When a young woman says she's been raped at college, some people—her peers, administrators, and otherwise-disconnected conservative pundits—will go to great lengths not to believe her for various, usually bad reasons. So it's unfortunate that Rolling Stone's investigation of rape and its aftermath at the University of Virginia asks the reader to simply believe a woman who says she was violently gang raped by seven fraternity brothers at a party in 2012, because some people don't want to do that.
Rolling Stone contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who wrote the blockbuster piece that resulted in UVA fraternities being suspended for the year, didn't interview the men who the piece's central character, Jackie, says gang-raped her on a fall night in September 2012. And now questions from journalists and more disingenuous ex-journalists are piling up about the veracity of Jackie's account and her reliability as an accuser.
Erdely begins the piece with Jackie's horrific account of the night of September 28, 2012, detailing how the UVA freshman was led into a darkened room upstairs during a frat party, pinned down, and raped for three hours as part of a kind of sick fraternity initiation ritual. Erdely then goes on to make the central point of her story—UVA did nothing about Jackie's case when Jackie reported it, and that kind of treatment at the school is sadly, and inexcusably, not an anomaly.
It's come out now, however, that Erdely never successfully contacted the alleged perpetrators of the attack, perhaps in deference to the wishes of Jackie. The Washington Post's Erik Wemple notes Erdely's recent comments about her reporting process on Slate's DoubleX podcast:
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.
Wemple suggests, "Those answers look bad for Rolling Stone," and the "lapse is inexcusable."
Erdely maintains that she found Jackie to be "very credible," and Rolling Stone is sticking by the story. She's confident that "something happened," even if it didn't happen exactly as Jackie says it did. She told Slate, "The degree of her trauma—there's no doubt in my mind that something happened to her that night. What exactly happened, you know, I wasn't in that room. I don't know and I do tell it from her point of view."
That "I don't know" sucks. "I don't know" allows people who are perhaps already inclined not to believe a woman who says she was raped to dismiss the story entirely. The National Review's Jonah Goldberg, who is convinced that rape statistics are overblown, writes in the Los Angeles Times that Jackie's story is unbelievable and the details of it are "convenient." Reason magazine asks, "Is the UVA Rape Story a Gigantic Hoax?" Ex-George magazine editor Richard Bradley compares Erdely's story to the work of fabulist Stephen Glass.
Columbia University journalism professor Helen Benedict tells the New York Times she does not think Erdely made a huge mistake in failing to get rote denials from Jackie's alleged attackers. "If a reporter were doing a story about a university accused of failing to address the mugging or robbery of a student, that reporter would not be expected to interview the alleged mugger or robber," she says. "The piece might have been stronger with more than one source, but exposés of wrongdoing often start with one whistle-blower."
Seeking comment from Jackie's alleged attackers would make the piece stronger, and I wish Erdely didn't sound quite so evasive in her back-and-forth with Slate. As the Times notes, "news organizations, seeking to be fair, usually seek comment from those suspected of criminal conduct." Which would have probably resulted in some sort of perfunctory, boilerplate statement from the mens' lawyers, had they been reached. Still, I'm inclined to believe Jackie when she says she was brutally raped.
Anyway, since the publication of Erdely's piece, local Charlottesville police have launched an investigation in Jackie's case. Surely they'll figure everything out.
[Photo via Google]