comes with being told it didn’t happen. No editor’s note can undo that damage.

If you are a paying subscriber, please see this post about the upcoming bill pause while I’m gone for my honeymoon these next few weeks. In the meantime, here are five other publications here on Substack that I enjoy reading. Check these out while I’m gone!

The Present Age by Parker Malloy

Unpopular Front by John Ganz

Where's Your Ed At by Ed Zitron

I Hate It Here And Never Want To Leave by Jordan Uhl

Forever Wars by Spencer Ackerman

I’ll be back in mid-August. Until then, I hope you stay well.

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