Readers are no doubt aware of the details of the gang rape that didn’t take place at a University of Virginia fraternity house in 2012. It was the subject of a shocking account in Rolling Stone that dominated national discussion of the “rape culture” that permeates America’s universities. The UVA president effectively shut down fraternities on her campus; the author of the piece made the rounds of the TV talk shows; and Rolling Stone basked in the approval of its peers.
Until, that is, people began asking the kinds of basic questions that the author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, her editors at Rolling Stone (Sean Woods, Will Dana), and publisher Jann Wenner should have asked in the first place. The story collapsed, as very nearly every element was revealed to be false, unverified and unverifiable, or more likely invented. Even worse, it emerged that little or no effort had been made to confirm the story’s sensational details.
Rolling Stone announced last December that it would “investigate” its discredited story, and asked the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism to review the whole affair. This month, Columbia issued its report, and in response, Rolling Stone officially withdrew the story. With good reason: The Columbia report makes it clear that “A Rape on Campus” violated nearly every tenet of reporting, beginning with uncritical acceptance of its premise and ending with the failure to separate fact from fiction. Every one of its assertions must now be regarded as a lie.
To be sure, Rolling Stone issued a statement of regret, and so did the author. The Scrapbook recognizes that their words were chosen carefully in light of probable lawsuits. But what they did not say is very nearly as significant as what they did say. Erdely seems most concerned that future rape victims may find their credibility challenged; Rolling Stone is retrospectively annoyed that its source—“Jackie,” whose identity remains protected in the media—is (in the words of Wenner) “a really expert fabulist storyteller.”
Undoubtedly so. But the primary fault here lies not with “Jackie” but with Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone. Erdely began with a framework—a frat house gang rape on a campus, preferably Southern—and went shopping for a fable to match her presumption. For its part, Rolling Stone failed to perform due diligence not because “Jackie” was an expert fabulist but because Rolling Stone didn’t want the truth to spoil its story.
In short, the magazine and reporter are not the victims here. The victims are the students unjustly accused, and the University of Virginia, whose president reacted in panic and haste. The credibility of journalism has been injured as well, and the public’s faith in the press—never especially high—has been lowered several notches. Not least since Rolling Stone announced, as well, that everyone involved with this malicious tale will remain on the job.