Protesters outside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia last month. (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP)
Protesters outside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia last month. (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP)

Did Rolling Stone magazine agree not to contact the alleged assailants of a gang rape at the center of its Nov. 19 story on the University of Virginia? Or did it simply fail to reach them?

Those questions hover over “A Rape on Campus,” the piece by Sabrina Rubin Erdely alleging that a freshman named Jackie was raped in September 2012 by seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. The story fell under scrutiny last week, in large part because there was no indication that the magazine had reached out to the alleged assailants before publication. Thanks to reporting by the local staff of The Post, the story unraveled last weekend.

In an interview last month, Sean Woods, who edited “A Rape on Campus,” told The Post’s Paul Farhi of the effort to seek the assailants: “We did not talk to them. We could not reach them.”

That statement suggests at least an effort to contact these potential sources. Yet on Friday, Rolling Stone published a “note to readers” with conflicting information: “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”

Asked about that discrepancy, Rolling Stone spokeswoman Melissa Bruno e-mailed the Erik Wemple Blog: “I believe [Woods] misspoke on that specific point.” As with many fine points in this sequence of events, this answer uncorks yet another question: How is it that the story’s editor misspoke on such a central point?

The baffling inconsistencies extend down the Rolling Stone chain. On this very question of approaching the assailants, Erdely’s statements raise questions about whether anyone at the magazine had a clear understanding of how this most sensitive of stories was being handled. For example: In another story on “A Rape on Campus,” Farhi noted that Erdely had an “agreement” with Jackie:

[Erdely] won’t say, for example, whether she knows the names of Jackie’s alleged attackers or whether in her reporting she approached “Drew,” the alleged ringleader, for comment. She is bound to silence about those details, she said, by an agreement with Jackie, who “is very fearful of these men, in particular Drew. . . . She now considers herself an empty shell. So when it comes down to identifying them, she has a very hard time with that.”

Erdely responded to that story with an e-mail to Farhi: “I don’t know why you wrote that I have an ‘agreement’ with Jackie not to talk about her attackers, when Jackie and I have no such agreement. I told you this was one of the things that proved highly sensitive for Jackie, and that because I feel a sense of responsibility for her mental health at the moment, I’d rather not delve into it. (As I believe I mentioned, despite Jackie’s early eagerness to speak with me, the process was not an easy one for her.)” Farhi provided the e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog.

He had posed some questions about the plausibility of Jackie’s account, to which Erdely replied:

As for your list of new questions, I could address many of them individually, and tell you that Jackie said her eyes gradually adjusted to the dark room (& that there was some small amount of light cast by a digital clock that was to her left), or that Jackie showed me scars that she said she’d sustained the night of her attack, etc. But by dwelling on this you’re getting sidetracked. 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. (That I’ve received so many emails from other women saying similar things just further makes the point.) The point holds true whether or not you personally believe Jackie’s account, which it sounds like you don’t. You’re entitled to your opinion.

Bold text denotes comment suggesting that the truth in this case is nothing more than a “rounding error,” as a helpful colleague of the Erik Wemple Blog put it.