Rolling Stone Admits Failure in UVA Rape Story, But No One Is Fired
Rolling Stone Admits Failure in UVA Rape Story, But No One Is Fired
When both sides of the journalistic aisle simultaneously do a double-take, that’s when you know something bad really happened.
Back in November, Rolling Stone published a story entitled “A Rape On Campus,” where writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely detailed the story of “Jackie,” a college student who recounted her terrifying ordeal of having been raped at a fraternity party during her freshman year. However, once the story was published, the basic details of the story – which Rolling Stone claimed to have fact-checked extensively – began to be called into question. Slate, the Washington Post, the Atlantic – all liberal news organizations – were poking holes and asking questions that seemed glaringly obvious for both Rolling Stone and Erdely. And there were no answers that made any sense except the obvious: that Erdely had gone looking for the most sensational story that she could find about campus rape, and that Rolling Stone was quite willing to publish it.
The holes became so large that after the initial backlash against the fraternity in question, Phi Kappa Psi – which was suspended by UVA president Teresa Sullivan with great fanfare – Rolling Stone was forced to issue a retraction on its original story. Phi Kappa Psi was then quietly reinstated by Sullivan last January. The Charlottesville police department announced that it had found no evidence to support the story last month, and they would be suspending the investigation.
And now, the final nail in the coffin has arrived. Rolling Stone asked the Columbia School of Journalism to run an in-depth review of how this story managed to make it past all their vaunted layers of editing and fact-checking. The report, now published online by Rolling Stone, is quite long, but worth reading to just see the anatomy of just how much Rolling Stone and Erdely had invested in making this piece happen.
But the most egregious failures of transparency in “A Rape on Campus” cannot be chalked up to writing style. They obfuscated important problems with the story’s reporting.
The editors invested Rolling Stone’s reputation in a single source. “Sabrina’s a writer I’ve worked with for so long, have so much faith in, that I really trusted her judgment in finding Jackie credible,” (editor Sean) Woods said. “I asked her a lot about that, and she always said she found her completely credible.”
Woods and Erdely knew Jackie had spoken about her assault with other activists on campus, with at least one suitemate and to UVA. They could not imagine that Jackie would invent such a story. Woods said he and Erdely “both came to the decision that this person was telling the truth.” They saw her as a “whistle blower” who was fighting indifference and inertia at the university.
The problem of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here. Erdely believed the university was obstructing justice. She felt she had been blocked. Like many other universities, UVA had a flawed record of managing sexual assault cases. Jackie’s experience seemed to confirm this larger pattern. Her story seemed well established on campus, repeated and accepted.
“If I had been informed ahead of time of one problem or discrepancy with her overall story, we would have acted upon that very aggressively,” (managing editor Will) Dana said. “There were plenty of other stories we could have told in this piece.” If anyone had raised doubts about how verifiable Jackie’s narrative was, her case could have been summarized “in a paragraph deep in the story.”
No such doubts came to his attention, he said. As to the apparent gaps in reporting, attribution and verification that had accumulated in the story’s drafts, Dana said, “I had a faith that as it went through the fact-checking that all this was going to be straightened out.”
They had “faith” that it would all prove to be true. And it blew up spectacularly in their faces.
So, of course, Rolling Stone’s logic is that because EVERYONE screwed up, NO ONE should have to be fired, or even disciplined in any way.
This is why no one's getting fired at @RollingStone. Rot goes all the way to the top.
Credibility zero from now on. pic.twitter.com/61P7Pi1fOe
— Ed Morrissey (@EdMorrissey) April 6, 2015
And everyone’s jaw collectively dropped.
Rolling Stone retracts the UVA/rape piece, but no consequences for any mag employees involved http://t.co/4Hg6EsyQib
— Hadas Gold (@Hadas_Gold) April 6, 2015
— andrew kaczynski (@BuzzFeedAndrew) April 6, 2015
OMG “@HowardKurtz: Wenner says Sabrina Erdley , who has now apologized for Rolling Stone debacle, will continue to write for the magazine”
— Brit Hume (@brithume) April 6, 2015
— Phil Kerpen (@kerpen) April 6, 2015
So, what happens now? According to the Columbia report, “Jackie,” the alleged rape victim, is no longer speaking to the media. When contacted by Columbia, they noted that “Jackie declined to respond to questions for this report. Her lawyer said it “is in her best interest to remain silent at this time.” The Charlottesville police, when they made their statement to the media, also pointed out that “Jackie” had refused to cooperate with their investigation. While Rolling Stone could be on the hook for libel, it is unknown what “Jackie” could be charged with, if anything. She did not file a police report, and she allowed others to tell her story in print. But the very fact that “Jackie” has lawyers now telling her that it’s in her “best interest to remain silent” means that no one is quite sure what her legal liability is in this situation, especially since the alleged rapist that she identified was demonstrably proved to be made-up (as no person with the name she gave fit the description of anyone at the fraternity, and while there was a person with the correct first name at the pool where she claimed he worked, that man was not a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and was determined by police to not be linked to the case).
Despite the obvious fact that Rolling Stone trusted before they verified, publisher Jann Wenner has decided that no one is in trouble. They just suffered the biggest loss of credibility possible and no one will lose their job over it, because they had “faith” that it would all be okay in the end. And even though this story was false, they are so convinced of the narrative that they’re willing to take a hit on the chin now, because deep, deep down, they really believe that the lie was the truth. They just have to find the right story to tell their truth someday.
UPDATE 14:00 EDT:
It is official – the Psi Kappa Psi chapter at UVA will be pursuing legal action against Rolling Stone.
Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity at the center of the discredited Rolling Stone magazine story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, said Monday it plans to pursue “all available legal action” against the magazine.
“Our fraternity and its members have been defamed,” chapter president Stephen Scipione said in a statement.
The fraternity called the story “reckless,” saying that the article was viewed by millions, led to members being ostracized and there was vandalism of the fraternity house.
And here is an interesting spin on why no one was fired:
— Annie Waldman (@AnnieWaldman) April 6, 2015
The only question now is how much it will cost Rolling Stone to settle the lawsuit. I would dearly love the fraternity to not settle and pursue discovery, but I have a feeling that a pile of money and an abject apology will be what any lawyer will aim for.