I just came upon a story about the lawyers who apologized to two Hollywood producers who they falsely accused of molesting a teenage boy. The lawyers, to their credit, not only expressed remorse but paid "seven figures" to producers Garth Ancier and David Neuman for making these "totally untrue" allegations.
I've probably read every article on this development published because in the crisis management business, I see this type of thing, well, almost never. Allegations against prominent people need not be true, they need only be plausible, resonant and digestible. Archetypes are what matter, and the archetype of depraved Hollywood moguls was all the fuel this false story needed.
Other dubious archetypes take off faster than a devil-possessed Toyota. In 2009, Toyota halted sales in the U.S. and issued a recall involving nine million cars based largely on viral reports of "sudden acceleration." Toyota was vindicated on this charge by no less than NASA. Still, the company lost $2 billion in sales, paid $1.6 billion in class action settlements over lost auto values, and paid another $1.1 billion out in lawsuit-related expenses.
We can never get enough of naughty politicians, but there was little outrage when Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska's 40-year career was ruined over a dubious prosecution involving alleged gifts in the form of home improvements. Why else would the feds raid the home of a sitting Senator? They must have something pretty big, people reasoned when they saw television footage of the raid. Stevens' conviction was overturned when it surfaced that the Justice Department concealed critical evidence. Among other things, prosecutors intentionally sent a key witness back to Alaska after his preparatory testimony missed the mark. The witness later told Stevens' lawyers that his testimony would have helped his defense.
Senator Robert Menendez faced a barrage of hostile media reports over cavorting with under aged prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. Later, one of the alleged "escorts" admitted that she had been paid to fabricate the allegations and never met him. Menendez was facing other charges involving influence peddling by a donor, which may service the logic that if he was involved in one murky entanglement, it's safe to believe all the others.
Then there were the false rape charges against Duke lacrosse players, which resulted in an initial prosecution, the resignation of the men's lacrosse team's head coach Mike Pressler, and a cancelled season. The now-disgraced prosecutor, Mike Nifong, was disbarred, spent a day in jail for contempt of court and filed for bankruptcy amidst lawsuits brought on by the Duke players. The woman who made the initial allegations is now in jail for murder.
In Rolling Stone's discredited story about rape on the University of Virginia campus, Dean Nicole Eramo was wrongly accused of being deaf to the concerns of the students who came to her for assistance. The story came equipped with an artistically-enhanced photo of Eramo appearing to smirk and give a thumbs-up sign against the backdrop of placards protesting sexual assault. She is now suing Rolling Stone.
The thing these cases have in common is what social scientists call "narrative fidelity," the idea that certain allegations just "feel right" because they validate pre-existing archetypes: Callous and profit-obsessed corporations; preppy, privileged carousers; and dirty politicians.
As I discuss in my new book on scandal, Glass Jaw, I have worked on countless cases that are anchored in the baseless certainty afforded by poetic truths. The internet, which theoretically offers a diversity of information, actually validates single-direction archetypes rather than contradicts them. Furthermore, scandal targets often wisely recognize that their chances for redemption are limited, so they cut their losses by saying as little as possible (or even recalling a safe product).
As powerless as the wrongly accused may feel in the internet age, there are ways that those of us concerned about stories like this can exploit technology. We can share news reports of vindication such as the one involving Ancier and Neuman. Don't get too excited about this example though: Consumer will continue to demand false but resonant stories and the Digital Age will continue to provide them.
Stuart Dezenhall contributed to this report.