Why Hasn't Rolling Stone Fully Retracted Its Gang Rape Story Yet?


UVA / Karen Blaha

Rolling Stone has admitted that Sabrina Rubin Erdely's story, "A Rape on Campus," contains enough inaccuracies to render the narrative's central allegation effectively false. The editor's note that precedes the article is now more than 600 words long; it concedes—over and over again—that Jackie's narrative as printed in the story is untrue, that key players and events either don't exist or didn't take place, and that multiple on-record sources dispute Erdely's reporting.

Why on earth has the story not been fully retracted yet?

Here is what the editor's note—which is constantly evolving to provide an up-to-date record of the story's thorough debunking—now claims:

Last month, Rolling Stone published a story entitled A Rape on Campus, which described a brutal gang rape of a woman named Jackie during a party at a University of Virginia fraternity house, the University's failure to respond to this alleged assault – and the school's troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults. The story generated worldwide headlines and much soul-searching at UVA. University president Teresa Sullivan promised a full investigation and also to examine the way the school investigates sexual assault allegations.

Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie's story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Sabrina Rubin Erdely reported the story, Jackie said or did nothing that made her, or Rolling Stone's editors and fact-checkers, question her credibility. Jackie's friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported her account. She had spoken of the assault in  campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of Phi Psi, the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn't confirm or deny her story but that they had questions about the evidence. 

In the face of new information reported by the Washington Post and other news outlets, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account. The fraternity has issued a formal statement denying the assault and asserting that there was no "date function or formal event" on the night in question. Jackie herself is now unsure if the man she says lured her into the room where the rape occurred, identified in the story as "Drew," was a Phi Psi brother. According to the Washington Post, "Drew" actually belongs to a different fraternity and when contacted by the paper, he denied knowing Jackie. Jackie told Rolling Stone that after she was assaulted, she ran into "Drew" at a UVA pool where they both worked as lifeguards. In its statement, Phi Psi says none of its members worked at the pool in the fall of 2012. A friend of Jackie's (who we were told would not speak to Rolling Stone) told the Washington Post that he found Jackie that night a mile from the school's fraternities. She did not appear to be "physically injured at the time" but was shaken. She told him that that she had been forced to have oral sex with a group of men at a fraternity party, but he does not remember her identifying a specific house. Other friends of Jackie's told the Washington Post that they now have doubts about her narrative, but Jackie told the Washington Post that she firmly stands by the account she gave to Erdely

We published the article with the firm belief that it was accurate. Given all of these reports, however, we have come to the conclusion that we were mistaken in honoring Jackie's request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie. We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening.

Emphasis added to highlight the latest of Rolling Stone's admitted sins. Erdely originally reported that Jackie's friends—the ones who urged her not to go to the police, worried about how their social lives would be impacted, and wondered why she didn't enjoy being with "hot Phi Psi guys"—declined to be interviewed. But those same friends have now given multiple media interviews in which they claimed that they would have gladly told their story to Erdely if given the chance. The above admission in the editor's note suggests that Erdely did not actually try to contact the friends at all, perhaps taking Jackie's word for it that they were unwilling to talk.

These friends have, of course, contradicted virtually all of Jackie's claims, from the details of the alleged crime (coerced vaginal sex and with nine perpetrators vs. coerced oral sex with five perpetrators) to Jackie's state immediately after (battered and bloodied vs. shaken but not bleeding) to the argument over whether to call the police (Jackie said her friends talked her out of it, the friends say they were dialing 911 when Jackie stopped them). The friends have also questioned Jackie's odd behavior prior to the alleged crimes, and have put forth a credible narrative—backed up by the The Washington Post—suggesting that she went to great lengths to invent a fictional suitor. As I explained on CNN's Michael Smerconish show on Saturday, these developments support a "catfishing" explanation.

Rolling Stone is apparently re-reporting the story, according to WaPost's Erik Wemple. Presumably, that entails doing all the work its staff should have done before publishing such incredible—and, as it turns out, demonstrably false—claims. The magazine has given little reason for anyone to believe it's capable of such feats of competent journalism, but should begin by penning what everyone else has already realized is necessary: a full retraction. No more mealy-mouthed statements like "our trust was misplaced" in Jackie (as the editors initially claimed), or "we were mistaken" in reporting details pursuant to Jackie's demands (as they now claim).

More from Reason on this subject here.