Rolling Stone Walks Back Key Allegations Of Campus Rape Expose
An utter journalistic failure from Rolling Stone.
Last month, Rolling Stone published an explosive story about campus rape focusing on the University of Virginia that focused on the story of a woman identified only as ‘Jackie’ who claimed to have been raped by multiple members of one of UVa’s on-campus fraternities and led to follow-up reports in which other women at the university reported similar sexual assaults by members of the fraternity community. This led the university to acknowledge the reports and, eventually, issue an order suspending fraternity activity through the end of the year, although as James Joyner noted at the time, the suspension was actually fairly short considering that the academic period was quickly coming to an end, meaning that most students would be off campus in any case. In a long piece published Friday in The Washington Posti and since updated with additional news, the fraternity rebutted key elements of the story related by ‘Jackie’ that threw entire story into doubt:
A University of Virginia student’s harrowing description of a gang rape at a fraternity, detailed in a recent Rolling Stone article, began to unravel Friday as interviews revealed doubts about significant elements of the account. The fraternity issued a statementrebutting the story, and Rolling Stone apologized for a lapse in judgment and backed away from its article on the case.
Jackie, a U-Va. junior, said she was ambushed and raped by seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi house during a date party in 2012, allegations that tore through the campus and pushed the elite public school into the center of a national discussion about how universities handle sex-assault claims. Shocking for its gruesome details, the account described Jackie enduring three hours of successive rapes, an ordeal that left her blood-spattered and emotionally devastated.
The U-Va. fraternity where the attack was alleged to have occurred has said it has been working with police and has concluded that the allegations are untrue. Among other things, the fraternity said there was no event at the house the night the attack was alleged to have happened.
A group of Jackie’s close friends, who are advocates at U-Va. for sex-assault awareness, said they believe that something traumatic happened to her, but they also have come to doubt her account. A student who came to Jackie’s aid the night of the alleged attack said in an interview late Friday night that she did not appear physically injured at the time but was visibly shaken and told him and two other friends that she had been at a fraternity party and had been forced to have oral sex with a group of men. They offered to get her help and she said she just wanted to return to her dorm, said the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The friends said that details of the attack have changed over time and that they have not been able to verify key points in recent days. For example, an alleged attacker that Jackie identified to them for the first time this week — a junior in 2012 who worked with her as a university lifeguard — was actually the name of a student who belongs to a different fraternity, and no one by that name has been a member of Phi Kappa Psi.
Reached by phone, that man, a U-Va. graduate, said Friday that he worked at the Aquatic and Fitness Center and was familiar with Jackie’s name. But he added that he never met Jackie in person and never took her out on a date. He also said he was not a member of Phi Kappa Psi.
Phi Kappa Psi said it did not host “a date function or social event” during the weekend of Sept. 28, 2012, when Jackie alleges that she was invited to a date party, lured into an upstairs room and then ambushed and gang-raped by seven men who were “rushing” the fraternity.
Speaking for the first time since the details of her alleged sexual assault were published in Rolling Stone, the 20-year-old student told The Post that she is not wavering from her version of events. In lengthy in-person interviews, Jackie recounted an attack very similar to the one she presented in the magazine: She had gone on a date with a member of the house, went to a party there and ended up in a room where she was brutally attacked — seven men raping her in succession, with two others watching.
Alex Pinkleton, a close friend of Jackie’s who survived a rape and an attempted rape during her first two years on campus, said in an interview that she has had numerous conversations with Jackie in recent days and now feels misled.
“One of my biggest fears with these inconsistencies emerging is that people will be unwilling to believe survivors in the future,” Pinkleton said. “However, we need to remember that the majority of survivors who come forward are telling the truth.”
Pinkleton said she is concerned that sexual assault awareness advocacy groups will suffer because of the conflicting details of the Rolling Stone allegations.
