We already knew a great deal about the faults in the infamous Rolling Stone feature story titled “A Rape on Campus” dated Nov. 19, 2014. We knew that the story’s reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, hadn’t ever interviewed the alleged perpetrators of a ghastly alleged gang rape described in the lede of the story, in deference to the alleged victim, a freshman named Jackie. We knew that Erdely had also failed to interview friends of Jackie who encountered her after the alleged incident, which took place in September 2012. We learned afterwards that the Charlottesville police department spent months investigating the wide-ranging claims in “A Rape on Campus” and found no evidence to substantiate them.
Now we know how top editors at Rolling Stone view this historic failure, thanks to a fresh report from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which has spent recent months investigating “A Rape on Campus.” In addition to confirming and expanding upon existing knowledge about the story, the report fetches the candid responses of Rolling Stone leadership on possible reforms.
“It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,” Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana is quoted as saying. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.”
Coco McPherson, who runs the magazine’s fact-checking operation, had similar thoughts: “I one-hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”
Well, news organizations have but two things to protect their journalism from lapsing into disaster: Their policies and their personnel. Since Rolling Stone’s leaders think so highly of their policies, the only possible conclusion is that the magazine’s personnel that failed miserably. And the Columbia report, written by professors and media veterans Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz, provides plenty more damning evidence on this front. “Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in ‘A Rape on Campus’ is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable,” notes the report, in an almost comical piece of understatement.
Covering 24 pages and providing new detail on the events leading up to and following publication of the story, the authors nail down a series of editorial failures that together conspired to keep Jackie’s allegations from facing the scrutiny and skepticism common to good news organizations. It was a high-profile disaster: The story generated 2.7 million pageviews, according to the report, which is more than “any other feature not about a celebrity” in the magazine’s history.
Of all the breakdowns mapped out by the Columbia report, none is more vivid and eye-opening than the magazine’s settling for thin sourcing to confirm the events of Sept. 28, 2012. That’s the night on which Jackie claimed she’d suffered the gang rape, during a date event at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The story said Jackie was allegedly escorted to the event by a young man, identified only as “Drew,” a lifeguard who somehow lured Jackie into the dark room where she was gang-raped. After the trauma, Jackie emerged from the fraternity house and huddled with her “three best friends on campus,” who were identified in the story under changed names. One of them, “Randall,” urged getting Jackie to a hospital. But:
Their other two friends, however, weren’t convinced. “Is that such a good idea?” [Jackie] recalls Cindy asking. “Her reputation will be shot for the next four years.” Andy seconded the opinion, adding that since he and Randall both planned to rush fraternities, they ought to think this through. The three friends launched into a heated discussion about the social price of reporting Jackie’s rape, while Jackie stood beside them, mute in her bloody dress, wishing only to go back to her dorm room and fall into a deep, forgetful sleep. Detached, Jackie listened as Cindy prevailed over the group: “She’s gonna be the girl who cried ‘rape,’ and we’ll never be allowed into any frat party again.”
The real identities of those friends would later emerge in media accounts re-reporting Erdely’s work. As The Post’s T. Rees Shapiro noted, Rolling Stone neither contacted nor interviewed the three friends about their experiences on that night. Their experiences, too, differed markedly from what Jackie had told Rolling Stone.
Though the friends were cited under changed names in the story, Erdely’s treatment trashed them as hollow, status-conscious fiends more concerned about U-Va. social glory than about the suffering of a classmate. Yet Erdely never gave them the opportunity to defend themselves.
There’s more to this particular awfulness. Rolling Stone likes to attribute some of its failures to a sense of humanity. For instance, the apology at the top of the story makes clear that the magazine was “mistaken in honoring Jackie’s request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account.” Likewise, Sean Woods, the story’s principal editor, told the authors, “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting.”
Yet the Columbia report emphasizes a key point regarding the three friends: Jackie “never requested” that the magazine not reach out to these friends. “I wouldn’t say it was an obligation” to Jackie, Erdely told Columbia. That sets up this key sentence from the report, which will get its own blockquote space:
[Erdely] worried, instead, that if “I work round Jackie, am I going to drive her from the process?”
