How Rolling Stone Ended Up Botching A Story About An Alleged Gang Rape At UVA

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Dec 03, 2014 7:00 PM
How Rolling Stone Ended Up Botching A Story About An Alleged Gang Rape At UVA

The story about the alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia is both tragic and disturbing. It put UVA in a horrible light regarding how it chooses to pursue allegations of sexual assault on campus–and detailed in excruciating detail the social stigma and pressures that come after being a victim of sexual assault at UVA. Yet, Rolling Stone, who published the piece by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, is coming under fire for shoddy journalistic practices, mainly not getting a comment from the accused attackers, which is something one should do when a woman accuses a group of men of gang rape.

Reason wondered if this whole saga is a “hoax.” Right now, that seems to be a bit presumptuous. What we do know is that Erdely’s reporting has left us with questions that could hurt the integrity of this reportedly horrific sexual assault encounter–as well as her article on it.

It details a girl named Jackie who is invited to a Phi Kappa Psi party by “Drew.” She’s dressed nicely and having a good time when Drew asks her if she wanted to come upstairs with him; the party had gotten noisy.

As she entered a bedroom with Drew, she was attacked:

The room was pitch-black inside. Jackie blindly turned toward Drew, uttering his name. At that same moment, she says, she detected movement in the room – and felt someone bump into her. Jackie began to scream.

"Shut up," she heard a man's voice say as a body barreled into her, tripping her backward and sending them both crashing through a low glass table. There was a heavy person on top of her, spreading open her thighs, and another person kneeling on her hair, hands pinning down her arms, sharp shards digging into her back, and excited male voices rising all around her. When yet another hand clamped over her mouth, Jackie bit it, and the hand became a fist that punched her in the face. The men surrounding her began to laugh. For a hopeful moment Jackie wondered if this wasn't some collegiate prank. Perhaps at any second someone would flick on the lights and they'd return to the party.

"Grab its motherfucking leg," she heard a voice say. And that's when Jackie knew she was going to be raped.

She remembers every moment of the next three hours of agony, during which, she says, seven men took turns raping her, while two more – her date, Drew, and another man – gave instruction and encouragement. She remembers how the spectators swigged beers, and how they called each other nicknames like Armpit and Blanket. She remembers the men's heft and their sour reek of alcohol mixed with the pungency of marijuana. Most of all, Jackie remembers the pain and the pounding that went on and on.

When Jackie came to, she was alone. It was after 3 a.m. She painfully rose from the floor and ran shoeless from the room. She emerged to discover the Phi Psi party still surreally under way, but if anyone noticed the barefoot, disheveled girl hurrying down a side staircase, face beaten, dress spattered with blood, they said nothing. Disoriented, Jackie burst out a side door, realized she was lost, and dialed a friend, screaming, "Something bad happened. I need you to come and find me!" Minutes later, her three best friends on campus – two boys and a girl (whose names are changed) – arrived to find Jackie on a nearby street corner, shaking. "What did they do to you? What did they make you do?"

This account is disturbing, stomach churning, and brutal. What’s more appalling is that some of her friends were more worried about their social standing than Jackie’s welfare; they were concerned they wouldn’t be allowed into anymore frat parties.

Erdely then details the alleged rape culture (alleged or not some things in the piece are pretty nasty) and sheer inefficiency when it comes to UVA administration’s handling of sexual assault cases. As with any institution with prestige, protecting a reputation seemed more important than making sure the student body was safe.

Then again, before the liberal diatribes about so-called white privilege (liberal tactic to silence people) and rape culture, did Erdely contact the alleged attackers for their version of events? After all, when someone lobs an accusation like gang rape, one should probably verify, re-verify, and then verify again, right?.

Apparently, this never really happened–and the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the New Republic reported on this glaring error.

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple and Paul Farhi wrote, amongst other things, how Rolling Stone had “whiffed” at reporting this story (Via Farhi):

In interviews with The Washington Post and Slate.com last week, writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely declined to answer repeated questions about the men’s response to an allegation by a female student named Jackie that they had sexually assaulted her at a U-Va. fraternity party in 2012.

“I reached out to [the accused] in multiple ways,” Erdely said in the Slate interview. “They were kind of hard to get in touch with because [the fraternity’s] contact page was pretty outdated. But I wound up speaking . . . I wound up getting in touch with their local president, who sent me an e-mail, and then I talked with their sort of, their national guy, who’s kind of their national crisis manager. They were both helpful in their own way, I guess.”

Erdely declined to address specific questions about her reporting when contacted on Sunday and Monday.

“I could address many of [the questions] individually . . . but by dwelling on this, you’re getting sidetracked,” she wrote in an e-mail response to The Post’s inquiry. “As I’ve already told you, the gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie — a person whom I found to be credible — told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way — i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.

Woods said that the men were not named in the story because “we were telling Jackie’s story. It’s her story.”

