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Rolling Stone whiffs in reporting on alleged rape

Protesters carry signs and chant slogans in front of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville last month. The protest was in response to the university’s reaction to an alleged sexual assault of a student detailed in Rolling Stone. (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via Associated Press)

For the sake of Rolling Stone’s reputation, Sabrina Rubin Erdely had better be the country’s greatest judge of character. On Nov. 19, the magazine published Erdely’s story about a ghastly alleged gang rape at the stately Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia. The victim, Jackie, was taken into a dark Phi Kappa Psi room in the early weeks of the 2012 school year and raped by seven men while her date, the pseudonymous “Drew,” and one other man provided “instruction and encouragement,” the story claims.

The story landed with tremendous impact, with the university suspending fraternities until January and a heap of media attention falling on Charlottesville. The alleged gang rape is under investigation by local police.

Asked on a Slate podcast what she cited as substantiation of the claims in the story, Erdely said, “I will just say that I found her story — I found her to be very credible.”

Responses to rape allegations have an ugly history in this country, one in which the accuser’s reputation and credibility end up on trial, while the perpetrators emerge unpunished. Reason magazine, for example, asks, “Is the UVA Rape Story a Gigantic Hoax?” That’s a too-strong treatment hidden in the squishy confines of an interrogatory headline. Yet Rolling Stone bears a great deal of responsibility for placing the credibility of the accuser in the spotlight, thanks to shortcomings in its own reporting. Consider that:

* Erdely didn’t talk to the alleged perpetrators of the attack, as The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi has reported.

When asked repeatedly on that Slate podcast whether she’d interviewed the accused, Erdely sounded evasive. Here’s a rough transcript of the back-and-forth:

Slate DoubleX Podcast: Did they respond about this, did they deny it? What was their response to the allegations?
Erdely: There was never a need for a response until I stepped in apparently because it wasn’t until I started asking questions that the university put them under some kind of investigation or so they said. It was unclear to me whether there was actually an investigation. The university said that they were under investigation but when I spoke to the Phi Psi chapter and also to the Phi Psi national representative, both of them said that they were not aware of any kind of university investigation….
Slate: But did the boys say anything to you? The thing about it is that everybody in the story seems to know who they are…
Erdely: There’s no doubt that — people seem to know who these people are….I would speculate that life inside a frat house is a probably, you know, you have this kind of communal life where everybody is sort of sharing information…People are living lives closely with one another and it seems impossible to imagine that people didn’t know about this.
Slate: Did they try to contact you? Did you try and call them. Was there any communication between you and them?
Erdely: Yeah, I reached out to them in multiple ways. They were kind of hard to get in touch with because their contact page was pretty outdated, but I wound up speaking…with their local president who sent me an email and then I talked with their national guy who’s kind of like their national crisis manager —
Slate: But not the actual boys —
Erdely: They were both helpful in their own way, I guess. All they really said was, they both claim to have been really shocked by the allegations when they were told by the university. And they both said that this is a really tragic thing and if only we had more information we could look into it and that’s the end of that.

Those answers look bad for Rolling Stone. 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.

* Witnesses aren’t named.

Following the alleged incident, Jackie emerges from the Phi Kappa Psi house and huddles with three friends, whose names are changed in the piece. 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.

The Erik Wemple Blog has requested an interview with Erdely, which Rolling Stone has declined, though Erdely did speak to Slate and to The Post’s Farhi. Separately, we asked for an answer to this question about the friends. Rolling Stone spokeswoman Melissa Bruno told the Erik Wemple Blog that “dozens” of Jackie’s friends were indeed interviewed — some were on the record, and some wanted to remain nameless because “they were concerned about retaliation on campus.”

In her comments to Slate, Erdely said, “I spoke to, you know, virtually, all of her friends to find out what she had told them at various points.” So the stories matched up? Erdely was asked. “Well, I found it to be very consistent,” she replied. Then why wasn’t this information included in the story?

* Erdely herself has started hedging on the account. She told Slate, “The degree of her trauma — there’s no doubt in my mind that something happened to her that night. What exactly happened, you know, I wasn’t in that room. I don’t know and I do tell it from her point of view.”

That’s not the mastery of material that you want from an investigative reporter. In comments to Farhi, Erdely noted: “[T]he 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.”

In deference to Erdely, her reporting on the internal proceedings at the University of Virginia over sexual assault is helpful. A high point comes when Erdely writes about a trustees meeting in September: “Two full hours had been set aside to discuss campus sexual assault, an amount of time that, as many around the conference table pointed out, underscored the depth of UVA’s commitment. Those two hours, however, were devoted entirely to upbeat explanations of UVA’s new prevention and response strategies, and to self-congratulations to UVA for being a ‘model’ among schools in this arena. Only once did the room darken with concern, when a trustee in UVA colors – blue sport coat, orange bow tie – interrupted to ask, ‘Are we under any federal investigation with regard to sexual assault?'”

That said, Erdely has lost the ability to lecture others on the real story at hand. She and her editors, after all, placed the horrific gang-rape scene in the lede of their piece and seeded the rest of the narrative with its aftermath. People are justified in concluding that THAT is the story.

That said, when Erdley asserts that “something happened” on that night in September 2012, she rests on firmer ground. On-the-record comments come from Rachel Soltis, a suitemate of Jackie in 2012, who says, “At the beginning of the year, she seemed like a normal, happy girl, always with friends. Then her door was closed all the time. We just figured she was out.” Soltis is also quoted this way: “The university ignores the problem to make itself look better. They should have done something in Jackie’s case. Me and several other people know exactly who did this to her. But they want to protect even the people who are doing these horrible things.”

In a much-cited piece, Richard Bradley, a former editor at George magazine, writes of his skepticism of Erdely’s piece because it plays to our biases about fraternities and college men. Surely it does, but that consideration shouldn’t be held against it.

What should be held against it is its own flimsiness and the half-hearted attempts of Rolling Stone to report it. The publication says it didn’t name the perpetrators because Jackie is “so fearful of them. That was something we agreed on,” Erdely commented. That’s a compelling reason — to hold the story until Jackie felt comfortable naming them; or until she filed a complaint; or until something more solid on the case emerged. In explaining the origins of the piece to Slate, Erdely said, “I made contact with a student activist at the school who told me about the culture of the school…and then I asked her to put me in touch with other rape survivors and she had mentioned a bunch of people with different situations and she had kind of casually mentioned that she knew somebody who had been gang-raped.” When she chose her opening anecdote, that is, Erdely opted for a sensational and undocumented gang-rape case over other cases, which were perhaps more prosaic and documentable.

The last word goes to Rolling Stone, which sent us this 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.

*The story alleges that the incident happened on Sept. 28, 2012.

UPDATE 4:35 p.m.: Rolling Stone has adjusted the statement to reflect the September incident.