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Rolling Stone Never Gave the Villains of Its Gang Rape Story a Chance to Defend Themselves

Ryan M. Kelly/AP

When scholars of the Historical Jesus try to figure out whether certain stories or sayings reported in the Gospels are authentic—a complicated concept in this context, but never mind—they use a rule they call the “criterion of dissimilarity.” If Jesus is shown saying or doing something likely to have offended the theological sensibilities of the writer or the Church of the time, it stands a better chance of being true. (A similar rule is the “criterion of embarrassment.”) 

Last week, writer Richard Bradley published an essay essentially applying the criteria of dissimilarity and embarrassment to the by-now world-famous Rolling Stone story about a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. Bradley, who as editor of George was duped by serial fabricator Stephen Glass, says the lesson he took away from that experience is that “one must be most critical, in the best sense of that word, about what one is already inclined to believe.” In other words, if a story plays to rather than challenges your biases, you should subject it to tougher scrutiny. It has become a truism that campus rape has reached epidemic levels. The issue is given unflagging attention in the news, by the White House, and even by Congress. Because the story so soundly affirms the prevailing assumptions of our time, writes Bradley, he’s inclined to doubt it.

Should he? This morning Reason's Robby Soave went further, asking whether the entire story is a “gigantic hoax,” like the infamous Duke case. Bradley and Soave home in on some clear deviations from journalistic norms evident in the Rolling Stone article. First, the saga of the extraordinarily violent gang rape, described in excruciating detail in the first ten paragraphs of the piece, relies wholly on the testimony of one woman, identified only as Jackie in the piece. (It is her real first name.) Second, the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, allowed herself to be bound by a vow she made to Jackie not to contact the alleged rapists, especially the pseudonymous Drew, said to have lured her into the room where seven men raped her. Erdely may not even have tried to identify them. According to a Washington Post profile of Erdely published this weekend, “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. She is bound to silence about those details, she said, by an agreement with Jackie, who ‘is very fearful of these men, in particular Drew.’” During an interview on Slate’s DoubleX podcast this weekend, Atlantic staff writer Hanna Rosin tried to press Erdely on whether she knew who the boys were or ever tried to contact them, but Erdely evaded the question. On Monday evening, The Washington Post published a follow-up piece confirming Erdely’s failure even to try to talk to the accused; it observed, "News organizations typically seek comment from those accused of criminal acts or from their attorneys as a matter of fairness and balance, as well as to confirm that the individuals exist."

I wrote and called Erdely, and wrote Erdely’s editor at Rolling Stone, to see what they thought about Bradley’s and Soave’s criticisms. Erdely declined to be interviewed and referred me to the magazine's publicity director, but Sean Woods, her editor, was willing to talk. This was Jackie’s story, he said; it was clearly presented as such. “The piece was carefully fact-checked,” he added. He didn’t talk to Jackie himself but the fact-checker did, and “we found Jackie credible.” He points out that, in the article, Erdely cites other undergraduate women with similar stories; though most of them aren’t named either, “we have text messages from those girls. They didn’t want to come forward but we verified who they were.” Besides, he said, since the article came out, several UVA women have also come forward with their stories of rape. “I hold Sabrina in the highest regard,” said Woods. “She’s an excellent reporter. She’s one of the most diligent upright people. I know she’s gonna dot her I’s and cross her T’s.” Woods also confirmed that Erdely didn’t contact the alleged rapists out of respect for Jackie’s wishes. 

So what are we to think? Based on a preponderance of evidence, it seems likely that sexual assaults are common at the University of Virginia, especially at its hard-drinking fraternity parties, and that the university handles these cases at best ineffectively and at worst insensitively, perhaps because it fears bad publicity and perhaps because campus procedures for handling sexual misconduct are deeply flawed and perhaps for those and other reasons. UVA itself is obviously extremely worried. Last week, President Teresa Sullivan suspended all fraternity and sorority activity till January, and Monday she issued a statement that at the very least did not refute Jackie’s account: “the behavior depicted is not something we will accept as normal, and the actions described by seven men in the story have betrayed us. We have a problem, and we are going to get after it.” (Sullivan goes on to say that the administration intends to investigate the charges and to work to improve policing, reporting procedures, and “bystander training,” and to reduce binge drinking.)

What we don't know is whether every detail of Jackie's story, as told to Rolling Stone, is true; by not contacting the alleged rapists, Erdely opened the article up to questions. And because Jackie never filed charges, either with local police or with the university, the investigation is taking place more than two years after the incident. We can only hope (and I assume) that it will be conducted more rigorously than campus investigations usually are and that UVA has learned a lesson all American schools need to learn, which is that sexual crimes should be treated as crimes, not as violations of campus policy. “If I had to guess what happened at UVA—and at this point, we can only guess (which is why we should not be passing judgment),” Wendy Kaminer, a civil libertarian and feminist who has written extensively on both rape and free speech on campus, emailed me, “I’d guess that the story is neither entirely fabricated nor entirely true, and, in any case, compels a real investigation by investigators with no stake in their findings.”

This article has been updated.