Sabrina Rubin Erdely and the editors of Rolling Stone accepted the claims of a single source as gospel truth—even when every brain cell they possessed should have told them otherwise, according to a fascinating report from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism that details the magazine's failings with respect to its now debunked story from last November, "A Rape on Campus."
The report was released Sunday night. At 12,000 words, it's actually longer than the story it concerns. While it makes for a fascinating reading, nothing contained within will be surprising or earth-shattering for readers already familiar with the debacle.
Given all the (entirely fair) criticism Erdely has taken for failing to vet the story, I was most struck by the undeniable fact that the author actually did press Jackie for key details about the identities of the perpetrators. In this sense, she possessed at least some of the right impulses. She believed Jackie, but she knew she needed names in order to corroborate. The problems came when Jackie simply refused or dodged these key questions. Despite misgivings, Erdely—and, to be fair, her editors—charged blindly ahead. From the report:
Jackie proved to be a challenging source. At times, she did not respond to Erdely's calls, texts and emails. At two points, the reporter feared Jackie might withdraw her cooperation. Also, Jackie refused to provide Erdely the name of the lifeguard who had organized the attack on her. She said she was still afraid of him. That led to tense exchanges between Erdely and Jackie, but the confrontation ended when Rolling Stone's editors decided to go ahead without knowing the lifeguard's name or verifying his existence. After that concession, Jackie cooperated fully until publication.
It's actually even worse than that. When Erdely told Jackie that she really did need to know the name of Jackie's date (the lifeguard who supposedly masterminded the attack), Jackie stopped answering her phone calls and texts for about two weeks. Eventually, Erdely left Jackie another voicemail in which the writer agreed to stop trying to contact the lifeguard and instead use a pseudonym, Drew. After that, Jackie magically reappeared, calling Erdely back "quickly," according to the report.
Jackie, in fact, displayed impressive levels of self-preservation and rational behavior—at least, from the perspective of a highly disturbed person whose goal was to spread an incredible lie without exposing it as such. She was highly detailed in her account of the crime, gave descriptions, and recalled (wholly invented) conversations with great accuracy. And she studiously avoided any line of questioning that would have exposed the lie. If a particular question posed a threat, she either invented a reason why it couldn't be answered, or simply stopped responding.
Some of these inventions were rather colorful—and make it impossible to write her off as merely misremembering her trauma. She told Erdely that her friend Ryan—one of the infamous three friends who had met with her after the rape—would not talk to the reporter about that night. According to the report:
On Sept. 11, Erdely traveled to Charlottesville and met Jackie in person for the first time, at a restaurant near the UVA campus. With her digital recorder running, the reporter again asked about speaking to Ryan. "I did talk to Ryan," Jackie disclosed. She said she had bumped into him and had asked if he would be interested in talking to Rolling Stone. Jackie went on to quote Ryan's incredulous reaction: "No! … I'm in a fraternity here, Jackie, I don't want the Greek system to go down, and it seems like that's what you want to happen. … I don't want to be a part of whatever little shit show you're running."
"Ryan is obviously out," Erdely told Jackie a little later.
That conversation was completely invented by Jackie; she never spoke to Ryan about Erdely's story.
And yet Erdely's editor, Sean Woods, decided to put the "shit show" quote in the final article, even though neither of them tried to reach Ryan to confirm that he had indeed said this. If either had contacted Ryan, he would have told them that the quote was a lie—likely unmasking Jackie as a liar with that one basic act of journalistic integrity.
(The article's mention of two other rapes at Phi Kappa Psi were also exposed as mere conjecture from a single, highly unreliable source… you guessed it: Jackie.)
Despite these mistakes, no one at Rolling Stone thinks their fact-checking process is systematically broken: they just screwed up this one time, they say. While that's an eye-rolling assertion, I think I know what caused them to take leave of their senses. The source was a rape victim, and the writers and editors were too afraid of appearing unsympathetic to Jackie's plight to treat her stonewalling with the skepticism it deserved.
Even so, Rolling Stone has decided not to fire anyone. Erdely, a contributor, will continue to write for the publication, according to publisher Jann Wenner.
That doesn't seem like a strong enough response to an article that defamed Jackie's friends, the fraternity, and UVA administrators—and mislead not just the campus, but the entire country, about the sexual assault crisis.
The article has been fully retracted, and no longer appears on Rolling Stone's website.
Richard Bradley and I were the first two journalists to write articles expressing skepticism of Erdely's reporting. You can read my initial article here.
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