I’ve taken a couple of days before responding to Columbia Journalism School’s report on the Rolling Stone/Sabrina Rubin Erdely/Jackie fiasco. There’s always pressure to provide near-instantaneous reactions to news events, but the report is long and substantive. I wanted to take some time with it.
At last, I’ve finished the thing —and I have plenty of reactions.
The blog post below is long, probably too long, so forgive me, and if you don’t feel like reading all of it, just skip to the last couple paragraphs.
Anyone reading this blog probably know the gist of the report. (And thank you all for your comments—I’ve really enjoyed reading them.) Here’s the takeaway: Rolling Stone screwed up in every way imaginable, but no one’s going to get fired, the magazine has no plans to change its editorial or fact-checking procedures, and Sabrina Rubin Erdely will again grace the magazine’s pages with her Hemingway-esque prose and ironclad reporting.
This heads-will-not-roll resolution, along with comments from owner and editor-in-chief Jann Wenner that again seemed to put the onus of responsibility on Jackie, doesn’t seem to have quelled the anger over Rolling Stone’s bogus journalism. (Although part of me agrees with Wenner: Jackie is a liar, and we shouldn’t forget that. She does not escape responsibility because, as I heard managing editor Will Dana say on NPR the the other day, she’s “a girl.” She’s a college junior, a young woman, a legal adult, and of an age where, if you called her a girl, many women of her age would take offense. Let’s put it this way: She is old enough to know better, and to suggest otherwise is sexist.)
Anyway. I thought the Columbia report was…pretty good. Its authors clearly put a lot of time and thought into it. Its strength—and, depending on your perspective, its weakness—was the tight focus of its scope. There is a lot that Steve Coll and his colleagues did not get into or did not get into much: whether anyone should be fired, catfishing, the Department of Education’s crusade against the “epidemic” of campus sexual assault.
But in terms of what it did do—investigate the reporting, editing and fact-check processes at Rolling Stone—I thought the report was very solid.
In all immodest candor, I also thought that Columbia dean Steve Coll et al essentially confirmed all the doubts that I raised six months ago.
Again, in the spirt of full disclosure, there is one thing that bugs me about the reference to me in the report, the acknowledgment of my “early if speculative” blog posting calling Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article into question. I’ve encountered this theme—that I was “speculating”—repeatedly since I wrote my blog, and it frustrates me. By framing what I wrote as speculation, a number of mainstream publications, such as the Times and the New Yorker, feel free to ignore my blog when detailing how Erdely’s story was dismantled by press critics.
The supposition that I was “speculating” misses the larger point of what I wrote;the foundation of my argument was not “a hunch,” but basic professionalism. Any decent editor who is honest with him or herself would tell you the same: Even if Jackie’s story turned out to be true, it still shouldn’t have been published as it was reported and written. Will Dana should have sent it back to the editor and writer with a note saying: “You don’t have this story. Go back and do your jobs.” It was not “speculative” to say that the story should not have been published without further reporting; it was Journalism 101, the kind of thing that they teach (I assume) in the first couple weeks at Columbia Journalism School. And I didn’t have to have access to all the fact-checker’s notes and interview transcripts to know that; any reader with some small degree of journalism experience could know that—and, frankly, should have.
My suspicion that Jackie’s story was not true was based on the idea that if it were, Rolling Stone would have shown us the reporting to back it up. Since Rolling Stone did not, one had to conclude that the evidence to support Jackie did not exist.
There. Got that off my chest.
I want to go through a few specific things that I jotted down as I read the CJS report, and then I’d like to conclude with where I think it does fail in one very important way.
1) In Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s public statement, she makes no apology to the fraternity she defamed. I imagine she feared, or was told, that doing so might have legal implications. I doubt that that would be the case; whether that was her intention or not, she obviously harmed the fraternity. There can be no doubt about that. So it is particularly galling that instead of apologizing to people on whom she inflicted tangible harm, she apologizes to ” any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.” What about people whom she falsely accused of rape?
Rubin Erdely owes Phi Psi and its members—probably all fraternity members, frankly—an apology. That she refuses to acknowledge her obligation says something about her character.
It also suggests that, despite everything, she still believes, whether Jackie’s story is true or not—it obviously isn’t—some larger truth about rape culture and the predilections of fraternity members. Seen in this light, her refusal to apologize actually strengthens the fraternity’s lawsuit; it reinforces the idea that Sabrina Rubin Erdely really, really doesn’t like fraternities—and was determined to portray their members as rapists.