There are lots of other reportorial problems enumerated in the report, but this one speaks for a whole bunch of problems. As noted previously in this blog, Erdely was sold on writing about Jackie. She’d passed up more prosaic instances of sexual assault for Jackie’s more extreme and less documentable story. The Columbia report adds more material documenting Erdely’s initial intentions, noting that she said she was “searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show ‘what it’s like to be on campus now…where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,'” notes the report, quoting Erdely’s notes of a conversation with Emily Renda, a U-Va. alumna who transitioned to a job with the school.
Erdely, then, was so insistent on keeping Jackie’s story in “A Rape on Campus” that she blew off checking out the story with three pivotal sources. And Jackie apparently raised no objections to Erdely taking that step. Slipping into Jackie’s head, Erdely raised those objections on her behalf. How else to interpret Erdely’s worries about driving Jackie “from the process”? After the reporter told Woods that she “exhausted” her efforts to track them down, Woods acquiesced in leaving those stones unturned.
Any of the three friends would have upended Jackie’s claims to Erdely, if only she had reached out. “The episode reaffirms a truism of reporting: Checking derogatory information with subjects is a matter of fairness, but it can also produce surprising new facts,” write the authors.
A reckless push toward publishing the world’s most shocking campus rape story — consequences be damned — also shows up in the magazine’s handling of Jackie’s alleged date on the night of that unsubstantiated gang rape. As the Columbia report documents, Jackie expressed strong objections to even revealing the last name of “Drew” to Erdely. “I don’t even want to get him involved in this,” Jackie told Erdely, according to the report. “He completely terrifies me. I’ve never been so scared of a person in my entire life, and I’ve never wanted to tell anybody his last name….I guess part of me was thinking that he’d never even know about the article.”
Those misgivings notwithstanding, Columbia reports that Jackie “made no demand that Rolling Stone not try to identify the lifeguard independently.” In fact, Erdely did try to track him down, and one U-Va. student told Columbia that Erdely was “aggressive” in pursuit of him. But after Erdely pressed Jackie for assistance in finding “Drew,” Jackie went incomunicada. “There was a point in which she disappeared for about two weeks,” Erdely told Columbia, noting that Rolling Stone was “concerned” about Jackie. “Her behavior seemed consistent with a victim of trauma.”
And Rolling Stone’s behavior seemed consistent with a purveyor of bias. Again, the publishing team at the magazine was so intent on running Jackie’s story that they surrendered without really negotiating. The editors supervising Erdely authorized her to inform Jackie that she’d “stop trying to find the lifeguard.” The report:
By October’s end, with the story scheduled for closing in just two weeks, Jackie was still refusing to answer Erdely’s texts and voicemails. Finally, on Nov. 3, after consulting with her editors, Erdely left a message for Jackie proposing to her a “solution” that would allow Rolling Stone to avoid contacting the lifeguard after all. The magazine would use a pseudonym; “Drew” was eventually chosen.
Jackie started cooperating again.
The dimensions of this disastrous decision didn’t fully reveal themselves until a week after the story hit the Internet. As Coronel & Co. report, Erdely spoke with Jackie just before Thanksgiving and asked for the name of the lifeguard, though not for publication. “Jackie gave Erdely a name. But as the reporter typed, her fingers stopped. Jackie was unsure how to spell the lifeguard’s last name,” notes the report. “Jackie speculated aloud about possible variations. ‘An alarm bell went off in my head,’ Erdely said.”
Of course, these behind-the-scenes discussions would have shocked Rolling Stone readers. “A Rape on Campus,” after all, doesn’t disclose that the magazine had no clue about “Drew’s” real name. To her credit, Erdely included a disclosure about this shortcoming in a draft. Woods deleted it, notes the report.
The report furnishes a number of other revealing facts, including:
- Dana wrote a widely criticized Dec. 5 editor’s note backing off of the Jackie reporting while he was “under a lot of pressure,” he told Columbia. That note said that the magazine’s trust in Jackie was “misplaced.” “I was pretty freaked out,” said Dana, who adjusted the note after a social-media backlash.
- The failure of Erdely and her editors to reach the three friends was something that McPherson, the fact-checking chief, addressed to Columbia: “These decisions not to reach out to these people were made by editors above my pay grade,” she said.