Farhi was able to contact Erdely’s editor, Sean Woods, who said, “We did not talk to them. We could not reach them,” but added that they “verified” the existence of these men, partially by talking to Jackie’s friends.

Erik Wemple was also  less than complimentary about the piece:

Perhaps Erdely didn’t understand what she was being asked — that is, whether she spoke with the actual alleged perpetrators themselves. She answers only the much different question of whether she spoke to fraternity management, a much less central matter.

This lapse is inexcusable: Even if the accused aren’t named in the story, Erdely herself acknowledges that “people seem to know who these people are.” If they were being cited in the story for mere drunkenness, boorish frat-boy behavior or similar collegiate misdemeanors, then there’d be no harm in failing to secure their input. 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.

As for Jackie’s three friends who saw her the night of the assault, Wemple asked why were their names changed? [emphasis mine]

Why the pseudonymous treatment for the friends? Perhaps they feared that being identified would provide clues to the complete identity of Jackie; perhaps they just don’t want to get involved; one of them, “Randall,” tells Erdely that he doesn’t want to be interviewed because of “his loyalty to his own frat.” And perhaps they also couldn’t speak to the events in the room because they hadn’t witnessed them — and that makes the outreach to the alleged perpetrators all the more critical.

Wemple and the New Republic’s Judith Shulevitz cite Richard Bradley, former editor at George magazine, who is critical of the article’s authenticity–and warns how we must be extra cautious about stories that “play into existing biases;” those biases being against men, fraternities, the South, Southern women, and young women.

He recently posted this about the Rolling Stone’s statement on their story about Jackie [italicized text is Rolling Stone’s statement]:

The story we published was one woman’s account of a sexual assault at a UVA fraternity in October 2012* – and the subsequent ordeal she experienced at the hands of University administrators in her attempts to work her way through the trauma of that evening. The indifference with which her complaint was met was, we discovered, sadly consistent with the experience of many other UVA women who have tried to report such assaults. Through our extensive reporting and fact–checking, we found Jackie to be entirely credible and courageous and we are proud to have given her disturbing story the attention it deserves.

(Rolling Stone happened to get the date wrong in this version, which I guess wasn’t fact-checked. The alleged rape happened in September 2012, not October.)

This is a crucial statement in what it says—and what it does not say.

It does not say, “We stand by our story 100 percent.” It does not say, “Jackie’s story is true.”

It says, “We found Jackie to be entirely credible and courageous, and we are proud to have given her disturbing story the attention it deserves.”

This is sleight of hand. Rolling Stone is shifting the discussion away from errors it might have made in its reporting, edition, fact-checking and editorial judgment—away, in other words, from its own responsibility—onto Jackie.

This is “her” story. It is “one woman’s account”a characterization which absolves the magazine for its failure to corroborate that account. Rolling Stone found her to be “entirely credible”—a word which is subtly different than, say, “truthful.”

In other words: This is all on Jackie. Not us, for failing to corroborate her story.

Shulevitz also requested an interview with Erdely, but she declined and referred her to the magazine’s PR crew. She did write that UVA seems to have a problem–as most campuses do–dealing with sexual assault cases efficiently and treating them as crimes. Again, what we don’t know is if the entirety of Jackie’s assault is true:

What we don't know is whether every detail of Jackie's story, as told to Rolling Stone, is true; by not contacting the alleged rapists, Erdely opened the article up to questions. And because Jackie never filed charges, either with local police or with the university, the investigation is taking place more than two years after the incident. We can only hope (and I assume) that it will be conducted more rigorously than campus investigations usually are and that UVA has learned a lesson all American schools need to learn, which is that sexual crimes should be treated as crimes, not as violations of campus policy. “If I had to guess what happened at UVA—and at this point, we can only guess (which is why we should not be passing judgment),” Wendy Kaminer, a civil libertarian and feminist who has written extensively on both rape and free speech on campus, emailed me, “I’d guess that the story is neither entirely fabricated nor entirely true, and, in any case, compels a real investigation by investigators with no stake in their findings.”

What’s sad is that even if this story is true, it’s credibility has been shot. Now, that is not to say that rapes on campus don’t happen, or that UVA doesn’t have a problem; their university president said that they do. As for the biases in Bradley’s piece, yes, those do play a part in these cases, but the story here is more of a cautionary one–and that is how not to report about a serious crime; how such questions left open from not contacting the accused rapists distracts readers from a serious societal issue.

Yes, Jackie’s story is important, but the rapists’ account is equally important; it’s at the core of any legitimate investigation, along with physical evidence. As Wemple wrote, “For the sake of Rolling Stone’s reputation, Sabrina Rubin Erdely had better be the country’s greatest judge of character.”

Sexual assault is a serious issue, but Rolling Stone didn’t do any favors when it comes to addressing it with this piece. The story has become how they royally messed up reporting it. I don’t think this is what Jackie had in mind when she opened up to them.