2) The Columbia report notes that Rolling Stone refused to waive its attorney client privilege and give Coll access to their lawyers. The tautological reason Rolling Stone gave: That to do so would be waiving attorney-client privilege. (Get it? They wouldn’t waive attorney-client privilege because that would mean waiving attorney-client privilege.)
The magazine’s lack of transparency casts doubt on virtually all of what Rolling Stone has to say in its own defense.
Here’s why: With a story this sensitive, good libel lawyers—and I assume Rolling Stone has very good lawyers—are, or should be, very much in the mix. On sensitive stories, they become something akin to editors with a law degree. You simply could not publish such an accusatory article without having it very heavily lawyered; there is, or ought to be, a lot of discussion between the editor-in-chief and the magazine’s libel lawyer(s). That Rolling Stone won’t disclose their lawyers’ advice suggests that the magazine did not take it, or did the least amount possible to satisfy legal concerns. After all, if the lawyers argued that the magazine had done excellent work and was on safe ground publishing the story, disclosing that information would likely have discouraged any potential lawsuits—like the one Phi Psi is now pursuing against the magazine.
In other words: It’s highly likely that Rolling Stone had a prepublication warning that this story had significant problems—and published the story anyway. Because they knew it was a sexy story, and they were willing to take the risk.
3) Sabrina Rubin Erdely claims that she spoke to Jackie several days after publication and just happened to ask her, “Oh, by the way, what was Drew’s real name? You can tell me now.” [I’m paraphrasing, of course.] And that when Jackie fudged on the spelling of Drew’s last name, Erdeley suddenly got suspicious.
This anecdote is, I suspect, a load of hooey. There were, after all, many, many pre-publication indicators that Jackie was not a reliable source, yet Erdely never got suspicious then. Jackie won’t return calls, she threatens to back out of the story, Jackie’s mother won’t return calls…. Let me tell you something: If you have a source who’s claiming she was gang-raped, and tells you to talk to her mother for corroboration, and the mother won’t return your phone calls—you get nervous fast.
It’s incomprehensible to me that there could be red flags like this and only now, post-publication, when Jackie misspells Drew’s last name, does her spider sense start to tingle. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that the reason Jackie would have claimed she didn’t know the exact spelling of Drew’s last name would be to hide the fact that there was no Drew, and make Drew’s non-existence harder to establish—a fine example of Jackie’s calculated deception to keep her horrible fable from coming apart.)
Erdely claims that she asked Jackie this question at this point because Drew was “at-large” and “dangerous.” That claim does not pass the smell test. For one thing, this would have been the case pre-publication as well as post. For another, in the wake of the 2.7 million readers Erdely’s story attracted, it’s implausible that Drew was sitting back is his frat boy lair planning his next gang rape. This is not Silence of the Lambs we’re talking about.
I think Erdely told this story to try to look like she was being responsible and thorough, even if only after the fact. My bet is that she was probably reacting to something—post-publication phone calls from skeptics? my blog post? the reporting of T. Rees Shapiro or Hanna Rosin?—that rattled her, and she was starting to panic, and trying to confirm what she should have confirmed (or not) before the article was published.
Which is another way of saying that I don’t think Jackie is the only liar in this matter.
4) Sabrina Rubin Erdely is a terrible journalist. This harsh but inescapable truth is born out again and again throughout the Coll report, though its authors are kind enough not to connect the dots. (Not me.) There are many reasons, but the most basic one is that Erdely knew what story she wanted to write before she wrote it—and her faith in her own righteousness blinded her to everything that could have prevented this disaster.
More on the subject of Rubin Erdely’s terrible journalism later.
5) The one true thing about Jackie’s story…is that it disproves Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story. Erdely used Jackie to argue that UVa is indifferent to allegations of sexual assault. But as we know now, the university took Jackie’s story very seriously. Jackie spoke with a dean who subsequently checked up on her multiple times; was offered counseling; was offered the opportunity of pursuing the matter through university channels or through the police; and was recommended to a rape survivor group. Then, she was taken seriously when she claimed that she’d been hit in the head with a bottle, although there was ample reason to suggest that this incident was fabricated. Does this sound like official indifference to you?
Reading between the lines, it’s hard not to to think that the officials at UVa who heard Jackie’s story didn’t believe it—and yet they took it seriously, handled it professionally, and did what they could given that their complainant refused to file a complaint. Yet they are maligned by Erdely as indifferent, uncaring.
So why did Rubin Erdely choose as her avatar of official indifference a woman whose story actually disproved her thesis? Because Jackie’s tale of gang rape was just too sexy not to lead with.
