On Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest podcast last month, reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely explained why she had settled on the University of Virginia as the focus for her investigative story on a horrific 2012 gang rape of a freshman named Jackie at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. “First I looked around at a number of different campuses,” said Erdely. “It took me a while to figure out where I wanted to focus on. But when I finally decided on the University of Virginia — one of the compelling reasons that made me focus on the University of Virginia was when I found Jackie. I made contact with a student activist at the school who told me a lot about the culture of the school — that was one of the important things, sort of criteria that I wanted when I was looking for the right school to focus on.”
Rolling Stone thought it had found the “right” campus and the right alleged crime: Following her Nov. 19 story on Jackie’s alleged assault in a dark room at the Phi Kappa Psi house, the university suspended all fraternity activities and a national spotlight fell on the issue of campus rape.
Now it’s all falling apart. Thanks to several days of reporting by the Washington Post’s T. Rees Shapiro, Rolling Stone’s account is not even a semester away from becoming part of journalism classes around the country. Jackie’s friends now doubt her account of the traumatic event, reports Shapiro, and the fraternity insists it never held a “a date function or social event” on the weekend of Sept. 28, 2012, which is the date cited by Jackie in the Rolling Stone story.
Rolling Stone has issued a statement apologizing for the story, which includes this misogynistic, victim-blaming line: “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.” But Jackie was a freshman in college when her episode allegedly took place; the story itself references her misgivings about putting her life into the public realm; she requested that Rolling Stone not contact “Drew,” the ringleader of the alleged assault; the alleged sequence of events — nine college men conspiring to attack a freshman and sexually assaulting her for three hours — should have triggered every skeptical twitch in the Rolling Stone staff. This disaster is the sole property of editors and a reporter.
The story and Erdely’s comments about it, moreover, suggest an effort to produce impact journalism. While media critics on the right and the left cry about media bias in just about every news cycle, the complaints generally amount to nothing but ideological posturing. There are few things like a good media-bias claim to distract from a substantive conversation.
In the case, of Erdely’s piece, however, there’s ample evidence of poisonous biases that landed Rolling Stone in what should be an existential crisis. It starts with this business about choosing just the “right” school for the story. What is that all about? In his first, important piece on this story, the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi described the author’s thought process:
Like Dan Rather’s story of the drunk George Bush shirking duty made such a good story that it must be made to be true by manufacturing evidence, just like it serves a much better purpose to spread the lie that Michael Brown was shot with his hands up, just like it is a better story, ideologically, that the economy is all better thanks to Obama’s wise guiding hand, the media wants to believe this story so badly that they never bother to ask a few simple questions that would determine the accuracy and save the innocent the ruination of their lives.
The media is thoroughly corrupt.