When Rolling Stone published its account of an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity on November 19, Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s narrative of the ordeals a student named Jackie suffered lent fuel to an already-charged debate about the safety of female students on college campuses. As would be expected for a piece that made such a strong impact (the university suspended all fraternity activity on campus and galvanized a national debate) the story has come under scrutiny, particularly because it does not include comment, or even a “No comment,” from Jackie’s accused attackers.
Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi dug into the magazine’s multiple explanations for that decision. Editor Sean Woods told Farhi that “We could not reach them.”
My colleague Erik Wemple writes, “If they were being cited in the story for mere drunkenness, boorish frat-boy behavior or similar collegiate misdemeanors, then there’d be no harm in failing to secure their input. The charge in this piece, however, is gang rape, and so requires every possible step to reach out and interview them, including e-mails, phone calls, certified letters, FedEx letters, UPS letters and, if all of that fails, a knock on the door. No effort short of all that qualifies as journalism.”
Some readers have interpreted these pieces as calls to give Jackie’s alleged attackers opportunities to defend themselves (certainly that’s what some critics of the Rolling Stone article want) that they don’t deserve, or an attempt to undermine the testimony of a survivor. Given how hard advocates have had to fight to win victims the presumption of credibility, I understand how frustrating it might seem to hear, yet again, that a woman’s account of her own experience does not seem to be enough to convince listeners.
But reaching out to the accused in these cases isn’t a matter of false equivalence. And reporting the words of an accused rapist–or any other person who is reported of wrongdoing or ugly behavior–is not the same thing as endorsing them. In fact, it can mean quite the opposite. In this and many other cases, advocates might do well to consider that their arguments might come across as stronger in pieces that quote their opponents, even at length, and that provide readers with perspectives on the worldviews that might convince someone that it is acceptable to penetrate someone who has been incapacitated or is saying no.
Take Scott Simon’s decision to ask Bill Cosby about the sexual assault allegations against him, which have only multiplied in the weeks since. It may not have been strictly necessary for Simon to put the question to Cosby, given the sheer number of accusations: the volume and consistency of the accounts were convincing enough for many people. But the sound of Cosby’s silence, not once, not twice, but in response to three questions was powerful.
Denials and non-answers can be revealing rather than automatically exculpatory. Cosby’s refusal to respond to Simon’s questions did not make those questions go away, just as a statement from Cosby’s lawyer, Martin Singer, that “These brand new claims about alleged decades-old events are becoming increasingly ridiculous” does not automatically render the testimony of women who say that Cosby attacked them implausible. Instead, it is a revealing dispatch from inside the Cosby camp, an illustration of the worldview that prevails there.
We don’t have to imagine how Cosby and his representatives see the world when they can speak in their own words, or refuse to speak at all.
Telling us more about the men who are accused of raping Jackie could have bolstered Rolling Stone’s argument about the environment at the University of Virginia. What were their positions in the fraternity hierarchy? What about in other elements of campus life? Do they have high-powered lawyers issuing no-comments for them? Were they close to important professors or administrators?
One of Erdely’s sources, a woman named Stacy who was also attacked at UVA, “insisted upon moving forward anyway, even when the wealthy family of the accused kicked up a fuss,” Erdley writes. “’They threatened to sue deans individually, they threatened to sue me,’ she recalls.” Knowing what resources Jackie’s alleged attackers had at their disposal could help flesh out the kinds of social and academic consequences she feared if she pursued disciplinary or legal action against Drew, her date on the night she was attacked. Simply for becoming active in campus activism, Jackie was harassed and hit with a bottle. Did she think she faced worse treatment if she pursued a case?
Talking to the men Jackie accused would have introduced another account into the story. But it also would have provided unique and unnerving insight into a culture that apparently convinced some of Jackie’s friends and fellow students that access to fraternity parties was more important than justice.