Tag Archives: Rolling Stone

The “Jackie” Interview in the UVA Fake Rape

In the suit against Rolling Stone by University of Virginia dean Nicole Eramo over the magazine’s false rape story, the trial rolls along, with the two sides offering a narrow band of arguments: according to Rolling Stone and former reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, our nation’s campuses are teeming with sexual assaults, beset by a “rape culture,” and the UVA administration was indifferent to the student victims in its midst. (Even the Office for Civil Rights has said so, Rolling Stone lawyers have argued.)

It is difficult, therefore, to have sympathy for either party in Eramo’s lawsuit. (Phi Kappa Psi’s lawsuit against Erdely is another matter.) But the Eramo lawsuit has been of extraordinary value in bringing to light the flawed process through which the Rolling Stone article was produced. First came the discovery material, including Erdely’s reporting notes. And now, Charlottesville TV station CBS-19 obtained a 150-minute recording of what seems to have been the first detailed interview between Erdely and accuser “Jackie.”

I posted brief audio excerpts of the choicest elements of that conversation. It occurred in a restaurant; some portions of the audio are of very poor quality.

Erdely comes across as closed-minded, having already decided on her thesis. (Her research notes showed that she began her project by interviewing the anti-due process fanatic Wendy Murphy and the discredited researcher David Lisak.) Jackie, meanwhile, comes across as even more ideologically extreme than Erdely—which is saying something—and not terribly bright. She discusses failing multiple courses during the conversation; how she remained enrolled at UVA is a mystery.

Effects on Lawsuits

The material on this tape would seem to help Rolling Stone in the Eramo lawsuit and badly hurt it in the Phi Kappa Psi lawsuit. Regarding Eramo: One of the dean’s libel claims comes from the article’s claim that she told Jackie that UVA didn’t aggressively report sexual assaults because the publicity would be harmful, since “nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.”

Eramo refused Erdely’s request for an interview. But the tape has Jackie claiming that Eramo gave her that feedback (and another campus activist told Erdely the same thing). Furthermore, the tape has Jackie portraying Eramo as corrupt—after saying she didn’t want to get Eramo “in trouble,” Jackie asserted that the actual number of people who reported being sexually assaulted to Eramo was “much higher” than Eramo has reported to her superiors—thereby suggesting that Eramo had violated federal law. Rolling Stone thus can (and, obviously, will) say that it had a seemingly credible source for Eramo’s “rape school” alleged statement.

At the same time, the tape should provide substantial ammunition for Phi Kappa Psi. Erdely made clear that she sees what happened (or in this case, didn’t happen) to Jackie as a “gang rape initiation ritual,” and therefore wanted the article to identify the fraternity. She added that she “want[ed] to get these guys.” Members of the fraternity, Erdely mused later on, personified the “banality of evil,” in that the non-attacker members of the frat were afraid to ask questions, lest they learn too much. Phi Kappa Psi, Erdely concluded, was a fraternity “that might have a culture of gang rape.”

After these quotes—in her own voice—it’s going to be very hard for Erdely to argue that her article didn’t directly target Phi Kappa Psi.  And since the article’s claims were false, that would seem to be very bad for Rolling Stone.

The Agenda

As Ashe Schow has noted, the tape showed that Erdely harbors a strong bias against fraternities. Both Erdely and Jackie also entertained an imagined view in which—as Jackie put it—“nobody wants to talk about” sexual assault on college campuses. (Of course, there are few issues that get talked about more on contemporary elite campuses.) Erdely, meanwhile, envisioned an elite campus culture in which “social capital is more important than people’s safety,” and therefore students were unwilling to help victims in their midst. Again, this seems to be an almost wholly imagined view.

They’re describing, of course, the same campus whose student leadership and voices of student opinion would remain committed to Jackie’s tale even after it had collapsed.

Jackie

The conversation gave a sense of Jackie’s extremist beliefs, her rather unappealing personality—and if Erdely had been at all open-minded, her penchant for tall tales.