6) Sabrina Rubin Erdely is a terrible journalist, part II.
In the Columbia report, Erdely explains that if she had spoken to the three friends whom Jackie encountered on the night in question—as she should have—and the three friends contradicted Jackie’s story—as, of course, they later would—she would have instantly abandoned Jackie and gone in search of a rape victim free of those “contradictions.”
As the report puts it:
If Erdely had learned Ryan’s account that Jackie had fabricated their conversation, she would have changed course immediately, to research other UVA rape cases free of such contradictions, she said later.
(Note how the word “contradictions” is actually here a euphemism for “lies.”)
Let’s consider that for a moment, because it sounds virtuous, but isn’t. Sabrin Rubin Erdely started with a thesis and went in search of someone—and some place—that fit her thesis. She found Jackie and the University of Virginia. But, she admits, if she had discovered that Jackie was a liar, it wouldn’t have caused her to question her thesis. (To which the only response is, if that doesn’t cause you to question your thesis, what would?) Instead, she’d just go find another person who would better conform to what she already wanted to write.
And if that person proved to be a fraud as well, she’d find another…and another…
I am not a lawyer, so I don’t know if Phi Psi has a strong case against Erdely and Rolling Stone. But if the famed “actual malice” test—you are intending to defame someone—is relevant, it seems to me that Erdely has just given the fraternity some explicit evidence of such malice. Even if her “victim” was a liar, Erdely has no doubt: Frat boys are rapists.
7) There are significant discrepancies between Erdely’s recollection of the editing process and those of her editor, Sean Woods; these are not easily explained by differing interpretations or foggy memories. At least one of these people is lying.
8) As the Columbia report points out, Sabrina Rubin Erdely is a terrible journalist (part III).
Consider her outreach to the fraternity officers; she crafts emails that are deliberately vague and essentially impossible to rebut; they suggest that Erdely did not want Jackie’s story to be disproved.
“I’ve become aware of allegations of gang rape that have been made against the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi,” Erdely wrote. “Can you comment on those allegations?”
That is a deeply and deliberately dishonest way to ask for comment about a specific incident; the recipient of that email couldn’t possibly comment on such a vague question. It makes me think that Erdely wanted to make it look like the fraternity was stonewalling, because that would reinforce her caricature of fraternities as sinister and predatory. And, of course, because she wanted Jackie’s story to be true; she had a lot to gain if it were.
9) Sabrina Rubin Erdely saw what she wanted to see.
All of Jackie’s dissembling—her failure to return phone calls, her evasiveness, her refusal to name names, her threat to pull out of the story—were behaviors that should have set off alarms in any good reporter. Not Erdely. To her, Jackie’s “behavior seemed very consistent with a victim of trauma.” In other words: Every single thing that Jackie did that would, to most reporters, suggest she was an unreliable source, actually confirmed to Erdely that Jackie was a reliable source. In that scenario, there is literally nothing that Jackie could do that would not then be evidence of her credibility. If she swore on a Bible that she was lying, it would only prove how “traumatized” she was.
10) Sabrina Rubin Erdely is not just a horrible reporter, she is a deeply dishonest one. According to the Coll report, two sources in the story publicly claimed that they did not say that Erdely attributes to them.
Allen W. Groves, the University dean of students, and Nicole Eramo, an assistant dean of students, separately wrote to the authors of this report that the story’s account of their actions was inaccurate.
Those claims are detailed in a footnote in the report; they should not be a footnote, because they speak to the credibility of Erdely’s reporting throughout. But they are worth acknowledging here.
Eramo’s letter to Coll is long and worth reading; this, to me, is the most telling section.
….contrary to the quote attributed to me in Rolling Stone, I have never called the University of Virginia “the rape school,” nor have I ever suggested — either professionally or privately — that parents would not “want to send their daughter” to UVA.
Those were enormously damning quotes when they were published, essential to Erdely’s argument, and at the time, they struck me as remarkable. A university employee would say these things? That didn’t feel right. I believe Eramo; at the least, Erdely misquoted her; at the worst, Erdely made up quotes.
Allen Groves wrong a long and detailed letter in which he defends himself against Erdely’s portrayal of him as glib and dismissive about the fact that UVa was being investigated by the Department of Education for Title IX violations. You should read the letter; it’s fascinating. But the most telling part is when he recommends interested parties to watch a video of the meeting that Erdely describes in a way that really does make Groves sound like an ass.
Let me tell you something: When someone who is written about as being dismissive of rape encourages people to watch a video of the incident in question, he’s probably been presented unfairly. I believe Groves.
