In November, when Rolling Stone contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely reported the story of “Jackie,” an undergraduate at the University of Virginia who claimed that she had been gang-raped at the school’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, the story was so sensational that it prompted the university to suspend all campus fraternities.
In the coming days, Erdely’s peers examined her story more closely and within weeks concluded that Jackie’s accusations were inconsistent, that Erdely never contacted the fraternity members accused of the rape and that even Jackie’s friends came to doubt her story.
Skepticism of Erdely’s story may have first arisen when Richard Bradley, who as an editor at George magazine edited stories by the notorious fabricator Stephen Glass, warned in his blog Shots in the Dark that the Rolling Stone piece might have been too good to be true:
One must be most critical about stories that play into existing biases. And this story nourishes a lot of them: biases against fraternities, against men, against the South; biases about the naivete of young women, especially Southern women; pre-existing beliefs about the prevalence—indeed, the existence—of rape culture; extant suspicions about the hostility of university bureaucracies to sexual assault complaints that can produce unflattering publicity.
Four days later, Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi published a story about Erdely’s piece, in which he asked her how thoroughly she tried to corroborate Jackie’s account:
Some elements of the story, however, are apparently too delicate for Erdely to talk about now. She won’t say, for example, whether she knows the names of Jackie’s alleged attackers or whether in her reporting she approached “Drew,” the alleged ringleader, for comment.
As The Washington Post continued to dig into Erdely’s story, and Rolling Stone published an apology of sorts for the shoddy reporting, Slate’s Hanna Rosin looked back at a podcast she did with Erdely about the story and found how she chose the University of Virginia incident unsettling:
Erdely said she called several universities but kept hearing typical stories about sexual violence. Then she called some activists and heard this sensational story about Jackie and gang rape. Maybe the lesson there is, if one story sounds so outlandishly different than the dozens of others you’ve heard, you shouldn’t decide to make it the centerpiece of your reporting. You should wonder why.
Meanwhile, The Intercept’s Natasha Vargas-Cooper speculated about why Erdely didn’t contact the fraternity members and ask them for their side of the story:
There is a horrendous, hidden bias in Rolling Stone‘s reporting: the premise that none of these guys would tell the truth if asked. Whether it’s because they are white, or in a frat, or were even possibly directly involved in the act, the notion that the only things these men would say are lies is a stupid and cowardly assumption.
Summing up all the flaws in the Rolling Stone story — and focusing on Erdely’s reporting that one of the alleged rapists was “grooming” Jackie for the gang-rape, The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple concluded:
Under the scenario cited by Erdely, the Phi Kappa Psi members are not just criminal sexual-assault offenders, they’re criminal sexual-assault conspiracists, planners, long-range schemers. If this allegation alone hadn’t triggered an all-out scramble at Rolling Stone for more corroboration, nothing would have. Anyone who touched this story — save newsstand personnel — should lose their job. The “grooming” anecdote indicates not only that Erdely believed whatever diabolical things about these frat guys told to her, she wanted to believe them. And then Rolling Stone published them.
Eventually, Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi went on the “Imus in the Morning” show and struggled to explain how this could have happened:
What I go through normally in the fact-checking process at that magazine has always been, you know, a really difficult, long, thorough, painful process. And that was always one of the things that always attracted to me to working there. Which is I feel safe when I publish things, because I feel like it’s been double-checked, and that was always a good feeling. Clearly, I think, in this particular situation, the controls got broken down somewhere.
Ironically, Erdely attended the University of Pennsylvania with Stephen Glass in the mid-1990s and even worked with him at the student newspaper. After Glass’ lies were exposed, Erdely wrote about her memories of him in The Pennsylvania Gazette, the university’s alumni magazine:
The adorable little weenie I knew from our days at The Daily Pennsylvanian was nothing but a con artist. … These aren’t the actions of a person under strain, as I once tried to convince myself, or of a man-child being suffocated by his overbearing parents. They’re the actions of a sociopathic creep.