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Only two weeks have passed since Rolling Stone published an incendiary column detailing a brutal gang-rape at the UVA Phi Psi house, along with the University of Virginia’s incompetence in its wake. The column sparked protests at the university and across the country. It also led to the suspension of all UVA fraternities, and an investigation is ongoing.
As the story continues to gain an ever-increasing amount of press coverage, several major media outlets have admitted their skepticism regarding the reporting and factual evidence surrounding the Rolling Stone feature. The New York Times and Washington Post have both publicly questioned its credibility, and a columnist from the Los Angeles Times has gone so far as saying he does not believe the incident ever happened. The reporter who wrote the story for Rolling Stone, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, is at the heart of the criticism.
The Washington Post’s argument centers on the lack of effort put into locating and interviewing the fraternity brothers accused by Jackie, the alleged victim.
From The Washington Post:
* Erdely didn’t talk to the alleged perpetrators of the attack, as The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi has reported.
When asked repeatedly on that Slate podcast whether she’d interviewed the accused, Erdely sounded evasive. Here’s a rough transcript of the back-and-forth:
Slate DoubleX Podcast: Did they respond about this, did they deny it? What was their response to the allegations?
Erdely: There was never a need for a response until I stepped in apparently because it wasn’t until I started asking questions that the university put them under some kind of investigation or so they said. It was unclear to me whether there was actually an investigation. The university said that they were under investigation but when I spoke to the Phi Psi chapter and also to the Phi Psi national representative, both of them said that they were not aware of any kind of university investigation….
Slate: But did the boys say anything to you? The thing about it is that everybody in the story seems to know who they are…
Erdely: There’s no doubt that — people seem to know who these people are….I would speculate that life inside a frat house is a probably, you know, you have this kind of communal life where everybody is sort of sharing information…People are living lives closely with one another and it seems impossible to imagine that people didn’t know about this.
Slate: Did they try to contact you? Did you try and call them. Was there any communication between you and them?
Erdely: Yeah, I reached out to them in multiple ways. They were kind of hard to get in touch with because their contact page was pretty outdated, but I wound up speaking…with their local president who sent me an email and then I talked with their national guy who’s kind of like their national crisis manager –
Slate: But not the actual boys –
Erdely: They were both helpful in their own way, I guess. All they really said was, they both claim to have been really shocked by the allegations when they were told by the university. And they both said that this is a really tragic thing and if only we had more information we could look into it and that’s the end of that.
Those answers look bad for Rolling Stone. Perhaps Erdely didn’t understand what she was being asked — that is, whether she spoke with the actual alleged perpetrators themselves. She answers only the much different question of whether she spoke to fraternity management, a much less central matter.
This lapse is inexcusable. Even if the accused aren’t named in the story, Erdely herself acknowledges that “people seem to know who these people are.” If they were being cited in the story for mere drunkenness, boorish frat-boy behavior or similar collegiate misdemeanors, then there’d be no harm in failing to secure their input. The charge in this piece, however, is gang rape, and so requires every possible step to reach out and interview them, including e-mails, phone calls, certified letters, FedEx letters, UPS letters and, if all of that fails, a knock on the door. No effort short of all that qualifies as journalism.
The New York Times also states that the reporter’s inability or unwillingness to contact those accused raises red flags, while others say their skepticism is fueled by the column’s “apocryphal tropes.”
From The New York Times:
In an interview Tuesday, Ms. Erdely said that she stood by her reporting.
“I am convinced that it could not have been done any other way, or any better,” she said. “I am also not interested in diverting the conversation away from the point of the piece itself.” The real scandal, she said, is that the university administration did not pursue the accusations further.
Still, some journalists have raised questions about the story. Richard Bradley, who as an editor at George magazine was duped by the former New Republic writer and fabulist Stephen Glass, said in an essay that he had since learned to be skeptical of articles that confirm existing public narratives. “This story contains a lot of apocryphal tropes,” he wrote.
Los Angeles Times columnist Jonah Goldberg openly states that he does not believe the Rolling Stone column.
From The Los Angeles Times:
But when I say the story is incredible, I mean that in the literal, largely abandoned sense of the word. It is not credible — I don’t believe it.
Goldberg believes the facts reported do not match the common sense version of what may have occurred that night:
Much of what is alleged (though Erdely never uses the word “alleged”) isn’t suitable for a family paper. Some of the rest is unpersuasive. The pitch-black darkness doesn’t prevent Jackie from counting the pledges or from recognizing an attacker. The nicknames she hears — “Armpit” and “Blanket” — sound bizarre, even by fraternity standards.
At 3 a.m. Jackie leaves the still-raging party, “her face beaten, dress spattered with blood,” without anyone seeing her. Distraught, she calls three friends, Andy, Randall and Cindy (not their real names) for help. They arrive in “minutes.” One of the male friends says they have to take her to the hospital. Cindy replies, “Is that such a good idea?” adding, “Her reputation will be shot for the next four years.”
Erdely expounds: “Andy seconded the opinion, adding that since he and Randall both planned to rush fraternities, they ought to think this through. The three friends launched into a heated discussion about the social price of reporting Jackie’s rape.”
Really? If that’s true — and we don’t know that Erdely talked to anyone but Jackie about that conversation — these are among the worst friends imaginable. And what a convenient conversation for an expose of rape culture.
Goldberg wraps up his opinion piece by calling out the media’s “uncritical” reporting of the case, and he compares it to the reporting that followed the Duke lacrosse accusations:
The same goes for much of the media, which have yet to independently corroborate the story, loading it instead with context about the “rape epidemic” and evidence supporting the questionable statistic that 1 in 5 college women are sexually assaulted. Then again, the media also uncritically reported Tawana Brawley’s stories and those of the accusers of the Duke lacrosse team — until the rest of the media started doing their jobs.
The increased media scrutiny is sure to only add more fire to an already volatile case..