Media Criticism

Campus Rape Story Was 'Bulletproof' Except for the Hoax, Says Rolling Stone Founder Jann Wenner

With journalistic standards like these...


Jann Wenner—founder of the music and pop culture magazine Rolling Stone—is still defending an infamously inaccurate article that appeared in his publication nearly a decade ago.

"The University of Virginia story was not a failure of intent, or an attempt to be loose with the facts," Wenner told The New York Times last week. "You get beyond the factual errors that sank that story, and it was really about the issue of rape and how it affects women on campus, their lack of rights. Other than this one key fact that the rape described actually was a fabrication of this woman, the rest of the story was bulletproof." (Emphasis mine.)

"A Rape on Campus" was published on November 19, 2014. Its author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, claimed that a University of Virginia student named "Jackie" had been viciously raped by a group of male students at a fraternity party as some kind of initiation ritual. Jackie's account was intended as a representative story—an example of the kind of routine sexual violence faced by young women on college campuses.

But the underlying crime never took place. Days after the story's initial publication, it came under attack from journalists who were skeptical of the details. I came to suspect the whole thing might be an elaborate hoax, mostly because I had a hard time believing the perpetrators could have possibly expected to get away with it. Most campus sexual assaults involve incapacitation with drugs and alcohol; the idea that not one, but multiple assailants—including a man whose identity was known by the victim—would attack a fully conscious woman without any fear she would go to the police seemed fanciful.

It eventually emerged that Jackie had made the whole thing up. The person she accused did not exist, though she had impersonated him in texts to her friends. Had Rolling Stone followed standard journalistic protocols, Jackie's fraud would have been exposed prior to publication, but fact-checkers at the magazine never pressed Erdely to contact either Jackie's friends or the alleged perpetrator. Rolling Stone ultimately settled three defamation lawsuits, brought by the fraternity in question, several of its members, and a dean wrongly portrayed as unsympathetic.

So when Wenner says that "the rest of the story was bulletproof," he's essentially saying, Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

This was not the only eyebrow-raising line in the Times interview. Wenner also admitted to allowing the famous subjects of his own interviews—including John Lennon, Bono, and others—to edit articles about them before publication:

[Lennon] went through, and he made changes here and there. Basically, it's interview subjects clarifying what they want to say, making it more precise. Because it's a long stream of yap and verbiage and you sometimes don't think through every word. I want them to have the opportunity to say precisely what they meant.

With journalistic standards like these, it's easier to see how Rolling Stone's rape story came into being in the first place.