Over the Thanksgiving break, people took some time from shopping and driving to discuss an essay by Richard Bradley questioning the story at the heart of Rolling Stone‘s massive exposé on rape at fraternities at the University of Virginia.* Bradley is an editor with decades of experience; most infamously, he was the editor of serial New Republic fabulist Stephen Glass when Glass wrote for George magazine. This means he either has an added dollop of insight into journalistic malfeasance or he has a poor nose for detecting BS. Choose your preference.
But he smelled something funny in the story spun by Jackie, the student who claims to have been gang raped by seven men in a fraternity as part of an initiation ceremony while two other men watched and shouted out directions and whose friends discouraged her from going to the police because they wouldn't be invited to any more frat parties in the future.
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Leaving aside the believability of the central story**, there are some serious sourcing issues. Author Sabrina Rubin Erdely never mentions in the piece whether or not she reached out to the accused for comment or confirmation. It is not clear from the article whether or not Erdely talked to the friends who met Jackie after the attack: She explicitly says one of the men refused to talk to her, and while she quotes words supposedly said by the other two, it's hard to tell whether or not they are direct quotes from interviews or recollections by Jackie. It seems to me from the context that they are the latter, but, like I said, it's not clear.
Others have picked up on Bradley's essay and are asking questions. The responses provided by Erdely and Rolling Stone are … not convincing. Here's Paul Farhi, writing about the crafting of the story in the Washington Post:
The writer of a blockbuster Rolling Stone magazine story about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity has said that she was unable to contact or interview the men who supposedly perpetrated the crime. …
Erdely declined to address specific questions about her reporting when contacted on Sunday and Monday.
When the New Republic reached out to Erdely for comment, this is what happened:
I wrote and called Erdely, and wrote Erdely’s editor at Rolling Stone, to see what they thought about Bradley’s and Soave’s criticisms. Erdely declined to be interviewed and referred me to the magazine's publicity director.
All of which is to say that responses such as this one are kind of unbecoming:
There are UVa truthers, because of course http://t.co/Gf6gtlzCQd
— Marin Cogan (@marincogan) December 1, 2014
I generally like Cogan's work (check out her profile of Reihan Salam!) but this tweet is silly. First off, the idea that journalists sometimes make things up or get duped by sources is hardly shocking or new. The comparison is also nonsensical: The entire nation saw the 9/11 attacks go down; Jackie's story is a single-sourced tale told by an obviously distraught person.
As it happens, I don't think Erdely's making the story up. But mightn't there be a very real chance that Jackie's tale has been, at the least, exaggerated? Consider, for instance, that she seems to have changed her story somewhat between the time she first told the school about the assault and the publication of Erdely's piece. This is from a letter written by UVA president Teresa Sullivan:
The article describes an alleged sexual assault of a female student at a fraternity house in September 2012, including many details that were previously not disclosed to University officials. I have asked the Charlottesville Police Department to formally investigate this incident, and the University will cooperate fully with the investigation. [Emphasis added]
Why weren't those details disclosed? Why was Jackie more forthcoming with Erdely than with the people who had the power to punish her attackers? Most importantly: Why, and how, has Jackie's story changed over the years? And, of course, there's the basic journalistic problem that surrounds any piece in which massive accusations are leveled against a person who is given literally no chance to defend himself or his institution. These are things readers should know.
Then again, perhaps none of this matters to Erdely. Here's how she responded to Farhi's questioning of her sources:
"I could address many of [the questions] individually . . . but by dwelling on this, you’re getting sidetracked," she wrote in an e-mail response to The Post’s inquiry. "As I’ve already told you, the gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie — a person whom I found to be credible — told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way — i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference."
It's worth noting here that what Erdely is saying is totally true. The school's handling of sexual assault cases has been totally inadequate when it hasn't been actively deleterious. She could have written this story without mentioning Jackie once and it would have been just as damning. But it wouldn't have caught the nation's attention. It wouldn't have led to people calling for the dismantling of the Greek system. Roofies and date rape don't dominate national headlines. You know what dominates headlines? Gang rape. So maybe to Erdely, the story was too good to check out entirely. It was a story that needed to be told—a "scene" that needed to be set—in order to get an important point the attention it deserves.
And if it's an exaggeration? Or even a complete fabrication? Well, there's the greater good to think about.
*Full disclosure: I'm a UVA alum and was in a fraternity.
**I'd be lying if I said I didn't have many of the same concerns that Bradley did after reading the piece. That this was said to have happened at a date function rather than a party—the difference may seem esoteric, but in reality is rather large—threw up a red flag. Additionally, the bit about the behavior of the friends following the attack struck me as especially dubious. They met her, saw her bruised and battered and bloodied, listened to her story about being gang raped by seven guys, and then held a rational discussion in the early morning hours about the pluses and minuses of reporting this vicious assault to the police, eventually deciding that, hey, keggers are more important than justice? I was … skeptical. And remain so, to be perfectly honest.