(Photo: Ryan M. Kelly/Daily Progress via AP)
Reading the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism’s 13,000-word report dissecting Rolling Stone‘s retracted UVA rape story is a little like watching a teen horror movie. At every new turn you find yourself cringing and almost saying out loud, “Stop! Don’t do that, you idiots!” Rolling Stone and contributor Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s failures were so indefensible and absolute during the investigative, writing, editing and fact-checking process of “A Rape on Campus” that not only is it staggering that the magazine has chosen not to fire anyone in the wake of this disaster, it’s a wonder Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner hasn’t sold the whole building and announced that he’s moving to Palau to spend the rest of his life fishing. As of this morning, the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity — the direct target of the original story — announced that it’s going to be suing Rolling Stone, citing “reckless” reporting “of crimes its members did not commit.” It’s going to win too, because Rolling Stone completely screwed the pooch on this thing — and it did it because it desperately wanted the story of “Jackie” to be true.
If you want to understand what was at the center of the complete journalistic breakdown on “A Rape On Campus,” look no further than a single highlighted word in Columbia’s scathing report: faith. Rolling Stone editor Sean Woods says he had faith in Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s reporting and Erdely obviously had quite a bit of faith in Jackie, the young women who claimed she was gang-raped by seven men at a Phi Kappa Psi party in September of 2012. Despite the fact that over and over Jackie responded erratically and defensively, standing in the way of necessary investigation and journalistic discovery, Erdely and Rolling Stone continued to defer to her until the entire story rested on a single source. Compassion and sensitivity are necessary when dealing with a potential victim of sexual assault, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of due diligence and for Rolling Stone to imply that its failures were the result of a desire to protect Jackie sets up a false choice and does a disservice to rape victims and their advocates. Jackie wouldn’t help identify the person whom she claimed had engineered her assault; she wouldn’t put Erdely in contact with the three friends who she claimed would corroborate her story, speaking for them more than once (which Rolling Stone printed without attribution); and according to the Columbia report and Erdely’s own notes, what Jackie told The Washington Post a month after the release of the story, about Erdely being the one who kept pushing despite Jackie’s reluctance appears to not be entirely true.
But whether or not Erdely tried to genuinely railroad Jackie, there’s absolutely no doubt that she went into the story with the narrative already in mind. Maybe one of the most noteworthy lines in the entire Columbia report is this obvious disclosure: “‘A Rape on Campus’ had ambitions beyond recounting one woman’s assault. It was intended as an investigation of how colleges deal with sexual violence.” There’s a very real problem of sexual assaults on college campuses and the benefits to be reaped from good reporting on the subject in terms of holding rapists and unresponsive school officials accountable are numerous. But Erdely purposely went after the most egregious and shocking example of a campus rape she could find and that, from the very beginning, created a potential problem with confirmation bias. The report makes clear that when a journalist is aware of his or her biases, he or she has to work that much harder to ensure fairness. Everyone, at almost every phase of the development of “A Rape on Campus” failed to diligently “red team” the story because there was a innate level of trust in Erdely’s reporting, the story Jackie was telling and the problem with campus rape itself that simply shouldn’t have been there. Healthy skepticism was nowhere to be found, largely because Rolling Stone and Sabrina Rubin Erdely embraced the belief that it was somehow wrong to question the story of an alleged sexual assault victim, despite the fact that this particular alleged victim was telling a story that contained issues even trauma might not be able to account for. “They saw her as a ‘whistle blower’ who was fighting indifference and inertia at the university,” the report reads at one point.
Because of Jackie’s lack of cooperation and the fear that she might pull out of the story, Erdely never contacted the three people Jackie claimed she spoke to the night of her attack. They would have told a much different story than the one Jackie told. According to Columbia, this misstep was the “most consequential decision” Rolling Stone made. It was the linchpin, the absence of which brought the whole thing down. But there was more than that. Erdely also allowed Jackie to get away with not identifying her attacker, even off the record. That was another person who might confirm or deny Jackie’s story who was completely discounted. Meanwhile, Erdely only asked Phi Kappa Psi for comment about a sexual assault that supposedly happened at their chapter, without providing any details about Jackie or her story so that the fraternity could properly respond. This is something sure to be brought up by Phi Kappa Psi’s lawyers in their coming suit, which may be expanded to include Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Jackie herself. “It was bullshit,” says Stephen Scipione, chapter president. While it’s tough to feel badly for a fraternity, the fact is that faulty reporting has put Phi Psi in the position of being the victim here. There are no two ways about it. The fraternity was accused of a grotesque crime it didn’t commit and UVA’s administration was accused of being neglectful in its response to that crime.
Will Dana, Rolling Stone‘s managing editor, says the story’s breakdown reflects “both an ‘individual failure’ and ‘procedural failure, an institutional failure… Every single person at every level of this thing had opportunities to pull the strings a little harder, to question things a little more deeply, and that was not done.” Maybe a meltdown so complete is why, according to Jann Wenner, no one will be fired for this catastrophe. Nobody. None of the staffers and — unfathomably — not even Sabrina Rubin Erdely. Wenner says she’ll continue to write for Rolling Stone, even though she’s at the center of a piece that has already cost Rolling Stone its reputation and credibility and could ultimately cost it millions of dollars. He calls Jackie “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who fooled everyone, but in fact, if the Columbia report is to be believed, she wasn’t at all. Her story had holes in it you could’ve piloted the space shuttle through, but because of Rolling Stone‘s biases and its desire to be hyper-deferential to an alleged rape victim, Erdely and everyone down the line overlooked those gaping holes. No one should automatically assume that a woman telling a graphic story of sexual assault — or any story of sexual assault for that matter — is lying. But the job of a journalist is to be skeptical, particularly when he or she is reporting on a story that confirms his or her preconceptions. When you know there’s a blind spot there, you have to compensate for it. That didn’t happen this time because everyone had the same blind spot. Rolling Stone desperately wanted Jackie’s story to be true, as monstrous as that may sound. The magazine already “knew” gang-rapes were happening at frats all the time, all it needed to do was find one.
It thought it had. It was wrong.
What Erdely and Rolling Stone did hurt a lot of innocent people. And what’s more, it may have done serious long-term damage to the very victims it hoped to champion. As the report says, “Erdely and her editors had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better. Instead, the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations.” In the end, that may be the biggest tragedy of all here.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.