She pressed Erdely not to name Phi Kappa Psi in the article, worried that the fraternity members would “hate” her as a result. But she also argued that leaving the identity of the fraternity a mystery would serve a broader purpose of stimulating a witch hunt atmosphere on campus.

If UVA administrators didn’t know which fraternity was the site of the seemingly horrific attack, Jackie said that she “would hope to see” full-scale investigations of all fraternities. Innocent fraternities, Jackie breezily suggested, should welcome such an inquiry, since, after all, “the ones that have nothing to hide won’t be upset.”

Since most of Jackie’s ideas seem to have emanated from what Erdely terms her “club” of campus activists, it would be interesting to know how many of Jackie’s fellow accusers’ rights activists shared this extraordinary conception of fairness. Jackie also saw an extraordinarily dangerous campus she suggested that one in three UVA female students are sexual assault victims.

In justifying BuzzFeed’s decision not to identify Jackie, Tyler Kingkade bizarrely suggests that she might actually be a victim. He incorrectly asserts that “none of the publicly available court documents . . . use[s] Jackie’s full name.” Kingkade then obtains a quote from the Columbia Journalism School’s Steve Coll, co-author of the autopsy that avoided asking hard questions about why the magazine had so badly failed. “She never solicited Rolling Stone to be written about,” Coll said.

The 150-minute conversation, however, showed a figure eager, even joyous, at advancing her narrative. Jackie actively participated in the interview—she seemed to very, very much enjoy talking about herself and her feelings. She suggested multiple other witnesses. She talked about her myriad activities advancing her agenda on campus. And she told Erdely about her eagerness to create “bad publicity” against UVA.

Jackie also came across as someone with significant mental health issues. (Of course, since we now know she’s a liar, her description of her mental health might also be a lie.) She told Erdely that she’d seen at least four different mental health professionals—when she was 14 (to address her poor relationship with her father), as a senior in high school (parental issues, again), at the urging of her mother after the purported campus assault, and at the urging of a friend after the purported campus assault. The latter ended because the counselor didn’t adopt Jackie’s preferred approach to the session: “Can we talk about what I want to talk about?”

Finally, there were red flags in the interview that a less agenda-driven reporter might have picked up. For instance, Jackie (at considerable length) discussed her mother’s time in college, when she commuted 30 minutes each way as a day student at Brown. But the mother didn’t go to Brown (as Erdely later discovered).

Jackie said that after the alleged assault, she “didn’t get out of bed for weeks.” She later claimed that she left campus two weeks before the end of the semester in her first-year fall term. Yet Erdely never asked how she could have stayed enrolled if she never attended class, and wasn’t even on campus.

She twice informed Erdely that even one of her fellow activists told her “you are insane, you watch too many crime shows.” (Various elements of her story borrowed from Law and Order.)

And in a long discussion about whether the article would name Phi Kappa Psi, Jackie urged anonymity of the frat on grounds that she was scared that fraternity members would learn she had claimed she was raped in their house. Yet at other points in the conversation, she spoke about how lots of people on campus already knew about her story, and Erdely knew that she had spoken about the event at a “victims’ rights” rally.

Erdely, the non-skeptical reporter, did not probe the inconstancies. Indeed, she appears to have believed the inconsistencies made Jackie more credible.

Rolling Stone Goes to Trial

A lawsuit stemming from the most famous of the modern rape hoaxes—the Rolling Stone account of a brutal but fictional attack on “Jackie” at a University of Virginia fraternity—gained ground last week.  A federal judge in Virginia ruled that UVA administrator Nicole Eramo’s lawsuit against Rolling Stone should go to trial.

The lawsuit has been of enormous value in producing documents that exposed both the closed-minded incompetence of Rolling Stone and the poisonous, guilt-presuming campus atmosphere at UVA. However, unlike the lawsuit filed by the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity (reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s chief target), an Eramo victory would send, at best, a mixed message.