Now, in a report that has blown the entire case wide open and transformed it from a story about crime on campus to one about journalistic ethics, Rolling Stone has seemingly walked back key allegations in its original report and called the entire story into doubt. Most explosively, Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana revealed that the magazine had decided to honor an in retrospect bizarre request from “Jackie’ to not interview the person she was claimed had attacked her, and also appeared to acknowledge that their reported failed to properly discern certain discrepencies in the woman’s account of the events that called her version of events into account:
Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone‘s editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie’s credibility. Her friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported Jackie’s account. She had spoken of the assault in campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn’t confirm or deny her story but had concerns about the evidence.
In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.
The Washington Post’s Paul Fahri details just where Rolling Stone failed with regard to this story:
Journalists are paid to be skeptical and to distinguish facts from assertions: Don’t get too close to your sources and check what they tell you.
Rolling Stone magazine, it appears, ignored both principles in its explosive story, “A Rape on Campus.”
In interviews with The Washington Post and Slate, Erdely never asserted that she had agreed not to speak to the men in question — only that she wouldn’t name them in her story or talk about them afterward. Jackie “asked me not to name the individuals because she’s so fearful of them,” she told The Post. “That was something we agreed to. She was nervous to name the fraternity, too. I told her, ‘If we’re trying to shine light on this, we have to name the fraternity.’ ”
In fact, Erdely and her editor, Sean Woods, later acknowledged that the magazine had tried to find the men but failed to do so. “We did not talk to them,” Woods said. “We could not reach them.”
That should have been a red flag. In essence, neither writer nor editor could warrant that the men alleged to have committed a terrible crime actually existed.
That’s not to say that Rolling Stone should have abandoned the story altogether. But it does suggest the need for more reporting before going to press.
How, for example, could Jackie recognize some of the men she said assaulted her in a room Erdely described as “pitch black”? How could she have exited the fraternity house via an entrance that, upon inspection, would have been shown not to exist? Did a party really take place at the fraternity on Sept. 28, 2012? (The fraternity maintains it did not.) If so, what did some of the partygoers, if not the alleged rapists, remember about that night? No such recollections were cited, leaving readers to wonder whether anyone was asked in the first place.
Erdely also adopted the “voice” of her protagonist as she described the alleged events. The style is common in magazine writing; newspapers are wary of it, lest it give too much credence to one perspective rather than multiple viewpoints. “You can have voice if the underlying facts check out,” said Emily Bell, professor of professional practice at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. “But you have to have the facts. [This] was a factual failing, not a presentational one.Voice is a secondary issue.”
Fahri’s colleague Eric Wemple is similarly critical of both the magazine and reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdley in the way that researched and reported the story, pointing out that the magazine had crossed the line from reporting to advocacy without making clear to its readers that this is what was going on to its readers:
The story and Erdely’s comments about it, moreover, suggest an effort to produce impact journalism. While media critics on the right and the left cry about media bias in just about every news cycle, the complaints generally amount to nothing but ideological posturing. There are few things like a good media-bias claim to distract from a substantive conversation.
Observe how Erdely responded to a question about the accused parties in Jackie’s alleged gang rape. In that Slate podcast, when asked who these people were, she responded, “I don’t want to say much about them as individuals but I’ll just say that this particular fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi — it’s really emblematic in a lot of ways of sort of like elitist fraternity culture. It’s considered to be a kind of top-tier fraternity at University of Virginia…It’s considered to be a really high-ranking fraternity, in part because they’re just so incredibly wealthy. Their alumni are very influential, you know, they’re on Wall Street, they’re in politics.”
The next time Erdely writes a big story, she’ll have to do a better job of camouflaging her proclivity to stereotype. Here, she refuses to evaluate the alleged gang rapists as individuals, instead opting to fold them into the caricature of the “elitist fraternity culture,” and all its delicious implications. Of course, one of the reasons she didn’t describe the accused is that she never reached out to them.
