(Photo: Matthew Comey/The Cavalier Daily)
It’s journalism 101: The more explosive the allegation you’re making, the harder you have to work to ensure that your story is sealed up airtight. People are human and mistakes can happen, but particularly when a story has the potential to have seismic consequences those mistakes can’t be tolerated. This is why there are systems in place, multiple editorial hurdles for a piece of journalism to jump, designed to prevent not simply embarrassment but defamation and a catastrophic loss of credibility. When the Snowden files were first put out into the ether, the argument from many detractors was never that the information being released didn’t constitute a genuine story, only that the story being told about it was unnecessarily hyped to the point where much of it fell apart upon close examination. My argument and that of others was always that Glenn Greenwald had allowed his biases to infect his responsibility to the truth and that he made mistakes a seasoned journalist wouldn’t have.
Well, for the most part the people at Rolling Stone are seasoned journalists — and it now appears as though they made some very serious, very unfortunate mistakes on a story of immense cultural impact. Today the magazine is apologizing for “discrepancies” in the startling story it published on November 19th about an alleged gang rape on the campus of the University of Virginia. The piece, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, told the story of a then 18-year-old girl named Jackie who claims she was viciously attacked at a Phi Kappa Psi party in 2012. According to Jackie, she was thrown onto the floor in a dark room, breaking a glass coffee table, and was raped by seven young men — at one point with a beer bottle. She says that after the attack, she stumbled out to where the party was still happening, “face beaten, dress spattered with blood,” and left, eventually running into some friends, one of whom suggested she not go to the hospital because her rep would basically be ruined. It’s an intensely difficult read.
The only problem is that Jackie’s story has a number of holes in it — and they’re holes that Sabrina Rubin Erdely and the editors at Rolling Stone inexplicably didn’t try to close. Now those editors are left having to say, “Our trust in her was misplaced.”
Writer Richard Bradley was one of the first to point out the problems with the report. In a piece that criticized the Rolling Stone article, saying, “One must be most critical about stories that play into existing biases,” he pointed out what seemed like inconsistencies in Jackie’s story as well as potential embellishments that defied logic. He also noted how Erdely hadn’t attempted to contact any of the men Jackie accused, nor her friends, for a denial/corroboration. In the wake of his initial post, he went on to note how Rolling Stone was hedging on the story, using what appeared to be heavily lawyered language to both stand behind the story while not coming right out and saying that what Jackie claimed was word-for-word accurate. It goes without saying that Bradley was savaged for this by, among others, Anna Merian at Jezebel and Katie McDonough at Salon, who essentially made the claim that the end justifies the means, as the UVA rape story exposed legitimate problems at the university and broadened the national conversation on rape culture.
Other outlets began to notice problems with the Rolling Stone piece, but now comes this: a lengthy story in The Washington Post, one that not only picks apart the story bit-by-bit but which does so through a week-long series of interviews with Jackie herself. Reading the Post piece, it really does appear that something horrific happened to Jackie, but the question remains whether the story she told to Rolling Stone is true. Lawyers for the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity plan to rebut the story. They say there was no party on the date Jackie gave for her attack and they can prove it, that Jackie’s story has changed several times, and that the backstory she told about meeting the person who allegedly brought her to the party to be raped couldn’t possibly be true. Jackie’s friends, meanwhile, are expressing doubt about the story, with one of them — a rape survivor herself — saying that she feels “misled” and that she worries about the ways this might further discourage women who’ve been raped from coming forward. She essentially says the last thing rape survivor advocates need is a scandal some can point to as proof that women make up claims of rape.
And that’s it right there. That’s why Rolling Stone couldn’t afford to make a single mistake on this story: because the potential harm that any blowback could cause would be immeasurable. The fact that Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s apparent lack of due diligence, Rolling Stone‘s editorial process and Jackie’s story are being called into question at all is a nuclear bomb for the thousands upon thousands of rape victims — reportedly one in ten undergraduates — and their advocates. It’s difficult to tell how much of Jackie’s story is true, how much is trauma, and, yes, how much may not be accurate at all, but it was up to Rolling Stone to not let its biases or simple desire for drama get the better of it and to lock the story up tighter than a drum. Unfortunately, it didn’t do that — and now both it and Erdely find themselves in an embarrassing situation that can compromise their credibility in ways that are difficult to reckon.
Erdely apparently doesn’t see it that way, citing what I’m now going to take to calling the “McDonough Effect,” whereby if the overall positive agenda is furthered who cares whether the facts are there. “I am… not interested in diverting the conversation away from the point of the piece itself,” she says. It just can’t work that way, though. Anyone can tell an incredible story that gets people talking and maybe that talk will even serve the greater good, but that’s not a journalist’s job. A journalists’s job is to tell a story that’s true because a journalist knows that even a great story that isn’t absolutely true can wind up undoing all the immediate good that might come from it. We don’t deal in apocrypha. We also don’t report one person’s story as the truth no matter how much we might believe it. We dig deep. We attribute. We use careful language. We do that to avoid getting the story wrong, hurting people, and hurting ourselves by destroying our credibility. Under no circumstances do we ever base an entire investigation on the word of a single source.
There are those who believe Jackie on principle and that’s understandable. They believe her story because to them a willingness to believe all accusations of rape is paramount and self-reinforcing. If Jackie’s story is correct — hell, even mostly correct — then she’s a victim and it’s heartbreaking and infuriating that she’s in this position right now. If she’s lying, even a little, then it’s tragic because while implicating innocent people she apparently had no idea the damage she was doing to the righteous cause championed by rape survivor advocates.
Either way, though, the onus for this mess is more on Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone than it is on Jackie. It was always the job of the journalists to thoroughly vet every aspect of the story and to make it airtight. That wasn’t done. It’s a shame, because the problem of campus and fraternity rape was never something that needed to be hyped in any way at all. It’s enough of a tragedy that no excess drama should be necessary. None of this had to happen.