Judge Glen Conrad’s ruling allowed Eramo’s suit to proceed on multiple grounds. The dean’s strongest claim involves Rolling Stone’s manipulation of a mundane photo of her, to give her wild, almost devil-like eyes, with her back turned to victims demanding justice. Even the Rolling Stone fact-checker, who independently concluded that the fantasist “Jackie” was telling the truth, worried that the photo was too harsh.

Conrad also greenlighted a count involving Erdely’s claim that Eramo had discouraged Jackie from reporting her non-existent attack because she worried that UVA would develop a reputation as a “rape school.” It seems very unlikely Eramo—who comes across in the depositions as a true believer about a campus rape panic—ever uttered such a remark. But Erdely had two sources suggesting otherwise (Jackie and a fellow campus activist), and UVA refused a request to let Eramo be interviewed. Perhaps that will be enough for Rolling Stone to prevail.

Other aspects of Eramo’s lawsuit, however, are deeply troubling. The UVA Dean gathered support from a variety of campus activists—Emily Renda, Sara Surface, and Alex Pinkleton—with a de facto goal of ensuring that the discrediting of the Rolling Stone article won’t discredit their joint cause of fueling a moral panic about the issue of campus sexual assault.

In depositions for the lawsuit, the activists framed Erdely as an irresponsible journalist (which is not hard to do)—but not because she was a closed-minded ideologue who had reached her conclusions before she did any investigation. Rather, the trio of activists criticized herafter the fact—for focusing on Jackie and Eramo, and not on what they see as the epidemic of victims on campus, and the indifference to them of administrators other than Eramo. So in this view, Eramo is a victim of Rolling Stone, but the magazine’s basic thesis was correct.

One Erdely source, Alex Pinkleton, summarized the view of the activists that people must not let Jackie’s lies get in the way of the preferred narrative. “We need to remember,” said she, “that the majority of survivors who come forward are telling the truth.” How people who did not tell the truth about being sexually assaulted could still be considered “survivors” Pinkleton has never explained.

It would not have been difficult for Rolling Stone to have discredited these activists’ depositions—after all, each of them vouched for the veracity of Jackie’s tale in their interviews with Erdely, and each seemed to be eager for the Jackie story to be told at the time. But Rolling Stone ultimately shied away from portraying these figures as the non-credible witnesses they are. The magazine probably had no choice—because Erdely had relied so heavily on them for her article. Moreover, Conrad’s ruling cited the depositions of these non-credible activists as proof that three individuals “advised Erdely that her portrayal of Eramo was inaccurate.”

Perhaps the oddest section of Conrad’s ruling dealt with Rolling Stone’s December 5, 2014 Editor’s Note, which disavowed the story. Eramo claims that because Rolling Stone only said it no longer believed Jackie, and because the magazine did not remove the allegedly defamatory statements about the dean, the disavowal constituted a republication of the attacks on Eramo. This interpretation is bizarre. Jackie was the story.

The repudiation of her truthfulness repudiated the entire article. I cannot imagine how anyone—except, perhaps, the activists who are now riding to Eramo’s defense—could have interpreted the disavowal as Rolling Stone expressing full confidence in everything else Erdely wrote about UVA.

In her deposition, Erdely expressed regret—not to the fraternity members she falsely accused. (She has never apologized to them.) Rather, she said that she wished that instead of orienting her article around Jackie, she had chosen another accuser (“Stacy”) to serve as the article’s spine. The rest of the article would have remained unchanged—and since Stacy’s story was (it seems) not self-evidently false, Rolling Stone would have needed to make no retraction.

I suspect if Erdely had followed that course, none of the activists currently defending Eramo would be on the UVA dean’s side. Ironically, despite the lawsuit, the opinions of campus sexual assault held by Erdely, Eramo, and the UVA activists seem to be almost identical.

