Rolling Stone’s woes over Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s report of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia got worse last night, as scrutiny into the collapsing narrative broadened. ABC News has now gotten its journalistic feet on the ground and convinced the three anonymized friends of “Jackie” to come forward on the record. The Washington Post’s T. Rees Shapiro had already contacted them and reported that they utterly rejected Rolling Stone’s account (provided by Jackie without any attempt at corroboration) that they had discouraged their friend from reporting the assault when she informed them of it. They now tell ABC that the characterization of Jackie’s behavior after the incident is also false:
The three friends spoke to ABC News this afternoon at the U.Va. campus in Charlottesville, for the first time revealing their identities in relation to this story. In the wake of the report, U.Va. has announced dramatic new measures to keep students safe and suspended most fraternity and sorority events until the start of the next semester. Local police and an independent counsel named by the Virginia attorney general are also conducting investigations.
Since the story was first released, the friends said they have been able to find key inaccuracies in the story.
“I didn’t know any Greek letters outside of what I’d learned in physics class,” Ryan said.
The article describes Jackie sinking into depression after the alleged rape, and holing up in her dorm room. Not so, say her friends, who told ABC News she seemed fine after the alleged assault.
That’s a rather key point. One of the defenses of Erdely’s story was that Jackie may have gotten some of the details mixed up over the last two years, but that something happened to her on that night in September 2012, because she began acting so significantly different afterward. That may contradict what they told Shapiro earlier in the week:
Rachel Soltis, who lived with Jackie during their freshman year, said that her suite mate appeared depressed and stopped going to classes. Andy, Cindy and Randall [the trio’s pseudonyms] all said that Jackie’s behavior clearly changed that semester.
“Clearly changed” doesn’t necessarily mean “depression,” however. Shapiro’s excellent report doesn’t specify any further than that what “changed” meant, and the fact that they’re coming forward under their real names (one of whom only under a first name) suggests that their story to ABC News is a more substantive explanation of their observations. That knocks out another strut under Rolling Stone’s credibility, especially because it makes it even more clear why Jackie didn’t want Erdely talking with the only three contemporaneous witnesses to the events of that night.
Even before this new testimony, Washington Post media critic marveled at the “full demise” of Erdely’s narrative activism, especially after more evidence of fabulism on Jackie’s part emerged Wednesday:
They said the name she provided as that of her date did not match anyone at the university, and U-Va. officials confirmed to The Post that no one by that name has attended the school.
Also, photographs that were texted to one of the friends showing her date that night were actually pictures depicting one of Jackie’s high school classmates in Northern Virginia. That man, now a junior at a university in another state, confirmed that the photographs were of him and said he barely knew Jackie and hasn’t been to Charlottesville for at least six years. …
They also said Jackie’s description of what happened to her that night differs from what she told Rolling Stone. In addition, information Jackie gave the three friends about one of her attackers, called “Drew” in the magazine’s article, differ significantly from details she later told The Post, Rolling Stone and friends from sexual assault awareness groups on campus. The three said Jackie did not specifically identify a fraternity that night.
Wemple wonders why the editors at Rolling Stone didn’t bother to do even a minimal check on the central witnesses, rather than just talk to peripheral characters:
“Dozens” of Jackie’s friends,Rolling Stone told this blog, had spoken with Erdely for the story — some off the record, some on the record.
“Dozens,” of course, means 24-plus.
As a second heavily reported story by Washington Post’s local staff has revealed, however, Erdely’s reportorial sweep didn’t net three rather critical friends. “Randall,” “Cindy” and “Andy” were identified in the Rolling Stone piece as three eager helpers who came to Jackie’s aid on the night of Sept. 28, 2012, when she allegedly experienced a traumatic situation. The three told The Post that the story reported by Rolling Stone doesn’t match what Jackie told them that night.*
And perhaps most critically, the latest revelation from The Post casts either account into doubt, as the man that Jackie cited as her date that night appears not to have been a student at the University of Virginia.
It all raises a mind-boggling possibility: that Erdely made an exhaustive effort to interview peripheral sources, leaving no time for the central ones. The Erik Wemple Blog has asked Rolling Stone for an inventory of the friends interviewed by Erdely, as well as other information about the reporting. That’s an extravagant request — but presumably Rolling Stone is already compiling such a file, if it’s serious about figuring out how it produced the shoddiest piece of journalism in recent memory. We haven’t heard back from the magazine.
Wemple probably shouldn’t hold his breath for that response. Speaking of fabulism, though, it turns out that Erdely herself got sanctioned for just that offense while reporting at the University of Pennsylvania. And guess who lowered the boom?
Sabrina Rubin, who says she and the rest of the editorial board “adored” him, puts it another way: “There are reporters who get ahead because they’re great schmoozers, and I think Steve was definitely one of them.” When he became the paper’s executive editor, the editorial board hailed him as a “man of principle,” and in her Philadelphiamagazine piece, Rubin describes how Glass threw a righteous fit when she and a colleague concocted a funny and obviously made-up travel story for 34th Street — going so far as to call an emergency session of the DP’s Alumni Association board to apprise them of the transgression.
Mollie Hemingway took a look at another story from Erdely, “Main Line Madam,” which has significant holes in it. I spoke with Ralph Cipriano earlier this week about another Erdely piece for Rolling Stone, in which Erdely used an arguably flawed grand-jury report to exploit for another narrative. Cipriano details the story for Newsweek, and also notes a glaring conflict of interest that Rolling Stone never disclosed, emphasis mine:
Rolling Stone can run a correction. But what do you do about sending four men to jail for a sexual crime spree that may have only taken place in the imagination of a junkie criminal scheming to get out of jail? That’s the problem we have here in Philadelphia.
Erdely’s Billy Doe story was published under the headline, “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex-Crime Files.”
It may not have been Erdely’s fault that the grand jury report was subsequently found by this reporter to be intellectually dishonest and contain more than 20 factual errors. But Erdely did write a one-sided story that Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, ripped at the time as yellow journalism for “the factual errors, the stereotypes, the grand omissions and the melodramatic language.”
Erdely had an undisclosed conflict of interest as the wife of an assistant district attorney, Peter Erdely, in the Philadelphia D.A.’s office. She only interviewed people who ripped the church, such as a couple of former prosecutors, two critical former priests, a sex abuse victim and a former seminarian kicked out for disciplinary reasons.
But Billy Doe had an arrest record; six busts as an adult for theft and drugs, including one bust with intent to distribute 56 bags of heroin. He’d been in and out of 23 different drug rehabs. And every time he told his story the details kept changing.
That’s a huge, glaring conflict of interest. Erdely never mentioned that her husband worked in the office that prosecuted the priests and relied on Billy Doe to do so.
The national media scrutiny is only getting worse. Rolling Stone needs to do a New Republic-style investigation into Erdely’s reporting before all of its competitors do that work for them.