Yesterday, I reported that Rolling Stone's bombshell story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia was drawing some skeptical appraisals, most notably from writer Richard Bradley. I wrote that while I had no reason to distrust Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the Rolling Stone piece, I shared some of Bradley's concerns about the plausibility of the narrative.
Since then, numerous media outlets have cited my concerns while adding their own. Far too many have weighed in to keep a proper count, but The New Republic, The Washington Examiner, The Federalist, The American Conservative, and The Washington Post all published articles worth a read, and all have valid questions about Erdely's reporting.
But perhaps the most serious question about the accuracy of the story is one inadvertently raised by Erdely herself, at the prompting of Slate's Hanna Rosin, several days ago. Erdely was interviewed by Rosin's Double X podcast; when pressed for crucial details about whether she knew the perpetrators names and sought their sides of the story, Erdely repeatedly dodged the question. Eventually, she conceded this: "What exactly happened? I wasn't in that room. I don't know."
On Tuesday evening, Rosin wrote a polite but critical response to Erdely in which she essentially said, that's not good enough. As she—and Slate colleague Allison Benedikt—note, there were supposedly seven other people in that room, and Erdely didn't make much of an effort to contact them. Some important parts (emphasis mine):
It could be that Erdely did try her hardest to reach the alleged rapists. Or it could be that she didn't, out of deference to Jackie. We've interviewed many of Jackie's friends, including some who were quoted in the Rolling Stone story. They verified that Jackie did get very upset when Erdely wanted to find out more about the alleged assailants. Sara Surface, a good friend of Jackie's and a member of One Less, a victim advocacy group at UVA, had the impression that Jackie's reaction was "extreme" when Erdely pressed her—meaning that Jackie became so terrified that she reconsidered going public with her story, even anonymously. If that's true, then Erdely was in a tough position. Push too hard and she might lose Jackie. But not pushing harder has created a whole new nightmare.
Various writers and media outlets have now started to pick apart Erdely's reporting, as well as the details of Jackie's story as reported by Rolling Stone. That's because, even by the standards of horrific, despicable frat behavior, this story stands out. Jackie, who says she was sober, was allegedly led upstairs by her date into a dark room, where seven men allegedly raped her as others egged them on. She tells Erdely that she was smashed into a glass coffee table and raped by a beer bottle. Drew, who had invited her to the frat party as his date, allegedly stood by and orchestrated the whole thing. When he later ran into Jackie, she says that he told her he'd had a "great time." That's not expected behavior even by the standards of rapists. That's psychotic.
Rosin and Benedikt mention that they found out who Jackie is, contacted her, and arranged an interview, only to have Jackie back out as the public's skepticism of the story began to increase. An interview between Jackie and The Washington Post is apparently forthcoming.
I reached out to Erdely and her editor, Sean Woods, today; I had questions about the efforts undertaken to speak with the perpetrators. Neither responded. Instead, I was forwarded a statement by Rolling Stone spokesperson Melissa Bruno. It's the same one that other journalists seeking comments from either party are receiving at this point, but here it is, nonetheless:
In response to your questions about Sabrina Rubin Erdely's "A Rape on Campus": The story we published was one woman's account of a sexual assault at a UVA fraternity in October 2012 – and the subsequent ordeal she experienced at the hands of University administrators in her attempts to work her way through the trauma of that evening. The indifference with which her complaint was met was, we discovered, sadly consistent with the experience of many other UVA women who have tried to report such assaults. Through our extensive reporting and fact–checking, we found Jackie to be entirely credible and courageous and we are proud to have given her disturbing story the attention it deserves.
Based on what Erdely has said, and what Woods told The New Republic previously, it seems like Rolling Stone was positive that the rapists existed. But they only made successful efforts to reach the fraternity, not the individuals—even though contacting the individuals is as easy as typing a name into Facebook's search menu or UVA's student directory, presuming one knows the actual names.
Rosin and Benedikt did speak with some of Jackie's "supporters" on campus; what's striking is that none of these people know the identities of the attackers, either:
What became clear from talking to Jackie's supporters at UVA is that the community of victim advocates operates by a very specific code. "The first thing as a friend we must say is, 'I believe you and I am here to listen,' " says Brian Head, president of UVA's all-male sexual assault peer education group One in Four. Head and others believe that questioning a victim is a form of betrayal, because it will make her feel judged and all the more reluctant to ever speak about what happened. None of the people we spoke to had asked Jackie who the men were, and in fact none of them had any idea. They did not press her on any details about the incident.
This undermines a claim, made by Erdely to Rosin during the podcast, that "people [on campus] seem to know who [the perpetrators] are."
So we know that Erdely never spoke to the alleged perpetrators. She hasn't suggested that she made an effort to contact them individually at all. We know that Jackie balked at the idea of giving up "more" information about them. And we know that Rosin and Benedikt couldn't find anyone who knew who they were.
At this point, I'm skeptical that anyone other than Jackie knows their names. To utterly clear up the confusion, my most pressing question to Erdely was whether she learned the perpetrators' identities. In return, I was forwarded Bruno's statement.
Erdely told Rosin that "there's no doubt in my mind that something happened to her that night." That's more easily proven; as The Post's Erik Wemple noted, sources who were actually named in the article did testify that something happened to Jackie that night. But something is a far cry from the extreme horror story that ran under Erdely's byline.
Lastly, I should mention that I have fielded criticisms all day from people—some of them libertarian-leaning—who think it was wrong of me to write a story questioning a rape accusation at all. Some believe that by expressing skepticism of Erdely's reporting, I risked identifying libertarianism with rape denial. Needless to say, I disagree; anyone who gives my previous work a fair appraisal should conclude that I treat sexual assault with the utmost seriousness. Whatever the extent of the campus rape crisis, I am interested in exploring potential solutions, and believe I have pinpointed a major one.
Still, I must go on reporting the news as it actually happens, not the version of it that is most convenient for making libertarianism more palatable to the social justice crowd.
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