What The Rolling Stone Affidavits Show

University of Virginia dean Nicole Eramo’s lawsuit against Rolling Stone has produced hundreds of pages of documents on how the botched article about University of Virginia came to be published—and how UVA employees handled sexual assault claims.

Rolling Stone Rape Charge
False rape charges

Last week, Rolling Stone filed affidavits and notes from the key people involved in the project. I’ve provided excerpts from the affidavits of reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, editor Sean Woods, and fact-checker Liz Garber-Paul. Robby Soave has an excellent article with five take-aways from the material; Ashe Schow offers commentary. I recommend both pieces. In addition, a few items:

Rolling Stone’s defense is based on two points, which appear in all three affidavits: (1) that everyone at the magazine believed the accuser, “Jackie,” and had reason to do so; and (2) key people involved in sexual assault adjudications at UVA believed Jackie as well.

There’s no doubt that Erdely, Woods, and Garber-Paul believed Jackie. There’s also no doubt that each of them were ideologically inclined to believe Jackie. (Erdely, for instance, opened her “reporting” by speaking with the biased experts Wendy Murphy and David Lisak, and all of her interview subjects appear to have been people who agreed with her on the existence of a campus “culture of rape.”) Rolling Stone’s groupthink meant that every inconsistency in Jackie’s story, or unusual behavior on her part, was explained away as “consistent with other victims of sexual assault.”

And so behavior that might have raised red flags—Jackie claiming that her attacker would retaliate against her if Erdely contacted him (while she didn’t worry about retaliation once the article appeared); Jackie discouraging Erdely from contacting friends who could corroborate her tale; Jackie changing the number of assaulters—was dismissed or excused.

The only problem, of course, is that Jackie was a fabulist. Rolling Stone’s argument that the behavior of an actual victim and the behavior of someone inventing a gang rape are identical should raise significant concerns about the always-believe-accusers mantra.

Second, the Rolling Stone affidavits make clear that campus activists, and every UVA employee dealing with sexual assault matters that Erdely encountered, also believed Jackie. Rolling Stone highlighted the point for legal reasons: if all of the UVA apparatus, including Eramo, believed Jackie, how can Eramo sue Rolling Stone for publishing an article based on Jackie’s fantasies?

From the standpoint of policy, however, this material is chilling: if the UVA sexual assault bureaucracy believed that someone like Jackie was a victim, how could the process of which they’re a part possibly be fair? Ironically, since Rolling Stone, UVA’s policy has only grown more unfair, as the recent FIRE lawsuit indicated.

In this respect, Erdely actually had a great story—how a campus atmosphere of moral panic was exploited by a fabulist. But she was too closed-minded to see it.

Third, it’s striking that even as their case collapsed, those who Jackie had fooled didn’t change their underlying assumptions. Erdely, for instance, stated in her affidavit that he she had any sense that Jackie might be lying, she simply would have used another vignette to prove her campus “rape culture” thesis—without even stopping to wonder whether her initial assumptions, which had led her to trust Jackie, were wrong. Sara Surface, a UVA activist, told Erdely that Jackie was no longer credible—but rationalized, “I think trauma has done something to the details.” A few days later, another UVA activist, Alex Pinkleton, reminded the Washington Post that “the majority of survivors who come forward are telling the truth.” Pinkleton didn’t explain how the minority—who, by her framing, were not telling the truth—could be “survivors.”

And, perhaps, my favorite item from the affidavits: Editor Sean Woods said, “I stand by the statement that we verified the perpetrator’s existence.” If the case goes to trial, perhaps Rolling Stone could summon Jackie’s invented attacker, “Haven Monahan,” as a witness?

‘The Hunting Ground,‘ an Ethically-Challenged Tainted Documentary

On Sunday night, CNN will air The Hunting Ground—a work of activist propaganda disguised as a documentary about sexual assault on American college campuses.