(And by the way: A fact-checker should have watched that video and pushed back against the way Erdely characterized what Groves said and how he said it. A hundred bucks says that didn’t happen.)
10) Sabrina Rubin Erdely is a terrible journalist (part IV) who puts the blame for her mistakes on other people.
“In retrospect,” she tells Coll about not calling the alleged rapists, “I wish somebody had pushed me harder.”
No. Just…no. You’re accusing people of rape. You don’t need an editor to tell you to get their side of the story. You need a conscience.
11) Managine editor Will Dana’s lack of oversight is hard to explain—and excuse.
He tells Coll that he did not know of the holes in reporting, editing and fact-checking the piece contained when it arrived at his desk. It is incomprehensible to me that a managing editor of a national magazine could be publishing a story of this gravity—containing such horrific allegations—without being deeply involved in it every step of the way. Even if he weren’t: All you had to do is read the damn thing to know that it was ridden with problems.
And again: The lawyers must have pointed out these problems. So I’m again forced to wonder if people are being honest here. Even if Dana didn’t know about the deeply flawed editorial process when the story landed in his in-box—which he should have—he must have known about it at some point.
But, to be fair, the fact that he actually went ahead and published the story suggests that he is telling the truth—that he was completely asleep at the wheel.
12) I have seen a lot of published fretting—not just in Erdely’s statement—about whether this fiasco will discourage victims of rape from going public. This sentiment, which I have seen far more of than I have seen empathy for the people Erdely falsely accused of rape, strikes me as odd. A horrific story of rape, which, following its publication in a national magazine, had an enormous impact, is discovered to be a fraud. And the response is: Well, we should all worry about the potential impact on rape victims’ ability to come forward to speak the truth.
I have a different take: Let’s agree that if you don’t lie and claim that you were gang-raped as part of a fraternity initation ritual, you’ll be treated with respect. And if people treat you disrespectfully based simply on past frauds, then shame on them.
But in the meantime, let’s remember that the only known victims of this story are members of the Phi Psi fraternity, fraternity members in general and the University of Virginia. These individuals and institutions suffered in tangible ways; you might even say that some of the fraternity members were “traumatized.” The argument that the people we should worry about first are rape victims could actually—if I may borrow a phrase from Sabrina Rubin Erdely—re-traumatize them.
13) Rolling Stone should not have taken down Rubin Erdely’s article. Doing so doesn’t feel like an attempt to do the right thing or correct the record; it feels like an attempt to whitewash history. Kind of like when Vogue took its profile of Syria’s absolutely lovely first lady (“A Rose in the Desert“) off its website….
I’m wrapping up here, so thank for your patience, and if you can, bear with me just a little bit longer.
Remember how I said that I thought Columbia made one big, fundamental mistake?
Here it is.
The only part of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article closely examined by Columbia was the lede, which detailed Jackie’s incredible story of gang rape.
Columbia should, in fact, have closely examined the entirety of Erdely’s article.
Because ultimately, this article was not really about Jackie. Take a pencil, lop the Jackie story off the top, and the article could have run pretty much as it was.
The article was about the existence of rape culture and university indifference to said culture.
Jackie’s story was supposed to be proof of that, and Jackie’s story was a lie. But no one at Rolling Stone—not Erdely, not Dana, not Woods, not Wenner—seems to have considered just the possibility that maybe, must maybe, they were wrong about this.
Jackie’s lies do not in and of themselves disprove Rubin Erdely’s rape-culture thesis.
But if you examined the rest of the article with the same critical eye that you examine Jackie’s story, you’ll find that it, too, is deeply deceptive. “A Rape on Campus” is fashioned on selective presentation of material, the use of bogus or discredited statistics, quotes that are either fabricated or taken out of context, unconfirmed allegations, anonymous sources, the deliberate exclusion of evidence contrary to the author’s thesis, and material that is either fabricated or presented in a way that is so profoundly misleading it can only be evidence of incompetence or dishonesty. (The multiple verses of a UVa fight song, for example, that nobody at UVa has actually heard.)
Sabrina Rubin Erdely was not first and foremost trying to obtain justice for Jackie; that was incidental. Her intention was to prove the existence of rape culture and to shame and ostracize those whom she fervently believed participated in it.
When you know how Rubin Erdely went about her work, you are forced to conclude that she failed, that the rest of her story is as unbelievable as Jackie’s story—it’s just concocted in a slicker way. In the ongoing debate about sexual assault on campus, we must remember this.
Blogger’s note: I’ve made some small tweaks and grammatical corrections since my original post.