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Rolling Stone's UVA Rape Story Has Problems, But Don't Let Them Obscure the Appalling Truth

AP Photo/The Daily Progress, Ryan M. Kelly

Over the past few days, several publications have reported journalistic lapses in Rolling Stone's blockbuster story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. The reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, never contacted the men that her subject, a student she calls "Jackie," alleges raped her. Erdely also did not acknowledge in the body of the piece that she did not contact them. 

These are serious charges: Journalists are supposed to seek multiple perspectives on the stories they report to try to present the fullest and fairest assessment of events; this is especially true when one source is alleging that a criminal act took place. It’s ironic and telling, though, that Erdely's doubters have blown up their suspicions well beyond the available evidence, calling her story a “hoax” and comparing it to the fabricated pieces published by Stephen Glass in The New Republic and other magazines. It’s a massive leap in logic to move from a reasonable journalistic critique of Erdely’s reporting and disclosure practices to writing, as former George journalist Richard Bradley does in his blog post, “I’m not convinced that this gang rape actually happened.” It is symptomatic of exactly the patterns of incredulity and easy dismissal of rape accusations that keep many assaulted women and men from ever bringing their stories to authorities or to the public. 

Leaving room for commentators to invalidate the rape allegations is part of what’s so bad about the possibility that Erdely was partial in her reporting. Journalistic errors undermine the story of gang rape and institutional lassitude that Erdely set out to tell—a story about a culture of sexual violence and the universities anxious to not make that culture visible from the outside.

The dismantling of Erdely’s story—both by anti-feminist agonistes and by those genuinely dismayed by possible journalistic error—would mean that Jackie’s story of being beaten and raped by seven fraternity brothers will be dismissed, and that the reading public will be permitted to slip back into the comforting conviction that stories like Jackie’s aren’t real, that rapes like that don’t happen, that our system works, and that, of course, bitches lie.

What we will all be allowed to happily forget is that there are plenty of real stories of rape: of violent rape, frat house rape, gang rape, date rape; that most rape accusers do not lie and that in fact it’s quite likely, statistically, that Jackie herself did not lie. But the most serious thing that we’ll be allowed to forget is the very point of Erdely’s story, whatever its strengths or flaws may be determined to be: The system does not work.

Actually, in both the case of the UVA rape and in the case of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri the major takeaway of recent weeks should be that our systems do not work.

I am not just referring here to the criminal justice system, which has never worked well for women or for people of color, who are too often reflexively made the suspects (and villains) in the very crimes they report. Those who have been assaulted or raped should feel that telling their stories will not automatically result in their own character assassination and the exoneration of the more powerful figures they have accused. Our police and our courts consistently fail the people they need to serve—those who have the least power, the least authority, who are structurally disadvantaged by dint of their identities.

But the result of these failures is that victims and those maddened by the flaws in our official justice system have begun to seek workaround alternatives, to turn to auxiliary systems of adjudication—internal university committees, guidance counselors, Title IX, investigative journalists, social media and punditry—for satisfaction. 

The alternatives we have put in place to contain the overflow are not built to do the job of courts, and can result in a domino effect of inefficacy and distortion. Consider that the weaknesses of the criminal system prompted Jackie not to tell her rape story first to police, but rather to friends—many of whom, she claims, blamed her and urged her not to go to authorities—and then to the university’s private system, which she says treated her poorly. It’s not so hard to imagine that by the time she got to Erdely with her story, she might reasonably have been fearful of retaliation. It was Jackie’s discomfort with identifying her victims, and her fear of the consequences, Erdely told The Washington Post, that led her to tread too delicately in her investigations. 

Of course, big stories and criminal disputes have long been hashed out in the press before, or in addition to, being considered by the legal system. Investigative journalism is important precisely because it can often tell stories that courts and criminal justice systems can’t or won’t fully address. But when the press becomes one of the only organs by which we evaluate the veracity of criminal allegations, and when the journalism itself gets distorted by accumulated distrust of both official and substitute systems of justice, there is a big problem.  

Every single word of Erdely’s story, and of Jackie’s story, may still be true. In fact, the University of Virginia’s willingness—upon press exposure—to temporarily shut down their fraternities suggests that they don’t seem to think that this story rings false, which speaks damningly to the likelihood that this horrific event occurred in some form, and that even if it did not, others like it occur regularly, at UVA and on other college campuses.

Erdely, in her role as journalist, should have done things differently, should have tried to speak with the figures accused or made explicitly clear that she had not spoken to them. Those handling cases in which more official systems have broken down do everyone, including themselves, a terrible disservice in not behaving with obsessive care. 

But do not forget, as we go about what is sure to be the unpleasant business of turning our suspicions on Erdely—and in turn, on Jackie—that the swift shift of focus is central to what’s so jacked about systemic inequalities (and our impulse to pretend they don’t exist) to begin with.  

Turning away allows us to take the onus off not just alleged rapists and universities that offer them cover, but off the broken civic and criminal structures that serve different kinds of Americans different scales of opportunity and justice. Increasingly, I think that those structures will never be made better as long as we continue to comfortably cast our eyes in other directions.