Among its numerous faults, the film blames the campus rape problem on a plague of serial rapists; expert opinion on this matter comes courtesy of psychologist David Lisak, whose misleading interpretation of his flawed research on serial predators is given center stage throughout the film. (ReadReason’s multi-part expose on the research underlying Lisak’s dubious theoryhere, here, and here, and see Linda M. LeFauve’s new article examining Lisak’s misleadingly constructed video interview with a rapist here.)

The Hunting Ground covers two high-profile sexual assault disputes in great detail. It goes to extraordinary lengths to paint the alleged assailants in these cases as perfect examples of Lisak’s model rapist, implying that these men are repeat offenders who plan out their crimes and drug their victims.

But in reality, it’s far from clear that The Hunting Ground’s accused rapists are even actually guilty—let alone serial sociopaths who stalk and incapacitate their victims.

The “Amazing Lie at the Heart of a Movie Claiming to be a Documentary”

Nineteen Harvard University law professors have denounced the film for (among other faults) misrepresenting the case of Harvard law student Brandon Winston, whose life was put on hold after a night of drunken, drug-fueled sexual contact resulted in his expulsion from the university and criminal charges.

“What our student did is not the kind of violent, repeat sexual assault that the movie claims is both the nature of the problem nationwide and that each of the people in the film are an example of that,” said Elizabeth Batholet, one of the Harvard law professors speaking out about The Hunting Ground’s errors, in an interview with Reason. “That’s an amazing lie at the heart of a movie claiming to be a documentary.”

The Hunting GroundThe Hunting Ground

Winston was accused of sexual misconduct by then-student Kamilah Willingham, who gives her one-sided account of the dispute toward the beginning of The Hunting Ground. According to Willingham, she and a female friend had drinks with Winston at her apartment, proceeded to a bar where Winston bought them more drinks, and then all three returned to her apartment in a state of inebriation, where Winston assaulted them while they slept. The clear implication from the film is that Winston is a monster frequently preys on his victims by drugging them and was ultimately able to elude justice because Harvard does not take victims seriously.

“He’s a predator,” Willingham says in the film “He’s dangerous.”

But, as Slate’s Emily Yoffe discovered in her groundbreaking investigation of the dispute earlier this year, the real story was much different. There is no evidence that Winston drugged the women; on the contrary, Willingham and Winston both consumed cocaine that Willingham herself had supplied. Willingham used a bloody condom she discovered in her wastebasket as evidence that her friend had been violently raped, but DNA evidence ruled out the possibility that the condom had been used by Winston (though it did match Willingham).

Nor is it true that Winston escaped wholly unpunished, as The Hunting Ground implies. Harvard initially recommended his expulsion, and repeatedly placed him on academic leave, but reinstated him after determining that insufficient evidence existed to brand the encounter as assault. A grand jury declined to indict him on any charges having to do with Willingham; he was eventually convicted of a misdemeanor charge of nonsexual touching of Willingham’s friend. The film’s only reference to these facts is through some text briefly displayed at the very end.

The accusation put Winston’s future on hold for three years. A young black man with no history of criminal activity had to suspend a promising education at Harvard law school while both university administrators and the court system adjudicated the accusations against him.

“Three good years of his life have gone solely to this,” said Harvard Law Professor Janet Halley, who also rejects The Hunting Ground’s narrative, in an interview with Reason. “It’s not right for the filmmakers to extend it out to yet another trial in the court of public opinion, when the underlying claims have been so conclusively rejected. It’s bad for the overall effort for justice, and it’s bad for this young man.”

 “Major Distortions and Glaring Omissions”

The Hunting Ground’s case against former Florida State University star quarterback Jameis Winston (now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; no relation to Brandon Winston) is similarly plagued by inaccuracies. Accuser Erica Kinsman claimed Winston drugged her at a bar, forced her back to his apartment, and raped her on the bathroom floor.

