A Yale Law School student said in a panel discussion last month that Rolling Stone contributor Sabrina Rubin Erdely had contacted her as she narrowed her focus for what would be “A Rape on Campus,” the now-retracted expose on sexual assault at the University of Virginia. “She called me a couple months before and asked if I knew anyone at Yale,” said the student, Alexandra Brodsky, at a March 12 event presented by the American Constitution Society, the American Prospect and the Economic Policy Institute.
“And I put her in touch with a couple of students who had . . . normal rape stories, and none of them were good enough for her,” said Brodsky in the session.
Brodsky’s comment strengthens suspicions that Erdely was seeking an explosive and dramatic criminal act to anchor her story on this issue. As this blog has pointed out before, Erdely bypassed more prosaic exemplars of sexual assault on the U-Va. campus itself as she clung to the dramatic alleged gang rape of Jackie, the central alleged victim of “A Rape on Campus.”
In a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, Brodsky says she spoke to Erdely twice last year, steering her toward undergraduate groups that could assist her. In an e-mail exchange, Erdely passed along a link to a previous Rolling Stone article under her byline titled “The Rape of Petty Officer Blumer.” That February 2013 story used the frightening experience of Navy intelligence analyst Rebecca Blumer to illustrate the problem of sexual assault in the U.S. armed forces. “The scandal of rape in the U.S. Armed Forces, across all of its uniformed services, has become inescapable,” writes Erdely.
That’s the very formula that Erdely was seeking to apply to campus sexual assault, according to an e-mail that the reporter sent to Brodsky. “The approach I took in that story is similar to the one I have in mind for the college sexual assault story: To demonstrate the larger institutional and cultural problems through the smaller prism of a central narrative (plus lots of supporting voices),” wrote Erdely in that e-mail. A recent story on RedState has raised questions about Erdely’s reporting on the Blumer case.
“The stories that the media are taking are the really graphic, really brutal ones,” said Brodsky at the panel discussion. Regardless of whether Jackie’s tale of a seven-man gang rape proved true, says Brodsky, it was never going to represent the common experience of campus sexual assault. “If what’s happening at Yale isn’t bad enough for you, you’re not really trying to support students. You’re not really trying to bring the truth to light. You’re trying to write a viral article,” says Brodsky, who is also co-founder of Know Your IX and an editor at Feministing.
By Brodsky’s account, Erdely snooped around at Yale in part because the school was home to the landmark 1977 sexual discrimination case Alexander v. Yale, in which female students argued that the university’s failure to protect them from sexual harassment had violated Title IX. Clearly that consideration couldn’t stack up against Jackie’s trauma.
The missteps of Erdely and her editors received a full pat-down from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which published its 24-page report of the breakdowns on Sunday night. The report didn’t dwell on why Erdely had passed up other universities for U-Va. “The records RS provided made reference to Erdeley’s earlier reporting at Ivy League campuses, but did not include any of the work product or interviews,” notes Elizabeth Fishman, associate dean for communications at the Columbia Journalism School, in an e-mail.
ACS Panel discussion video:
Quote from Brodsky (see 1:08):
Alexandra Brodsky: I am not sure that sexual violence is getting more brutal. It might be and I don’t have any evidence that it isn’t. But I know that the stories that the media is taking are the really graphic, really brutal ones. . . . The woman who wrote the story for Rolling Stone that ended up being discredited . . . at the University of Virginia — she called me a couple months before and asked if I knew anyone at Yale. She really wanted to set it at Yale because the first big Title IX case, Alexander v. Yale happened there, we were part of the complaint in 2011. And I put her in touch with a couple of students who had . . . normal rape stories, and none of them were good enough for her. And it seems unsurprising to me that the story that she eventually decided to publish was one that was literally sensationalized.