- Yet a fact-checker did raise questions about one of the story’s many unfathomable deceits. At one point, it cites input from Jackie’s friend “Randall” (whose real name, it was later reported, is Ryan Duffin), who allegedly predicts a “s[—]show” once the Rolling Stone story comes out. Though the piece thus quotes “Randall”/Ryan, the quote comes via Jackie because Erdely never spoke directly to “Randall”/Ryan. Columbia notes that the fact-checker wasn’t happy about the treatment:
“Put this on Jackie?” the checker wrote. “Any way we can confirm with him?” She said she talked about this problem of clarity with Woods and Erdely. “I pushed …. They came to the conclusion that they were comfortable” with not making it clear to readers that they had never contacted Ryan.
In an overly generous analytical moment, the report draws a distinction between Rolling Stone’s bad work and the “kinds of fabrication by reporters that have occurred in some other infamous cases of journalistic meltdown.” Credulousness and reportorial idiocy, indeed, combined to produce “A Rape on Campus,” and there’s no evidence that the magazine manufactured even so much as a single detail of the story. By contrast, note Coronel & Co., disgraced former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair “resigned after editors concluded that he had invented stories from whole cloth. In February, NBC News suspended anchor Brian Williams after he admitted that he told tall tales about his wartime reporting in Iraq.”
All factually defensible — yet practically irrelevant.
Consider the impact. Blair brought disrepute not only upon the New York Times but his entire profession. Prior to his 2003 outing as a plagiarist and fabricator, he had essentially lied his way to a prominent spot at the New York Times. As this massive New York Times self-examination reports, Blair posted datelines from places he didn’t go, quoted people to whom he didn’t speak and otherwise produced journalism that didn’t hold up.
That said, many of Blair’s misdeeds were victimless, save for the damage to the profession. As that New York Times investigation pointed out, for example, Blair once wrote of interviewing the father of Jessica Lynch in Palestine, West Virginia. Gregory Lynch Sr. “choked up as he stood on his porch here overlooking the tobacco fields and cattle pastures,” wrote Blair. The porch, in fact, did not overlook tobacco fields and cattle pastures.
Now let’s inventory the victims of Rolling Stone’s admittedly non-fabricated journalism:
- A young woman who was leading a quiet life before Erdely and the magazine found her. She later went in and out of contact with Rolling Stone and, according to the piece, is “worried about what might happen to her once this article comes out.” Yet Erdely & Co. steamrolled ahead nonetheless. “We should have been much tougher” in reporting the facts, said Woods, “and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.” Not maybe.
- A fraternity house that was accused of being the site of a seven-man gang rape, though police can find no evidence of such. The Columbia report notes that Erdely never furnished the fraternity sufficient detail for the institution to properly defend itself.
- The University of Virginia and several named administrators, who were depicted as incompetent and insensitive. One Florida man wrote to the school less than a week after the story surfaced, “My daughter is five years old, and is very bright and articulate. I will see to it she never attends U-Va. The behavior which tacitly permitted to occur on campus by school leadership is appalling to me.” As the Charlottesville police department investigation showed, however, the university’s people were actually quite active in seeking an investigation and justice for the allegations presented to them.
- An unknowable number of people who reached judgments based on the story and who may not have heard about its debunking.
- Three students — the pseudonymous friends — who come off as monsters.
- A police department that sunk an untold amount of resources into chasing down evidence-starved allegations.
- The cause of justice for victims of sexual assault, for the Rolling Stone story will be forever cited by those who falsely insist that rape claims are commonly false.
Credit Rolling Stone with opening its files to Columbia, an act of transparency that included a 405-page archive of Erdely’s materials. Not enough media organizations put their blunders into the hands of smart and disinterested parties like Coronel, Coll and Kravitz. Yet the team faced a stiff-arm when it came to inquiries about the legal review that “A Rape on Campus” had undergone. The magazine’s outside counsel said it “would not answer questions about the legal review of ‘A Rape on Campus’ in order to protect attorney-client privilege.” Makes sense: Rolling Stone, at this point, understands how many reputations it has trashed.