Kinsman says in the film that she’s “fairly certain” the drink Winston (or one of his friends) gave her was spiked, but two separate toxicology reports established that there were no date-rape drugs in her system on the night of the incident. Indeed, Kinsman has repeatedly changed the details of her story, first saying she passed out after consuming the drink and was unable to recall how she got into a car with Winston, and later saying she was coerced or intimidated into the car (something investigators thought was dubious, given that there were a lot of other people around at the time). The facts undermine the idea that she was preyed on by Winston, who was eventually cleared of sexual assault during a university hearing run by a retired Florida Supreme Court justice. Winston is now suing Kinsman for defamation.

In a statement chiding CNN for deciding to screen The Hunting Ground, FSU President John Thrasher excoriated the film for its “major distortions and glaring omissions.” Its producers have fallen into the same trap as Rolling Stone’s editors did with their discredited story about gang rape at the University of Virginia, wrote Thrasher.

“A Film Project That Is Very Much in the Corner of Advocacy”

The makers of The Hunting Ground, of course, are not interested in anything resembling the truth. Indeed, an email from investigative producer Amy Herdy made public confirmed recently this beyond any doubt. In the email, Herdy told Kinsman’s lawyer that the makers of The Hunting Ground, “do not operate the same way as journalists—this is a film project that is very much in the corner of advocacy for victims, so there would be no insensitive questions or the need to get the perpetrator’s side.” In a separate email, Herdy discusses tactics for “ambushing” Jameis Winston.

While the cases against the two Winstons don’t stand up to scrutiny, The Hunting Ground does manage to identify a single serial predator: an unnamed man whose face is blurred for his interview with the filmmakers. This man confesses that he was incarcerated for sexual assault and hopes that by coming forward, he is educating the public about how to prevent people like him from committing attacks. His monologue is interspersed with separate commentary from Lisak. Here is a transcript of that part of the film:

Man: “I was incarcerated for six and a half years for sexual assault. I know I was at fault. Like I said, the reason I really wanted to do this interview was to help someone else out. Maybe to have them become aware of what they are doing wrong.”

Lisak: “The really practiced sex offenders identify groups of people who are more vulnerable.”

Man: “College is the place where lots of alcohol is consumed and the number of victims is endless.”

Lisak: “These men select victims ahead of time. It could be a bar, it could be a fraternity party where people are drinking.”

Man: “At the parties, like frat parties, I mean people are getting wasted. So it’s not like a lot of the time dependent on who they’re with. Nobody keeps an eye on them.”

Lisak: “The alcohol is essentially a weapon that is used to render somebody extremely vulnerable.”

Man: “Alcohol definitely makes it easier to overpower a victim if they’re inebriated or under the influence. Less struggle for sure.”

Lisak: “Then there is an isolation phase. So if somebody who has deliberately gotten this young woman extremely intoxicated, and at some point he says to her, ‘I’ll walk you back to your room,’ or ‘you can sleep it off if you want, we have a bed upstairs.’ And that’s where the assault occurs.”

The film’s only case of clear-cut predation, then, is supported exclusively by an anonymous interview that provides no checkable details. 

The film also claims eight percent of men in college commit 90 percent of the assaults and that the average number of assaults per rapist is six. The citation, of course, belongs to Lisak’s 2002 study, “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists.” But as Reason confirmed in its previous invesitgations of Lisak’s work—and Lisak himself confirmed—that study wasn’t actually about college students, and didn’t ask participants about crimes committed on campuses.

A Representative Case?

Is The Hunting Ground’s anonymous predator—whose crimes are implied, but not confirmed, to have taken place on a campus—a representative case?

The interview bears a striking similarity to one conducted by Lisak decade ago. Lisak allegedly sat down with a serial rapist who was also fraternity brother and interviewed him about is methods. This conversation was later replicated by an actor and passed off as an anti-rape educational material dubbed an interview with an undetected rapist, and known as “the Frank video.”

