Rolling Stone's Rape Debacle

Rolling Stone has done a terrible disservice to every rape victim—now or in the future.

Maybe some of the New Republic staffers who resigned in a huff over its transformation by owner Chris Hughes won’t be out of work for long now that Rolling Stone is furiously backpedaling on its bogus account about sexual assaults by fraternities at the University of Virginia. That story, entitled “A Rape on Campus,” mostly chronicles one UVA student named Jackie’s quest for justice after being allegedly gang raped by seven men at a UVA fraternity in the fall of 2012. The story, which was published amid a growing conversation about sexual assault at American universities, set off a firestorm of protests on UVA campus and elsewhere and led the school’s administration to suspend all greek life for the remainder of the year.

Increasingly, however, it seems doubtful that the freelance journalist who wrote the story, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, followed even basic journalistic ethics such as trying to contact any of Jackie’s alleged attackers. Rolling Stone’s editors may soon be looking for new posts. The brouhaha fits into a pattern of media stories that presume guilt before innocence in the quest for a sensational and politically correct story. The liberal organization ThinkProgress, for example, poured scorn on news outlets that were skeptical of the essay, arguing that they grossly underestimated the “it’s been two weeks since Rolling Stone published an investigation into the University of Virginia administration’s failure to adequately respond to allegations of a gang rape at a frat house, and the backlash to the story is intensifying. Much of that criticism is stemming from doubts that college men are capable of carrying out a premeditated assault on that scale — an assumption that ignores the ugly truth about the nature of these crimes. Outlets ranging from the New Republic to Slate to Fox News have suggested the Rolling Stone reporter failed to do her due diligence because she presented Jackie’s story as fact, and didn’t let the accused men tell their side of the story.”

Well, yes. Who looks absurd now? Those outlets that tried to hunt down the truth? Or ThinkProgress for remaining intransigently committed to ideologically comforting assumptions?

Initially, both Erdely and Rolling Stone stood by the piece, but Erderly in particular was coy and ambiguous about her specific methods. As scrutiny over the story intensified, both Erderly and Rolling Stone said they maintained absolute confidence in Jackie’s credibility, with Rolling Stone saying in a statement released on Thursday that, “Through our extensive reporting and fact—checking, we found Jackie to be entirely credible and courageous and we are proud to have given her disturbing story the attention it deserves.”

A few hours ago, however, it relented as scrutiny over Jackie’s account has increased. In a statement released on Friday afternoon, Rolling Stone said: “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.” The statement goes on to explain that “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.”

The final paragraph strikes a similar note, stating: “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.” There are a couple of things worth noting. First and most importantly, although there are clear discrepancies in the exact account published in Rolling Stone, it is by no means clear that Jackie was never raped.

The Washington Post has been interviewing Jackie and many of her friends and other UVA students in recent days, and it reports that Jackie’s friends “believe something traumatic happened to her, but they also 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.” None of this out of the ordinary for eyewitness testimony in general, much less rape and trauma victims.