A Rolling Stone reporter and a fact checker for the magazine never sought a reaction from officials at the University of Virginia about an alleged gang rape at a campus fraternity in 2012, according to an extensive exchange of e-mails between the journalists and the university.
The e-mails, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, give no indication that writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely told the university that she was pursuing a story about Jackie, a U-Va. freshman who said she was raped by seven other students at a Phi Kappa Psi party two years ago.
The e-mails — covering all exchanges between university officials and the magazine for the past six months — instead paint a picture of a more general inquiry. Erdely repeatedly asks for information about the school’s policy regarding sexual assault complaints and seeks interviews with university officials, including president Teresa A. Sullivan.
Additionally, in an audio recording of Erdely’s 44-minute interview with Sullivan, Erdely never mentions Jackie or the alleged gang rape in 2012. Erdely does ask Sullivan about “three separate allegations of gang rapes” at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. Sullivan responds that “we do have a fraternity under investigation and … we have spoken with a national chapter of that fraternity.” The audio recording was obtained by the Daily Progress newspaper of Charlottesville under a separate FOIA request.
At no point in the 104 pages of e-mails does Erdely or Rolling Stone assistant editor Elizabeth Garber-Paul, who fact checked Erdely’s Nov. 19 story, seek comment on Jackie’s explosive allegations of a gang assault.
Rolling Stone spokeswoman Melissa Bruno said late Friday that Sullivan, in her interview with Erdely, responded that she “could say little” about any specific incident and that the school had a fraternity under investigation and had spoken to its national organization. That answer is reflected in the article.
Erdely and Rolling Stone’s reporting of the U-Va. story, which appeared on Nov. 19, has already been fraught with basic reporting lapses. The magazine has acknowledged that it did not speak to, or even locate, any of the men accused by Jackie.
Subsequent reporting has also showed that the magazine never contacted three friends of Jackie, who Rolling Stone said discouraged Jackie from seeking medical attention or a police investigation after the alleged incident. The friends, all U-Va. students, have disputed Rolling Stone’s account of what they told Jackie.
Separately, Ben Warthen, a lawyer who has represented Phi Kappa Psi’s U-Va. chapter, said Friday that he spoke on the phone with Erdely while she was reporting the story. Warthen said that he asked her to submit questions about the fraternity to him in an e-mail. Warthen said that Erdely never responded or submitted any questions.
The e-mail exchanges between U-Va. officials and Rolling Stone primarily involve Erdely’s efforts to schedule interviews with officials, including president Teresa Sullivan, for a story described by Erdely only as about “sexual assault on campus.” At no point in the exchanges does either party refer to Jackie, the fraternity or a gang rape.
Indeed, at one point, university spokesman Anthony de Bruyun tells Erdely that “federal privacy laws prohibit us from disclosing any sexual assault report, investigation or hearing.” He goes on to state that Erdely’s characterization of an assault case at the university earlier this year was “incorrect.” The details of that case are not clear from the e-mails.
De Bruyun on Friday said: “The University remains focused on the well-being of all students, and especially any survivor of sexual assault. There is important work ahead regarding efforts to strengthen student safety. The University respectfully declines comment on the records released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.”
At another point before the story’s publication, Garber-Paul asks de Bruyun a series of questions, none of which specifically reference Jackie’s allegations:
“Is it accurate to say that the UVA administration believes that Rolling Stone publishing this story might discourage sexual assault victims from coming forward in the future?” she asked.
Replied de Bruyun: “A.We are concerned that any story be factually accurate and clearly state that students are encouraged by us to report sexual misconduct including sexual assault.
De Bruyun also tells Garber-Paul of his concerns about the reporting of the 2014 case: “As I mentioned to you, we have expressed our concern to Sabrina regarding what we believe to be a mischaracterization of the facts about a case that occurred in Spring 2014. . . . It has been brought to our attention by a few students that Sabrina has spoken to that she is referencing an incident where a male student raped three different women and received a one-year suspension. This is in fact objectively false.”
In her first public statement made immediately after the article’s publication, Sullivan, the U-Va. president, promised a full investigation of the alleged rape. But she also said the Rolling Stone story included “many details that were previously not disclosed to University officials.” She has not elaborated on that statement.
At another point in the exchanges, McGregor McCance, a university communications specialist, informs Erdely that Nicole Eramo, the dean in charge of U-Va.’s Sexual Misconduct Board, and Claire Kaplan of the UVA Women’s Center, would not be available for interviews.
Erdely nevertheless quoted Eramo second-hand in her story, using Jackie’s account of her conversation with Eramo. “Jackie got a different explanation when she’d eventually asked Dean Eramo the same question [about why the school allegedly did not publish all its data about assaults on campus]. She says Eramo answered wryly, “Because nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.”
Rolling Stone co-founder and editor Jann S. Wenner has said nothing publicly about the magazine’s U-Va. story. In an editor’s note posted to the article after questions about it mounted, managing editor Will Dana acknowledged “discrepancies” in the article.
The magazine has said it would undertake an “internal review” to determine how its reporter, editors, fact checkers and lawyers failed to spot the story’s flaws. A magazine representative, Melissa Bruno, said Friday that no determinations have yet been made.
Staff wr iter T. Rees Shapiro contributed to this story.