Rather than answer questions about its UVA rape story, Rolling Stone has begun issuing a blanket statement from its PR person. (I think it was first published by Erik Wemple in this excellent Washington Post column, “Rolling Stone Whiffs on Reported Rape.”)
The Rolling Stone statement is this:
The story we published was one woman’s account of a sexual assault at a UVA fraternity in October 2012* – and the subsequent ordeal she experienced at the hands of University administrators in her attempts to work her way through the trauma of that evening. The indifference with which her complaint was met was, we discovered, sadly consistent with the experience of many other UVA women who have tried to report such assaults. 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.
(Rolling Stone happened to get the date wrong in this version, which I guess wasn’t fact-checked. The alleged rape happened in September 2012, not October.)
This is a crucial statement in what it says—and what it does not say.
It does not say, “We stand by our story 100 percent.” It does not say, “Jackie’s story is true.”
It says, “We found Jackie to be entirely credible and courageous, and we are proud to have given her disturbing story the attention it deserves.”
This is sleight of hand. Rolling Stone is shifting the discussion away from errors it might have made in its reporting, edition, fact-checking and editorial judgment—away, in other words, from its own responsibility—onto Jackie.
This is “her” story. It is “one woman’s account”a characterization which absolves the magazine for its failure to corroborate that account. Rolling Stone found her to be “entirely credible”—a word which is subtly different than, say, “truthful.”
In other words: This is all on Jackie. Not us, for failing to corroborate her story.
But I think the language that Rolling Stone uses, which must have been very carefully chosen and lawyered, is significant. Jackie’s alleged gang rape is not a “tragic event” or a “horrific crime.” It is a “disturbing story.”
And because it is a disturbing story, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s true or not—it deserves attention.
That, anyway, is the implication.
But there’s also a tautology here. Rolling Stone cites the “subsequent ordeal she experienced at the hands of University administrators in her attempts to work her way through the trauma of the evening.”
Note that Rolling Stone does not say “the trauma of the gang rape,” but “the trauma of the evening”—as if it’s really not so sure anymore what happened that night, and so uses less specific language. “Work her way through”—what exactly does that mean? It sounds like a throwaway phrase; I guarantee you it is not.
So here’s a question: If Rolling Stone, after all the effort—a reporter, editors, fact-checkers, lawyers—it put into publishing this story, can not confirm its veracity, is it so surprising that the University of Virginia also seems to have had problems?
Maybe there are reasons for that other than ineptitude, hostility, sexism or a cover-your-ass mentality on the part of U.Va. administrators.
Here is the problem that Rolling Stone has: The magazine clearly has lost confidence that it knows what happened that night—despite the fact that it published a chillingly specific account of a gang rape. And it can not re-report the story now. What’s done is done.
Also, it wants to put the onus of responsibility on Jackie, without looking like it is discrediting her. The magazine is carefully distancing itself from its primary source, but doing so in a way that it hopes no one will notice.
Nor will Rolling Stone simply admit that it screwed up.
And so it is using carefully crafted language to frame Jackie’s story as significant whether it’s true or not; the really important thing is how the University responded to it.
Which is a morally reprehensible argument.
I’ve gotta tell you—I hate this. It’s so unfortunate, so messy, and there’s no reason for it. You could have written this article in a less sensational, more responsible way simply by sticking to things that you could confirm.
I have sympathy for Jackie, whose life must be hellish right now. (Unless she made the whole thing up, but—to use a phrase for which I’ve been criticized a lot recently—that doesn’t feel right to me.)
Mostly, I feel deep disappointment in Rolling Stone. They dodged responsibility with Stephen Glass, and they’re doing the exact same thing now. They can not admit that they erred, and so they are hiding behind a PR person. Where, for example, is the editor of Rolling Stone, who bears the ultimate responsibility for publishing this piece before it was ready to be published?
And, oh, by the way, here’s a fun fact: When I was a college senior, I won Rolling Stone’s College Journalism Award—I don’t think it exists anymore—for an article I wrote about AIDS, and actually later wrote an investigative piece for the magazine. They fact-checked the hell out of it. But that was a long time ago.