Rolling Stone has admitted massive problems with Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s 9,000-word story claiming members of University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi gang-raped a woman in the fraternity house in September of 2012.
The article began with and was built on the brutal and horrific tale of the gang rape, which, purported victim Jackie said, took place on a bed of broken glass, lasted for 3 hours, included other physical assaults, and ended with rape by beer bottle.
Some raised questions about the journalism behind the story — What did the accused have to say? What independent corroboration of the attack was there? — only to find out that Erdely had trusted her source and somehow agreed not to speak to the accused.
Rolling Stone just retracted the core of the story in a note that says:
Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie's story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone's editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie's credibility. Her friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported Jackie's account. She had spoken of the assault in campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn't confirm or deny her story but had concerns about the evidence.
In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.
The Washington Post somehow spared resources from their ongoing deep-dive into random people’s Facebook critiques of fashion and comportment to investigate this story and what they found sounds even worse:
A group of Jackie’s close friends, who are sex assault advocates at U-Va., said they believe something traumatic happened to Jackie but have come to doubt her account. They said details have changed over time, and they have not been able to verify key points of the story in recent days. A name of an alleged attacker that Jackie provided to them for the first time this week, for example, turned out to be similar to the name of a student who belongs to a different fraternity, and no one by that name has been a member of Phi Kappa Psi.
Earlier this week, Jackie revealed to friends for the first time the full name of her alleged attacker, a name she had never disclosed to anyone. But after looking into that person’s background, the group that had been among her closest supporters quickly began to raise suspicions about her account. The friends determined that the student that Jackie had named was not a member of Phi Kappa Psi and that other details about his background did not match up with information Jackie had disclosed earlier about her perpetrator. The Post determined that the student Jackie named is not a member of Phi Kappa Psi and had never met her in person.
The Post also says Sabrina Erdely emailed that “she was not immediately available to comment Friday morning.”
As discussed in an earlier piece, some people said those who’d raised questions about the story were conspiracy theorists or “truthers.”
Erdely and Rolling Stone will take huge and deserved credibility hits. Kudos to those initial defenders of the piece who have acknowledged they shouldn’t have called the folks calling for more substantiation “truthers.” Anna Merlan of Jezebel certainly should reflect on her treatment of Richard Bradley and Reason’s Robby Soave and other journalists in her piece “‘Is the UVA Rape Story a Gigantic Hoax?’ Asks Idiot.”
Of course, the worst damage done is to victims who will now face increased scrutiny of their stories — and all the pain such scrutiny entails — because this journalist and her editors ditched professionalism in favor of a story they decided was too good to check.
UPDATE: Anna Merlan of Jezebel apologizes and rightfully so (warning: language):
This is really, really bad. It means, of course, that when I dismissed Richard Bradley and Robby Soave's doubts about the story and called them "idiots" for picking apart Jackie's account, I was dead fucking wrong, and for that I sincerely apologize. It means that my conviction that Sabrina Rubin Erdely had fact-checked her story in ways that were not visible to the public was also wrong. It's bad, bad, bad all around.