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Rolling Stone’s disastrous U-Va. story: A case of real media bias

People gather with signs during a protest at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014. (AP Photo/The Daily Progress, Ryan M. Kelly)

On Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest podcast last month, reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely explained why she had settled on the University of Virginia as the focus for her investigative story on a horrific 2012 gang rape of a freshman named Jackie at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. “First I looked around at a number of different campuses,” said Erdely. “It took me a while to figure out where I wanted to focus on. But when I finally decided on the University of Virginia — one of the compelling reasons that made me focus on the University of Virginia was when I found Jackie. I made contact with a student activist at the school who told me a lot about the culture of the school — that was one of the important things, sort of criteria that I wanted when I was looking for the right school to focus on.”

Rolling Stone thought it had found the “right” campus and the right alleged crime: Following her Nov. 19 story on Jackie’s alleged assault in a dark room at the Phi Kappa Psi house, the university suspended all fraternity activities and a national spotlight fell on the issue of campus rape.

Now it’s all falling apart. Thanks to several days of reporting by the Washington Post’s T. Rees Shapiro, Rolling Stone’s account is not even a semester away from becoming part of journalism classes around the country. Jackie’s friends now doubt her account of the traumatic event, reports Shapiro, and the fraternity insists it never held a “a date function or social event” on the weekend of Sept. 28, 2012, which is the date cited by Jackie in the Rolling Stone story.

Rolling Stone has issued a statement apologizing for the story, which includes this misogynistic, victim-blaming line: “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.” But Jackie was a freshman in college when her episode allegedly took place; the story itself references her misgivings about putting her life into the public realm; she requested that Rolling Stone not contact “Drew,” the ringleader of the alleged assault; the alleged sequence of events — nine college men conspiring to attack a freshman and sexually assaulting her for three hours — should have triggered every skeptical twitch in the Rolling Stone staff. This disaster is the sole property of editors and a reporter.

Students held a candlelight vigil to raise awareness on sexual assault Friday night as Rolling Stone cited “discrepancies” in an article that reported a gang rape in a campus fraternity. (Video: Reuters)

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.

In the case, of Erdely’s piece, however, there’s ample evidence of poisonous biases that landed Rolling Stone in what should be an existential crisis. It starts with this business about choosing just the “right” school for the story. What is that all about? In his first, important piece on this story, the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi described the author’s thought process:

So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

A perfect place, in other words, to set a story about a gang rape.

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.

Rolling Stone has published a note to readers apologizing for an article about an alleged U-Va. sexual assault, saying new information shows discrepancies in the victim's story. (Video: Reuters)

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.”

In a tale of hard-to-believe scenarios, this one distinguishes itself. It’s plausible that the repeat rapists plaguing college campuses case out their victims. Yet as academics David Lisak and Paul Miller note in their much-cited study “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists,” the modus operandi of the serial campus rapist diverges from that of gang-rape orchestrator “Drew”:

Given the number of interpersonal crimes being committed by these men, how is it that they are escaping the criminal justice system? The answer may lie, in part, in their choice of victim and in their relative abnegation of gratuitous violence. By attacking victims within their social networks — so-called acquaintances — and by refraining from the kind of violence likely to produce physical injuries in their victims, these rapists create “cases” that victims are least likely to report, and that prosecutors are less likely to prosecute.

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.

Aside from indicting Rolling Stone and setting back the fight against campus sexual assault, this episode affirms the importance of strong regional newspapers. After the Rolling Stone piece began to surface fissures, Washington Post local staff deployed to familiar turf, seeking out the folks that Rolling Stone had bypassed. The effort called on a week’s worth of reporting by Shapiro, the work of two researchers and the oversight of two editors. If Erdely had chosen some other campus, perhaps her skewed reporting wouldn’t have attracted such scrutiny. Something to consider the next time a debate arises over whether The Post should sustain its local reporting.