More grist comes from an Erdely interview with SiriusXM host Michael Smerconish. In a wide-ranging discussion, Erdely discussed some details of her reporting that didn’t surface in the story. Erdely alleges Jackie had told her some chilling things about the run-up to the alleged gang rape. As lifeguards at the U-Va. pool. Jackie couldn’t figure out why “Drew” was paying attention to her when the other female lifeguards were “model-gorgeous blondes,” said Erdely in the interview. “‘He was paying so much attention to me, showing so much interest in everything I had to say,'” Erdely said, paraphrasing Jackie. “And all she could think is that [Drew] was probably grooming her for something like this, and testing her for something like this.”
Under the scenario cited by Erdely, the Phi Kappa Psi members are not just criminal sexual-assault offenders, they’re criminal sexual-assault conspiracists, planners, long-range schemers. If this allegation alone hadn’t triggered an all-out scramble at Rolling Stone for more corroboration, nothing would have. Anyone who touched this story — save newsstand personnel — should lose their job. The “grooming” anecdote indicates not only that Erdely believed whatever diabolical things about these frat guys told to her, she wanted to believe them. And then Rolling Stone published them.
At this point, it’s hard to say for sure exactly what happened to ‘Jackie,’ or indeed if anything happened at all. She continues to stand by her claims that she was violently sexually assaulted, of course, but the details of her allegations as set forth in the original Rolling Stone story and related to Washington Post and other reporters have been drawn into serious doubt by reporting and investigation that these reporters have done that Rolling Stone and Erdley completely failed to do for reasons that on some level seem to be inconceivable. The victim’s fellow students and friends, many of whom are involved in advocating for victims of sexual assault on campus, seem to be still standing by her as a friend but have also come to doubt the veracity of her claims herself, at least insofar as she has related them in the press. Important facts about the story, including the means by which she allegedly escaped from the fraternity house in question after the attack, have been proven to be impossible as related. At the very least, the case, and the story that ‘Jackie’ is telling, seems to be in such tatters that it would be next to impossible for a prosecutor to bring criminal charges to begin with, and even harder for those charges to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Absent some kind of corroborating evidence, this story is now at the point where the complaining witness’s credibility has been utterly destroyed, and her entire version of events has arguably been turned into a piece of advocacy journalism for the increasingly politicized arguments over sexual assault on college campuses and how those allegations should be handled.
In their pieces linked above, both Fahri and Wemple go a long way toward explaining what went wrong with this story. As Fahri notes, both Erdley and her editors failed to question key elements of the story that they were being told, and while that may be understandable when one is working with someone as seemingly sympathetic as an alleged victim of gang rape it is not an example of proper reporting. Moreover, the agreement to not talk to the men she was claiming to attack her, and then the fact that neither Erdley nor anyone else at the magazine made any effort to track down any of these people was, quite simply, entirely irresponsible. When you’re dealing with something as serious as allegations of rape like this, the idea of letting the complaining witness dictate how the reporters cover a story entirely improper, as is the failure to even try to follow up on that person’s key allegations. As Wemple goes on to point out, though, this is what happens when you let reporting shift away from some sense of objectivity into advocacy. The more you read about Erdley and the way she approached this story, the more you have to conclude that she had gone into the story with pre-conceived notions of college fraternities and their members that made it easy for her to let her own biases slip into the story to the point where the story itself has become utterly worthless. Sexual assault on campus is an important story that ought to be taken seriously, but neither Erdley nor Rolling Stone did that. As a result, they’ve dealt a setback to efforts to combat it, and as Peter Suderman notes, done a tremendous disservice to the victims of actual rapes both on college campuses and elsewhere across the nation. Whether Jackie is an actual victim, or another version of the accuser in the Duke Lacrosse case is something we may never know, but thanks to this story we may not only never find out the truth of what happened at UVa, but it will likely send women who have been raped elsewhere further into the shadows. In the process, as Eugene Volokh details in a lengthy piece that defies excerpting, they have exposed themselves to a potential series of libel claims from a number of sources. All I can say is that, if they do get sued it’s the least that they deserve that this point.