Two key figures in UVa story: Rolling Stone didn't talk to us

It’s too bad too, Hanna Rosin writes, because Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone might still have had a story — if not the one they originally thought. Or better yet, they may have had reason to rethink publication at all had they talked to “Jackie’s” friends, because their recollection of the University of Virginia student’s allegations were a lot different than what Jackie told Erdely. The differences explain why some of Jackie’s friends are now starting to doubt her too.

Rosin focuses on the part of the story where Jackies friends fret over their future invitations to frat parties rather than their bloodied and assaulted friend. Instead of calling the police or taking her to a hospital after a brutal and ritualistic gang rape that took place for hours over broken glass, they worry about her reputation. “She’s gonna be the girl who cried “rape,” and we’ll never be allowed into any frat party again,” one supposedly says, and another wonders, “Is that such a good idea? Her reputation will be shot for the next four years.” Rosin thinks those quotes sound like something from an ABC Afterschool Special, and it turns out that Erdely didn’t bother to check the quotes with the friends at all. And they claim Jackie told a much different story at the time:

Well, apparently she didn’t talk to the friends, or at least one of them, who told theWashington Post last night that the account of what transpired after the alleged rape was not accurate. “Andy” said that he and the other two friends did not find Jackie in a bloody dress with the Phi Psi house looming in the background, as it was told inRolling Stone. Neither, he says, did they debate the “social price” of taking her to the hospital. He said Jackie told him that she had been at a frat party and a group of men forced her to perform oral sex, although she did not specify which frat. He said she did not have any visible injuries but the friends offered to get her help, and then spent the night with her in her dorm room to comfort her at her request. (Update, Dec. 7, 2014: It appears Erdely also did not talk to the friend identified in the Rolling Stone article as “Cindy,” who told the Washington Post a similar story to Drew’s.)

The baffling thing here is, if what Jackie told Andy is true, that would have made an explosive enough story about campus sexual violence. A group of men force a freshman to perform oral sex. She reports it to the university and they don’t investigate. That’s a disturbing story. But if Andy is to be believed, that means Jackie told an exaggerated story to Erdely, and that Erdely was all too happy to create an even more perfect victim, one who was brutally gang raped and then left at the curb by her so called friends, thus further traumatizing her, and leaving her to fend for herself in a culture too backward for progressive thought.

Rosin has some experience with fabulists. She wrote for The New Republic during the Stephen Glass scandal, and recently wrote a fascinating essay about speaking with him during Glass’ attempt to get licensed as an attorney in California. (Former Forbes reporter Adam Penenberg, who exposed Glass, wrote another in January that’s at least as good.) Rosin doesn’t make a living as a debunker, nor does she in this case argue that the entire event was fabricated. That’s not the scope of her focus; she’s targeting the journalistic failures rather than Jackie herself.

However, Rosin makes it clear that the dramatic difference in stories wounds the source’s credibility to the point of uselessness. Most victims may not remember all of the details of their assault, but the escalation in narrative here raises “red flags” for anyone basing a news report solely on her word. Had Erderly simply done due diligence even with Jackie’s friends, she and the editors at Rolling Stone would have had plenty of reason to spike the story. Erdely got the narrative she wanted and never looked back, though, and so did Rolling Stone itself.

And it may not be the first time, either. In the wake of the collapse in Erdely’s story on UVa, Ralph Cipriano at Big Trial suggested that critics take another look at a September 2011 Erdely story in Rolling Stone about a rape cult in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The victim in that case kept changing his story too, only this time people went to prison because of it:

Attention Rolling Stone: if you think the factual discrepancies in Jackie’s story are “deeply unsettling,” wait till you read all the factual discrepancies in Billy’s story, documented for the past two years on this blog. Sadly, the stakes here are a lot higher than in Virginia, where none of the alleged attackers have even been outed. In Philly, three priests and a school teacher wound up going to jail over Billy’s story, which has since unraveled. One of those priests died in prison last month after he spent his last hours handcuffed to a hospital bed while suffering from untreated coronary disease.

This time, though, Erdely may have more of an excuse:

In Erdely’s defense, she, like many other members of the media, made the mistake of relying on an intellectually dishonest grand jury report containing more than 20 factual errors.

Cipriano lays out the discrepancies and changes in “Billy Doe’s” story in great detail. Read through it all, but bear in mind that this differs from the UVa case in one key aspect — the grand jury report. This case went through the criminal justice system, unlike “Jackie’s” allegations, in a manner which should have checked those contradictions out. It’s difficult to fault a reporter for using a grand jury report as a basis for a story. However, Cipriano faults Erdely for not checking out the obvious contradictions and changing stories as part of her research, accusing her of leaping to the easy conclusion:

The details, however, kept changing. In the case of the school teacher, Billy gave three different locations for the alleged rape — in the classroom, in the back seat of the teacher’s car, and in a park. …

In the Erdely article, however, she does not mention any possible credibility issues or contradictions regarding Billy Doe, who’d been arrested six times, including one bust for possession with intent to distribute 56 bags of heroin. At the time, there was a gag order in place, so neither the defendants or their lawyers nor any prosecutors are interviewed in the story. The author, however, quotes a former priest, a former seminarian who got kicked out for disciplinary reasons,  a former monk who treats abuser priests, a victim of sex abuse and a couple of former prosecutors, all of whom took turns teeing off on the church. It’s completely one-sided. …

In short, Billy’s crazy stories defied logic, common sense, all the evidence gathered by the D.A.’s own detectives, and established patterns of abuse as laid out in the secret archive files. They were also riddled with endless contradictions. Yet, since Billy’s story fit a pervasive media stereotype, innocent victims being victimized by predator priests, it was fit to print.

Without a doubt, sexual abuse has been a huge scandal in the Catholic Church here in the US and abroad. That was well known by 2011, though, and the Rolling Stone story was a rather late entry. What made it unique was that it not only alleged a conspiracy of silence in this archdiocese, but also a conspiracy to commit the abuses and share victims. The same story quotes from secret files obtained from the church that details investigations into the priests by the archdiocese, but never mentions any such finding. On the other hand, Erdely in this case did have a grand jury report which apparently accepted the narrative even if it later proved to be erroneous in several aspects.

The failure may not be as egregious in the Billy Doe case, but Rolling Stone should take a second look at that Erdely story while it’s reopening the books.

Correction: In several places, I misspelled Erdely’s name as Ederly. I have fixed them above.