But, as a new investigation by Reason contributor Linda LeFauve reveals, the Frank video is a composite of several conversations with rapists—demonstrating that Lisak’s own stereotypical serial predator is a carefully concocted cut-and-paste character.  

The validity of Lisak’s theory was recently called into question by a new paper authored by Kevin Swartout, Mary Koss, Jacquelyn White, Martie Thompson, Antonia Abbey, and Alexandra Bellis. The authors found the serial predator theory to be based on “surprisingly limited” scientific evidence; their own study that most college rapists did not commit rapes across multiple years.

Lisak and his advocates have pushed back against this study, telling The Huffington Post that it contains significant flaws and ought to be retracted.

Nevertheless, Swartout said in an email to Reason that his team stands behind their work.

“We want to move the field forward by engaging in discussion of the issues through the peer review process,” he said.

Co-author Mary Koss told Reason that “no study is above reproach and we were and are open to constructive criticism and the need to make corrections if deemed necessary in the judgment of the editors.”

The science behind the serial predator theory, then, remains decidedly unsettled. But people who tune in to CNN on Sunday night won’t be treated to a nuanced examination of the question. Instead, they will be hit with a work of activist propaganda that wrongfully portrays college campuses as uniquely dangerous environments where women are literally hunted by sociopathic rapists.

“We who have spoken out at Harvard are completely committed to addressing sexual assault,” said Bartholet. “It’s horrible that this film is coming out that is now misrepresenting the nature of the problem and diverting attention away from how we can address it.”

It Could Have Been True, So Why Not Print It?

The long-awaited Columbia Journalism Review report of Rolling sabrina-rubin-erdelyStone’s UVA article, which ostensibly takes the magazine to task for falsely reporting a rape that never happened, sparked a new outcry from both the media and students on America’s college campuses.

They’re horrified that the report could have a chilling effect on students reporting sexual assaults.  No concern over the unnamed rapist, who students at UVA were quick to identify regardless. No concern that a decades-old fraternity was forced to close its doors and is now suing Rolling Stone for defamation. And no concern over accusations that may have ruined a young man’s chances in life, simply because he was “accused” without due process.

The report runs around 12,000 words, but this passage captures its strengths and weaknesses: “The problem of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here. [Reporter Sabrina Rubin] Erdely believed the university was obstructing justice. She felt she had been blocked. Like many other universities, UVA had a flawed record of managing sexual assault cases. Jackie’s experience seemed to confirm this larger pattern. Her story seemed well established on campus, repeated and accepted.”

There was a confirmation bias here, but not the one CJR detected. The “confirmation bias”—one sadly far too common to the mainstream media, and one that CJR appears to share—involves the manner of covering sexual assault on campus. It’s a “scourge,” Geneva Overholser informed CNN’s Reliable Sources. She cited no evidence to sustain the point, and Bureau of Justice Statistics figures show that rape for non-college women is higher than for women who attend college, at comparable age groups.

The CJR quotes the story editor, Sean Woods, continuing to describe Jackie as a “rape victim,” and incredibly fails to press him on how he could render such a description. Rolling Stone editor Will Dana is quoted expressing dismay at how events developed—if the magazine only had realized that Jackie was a fabulist, inventing a tale of gang rape in pursuit of an on-campus relationship or as a crutch to rescue her when her academic standing was threatened. If so, Dana observed, Erdely could have simply summarized Jackie’s (false) tale “in a paragraph deep in the story.” The thesis of the article, however, seemingly would have been the same, according to Dana, since “there were plenty of other stories we could have told in this piece.”

These “stories” all came from Erdely’s reporting, as funneled through Woods’ editing. Why should anyone believe that these “stories” had any more credibility than Jackie’s, given that Rolling Stone appears to employ only true believers on the issue of campus sexual assault? Neither Rolling Stone—which isn’t firing anyone over the affair, and doesn’t seem intent on even making any noticeable editorial changes as a result of the hoax—nor CJR appeared interested in exploring the question. This is the same Rolling Stone, as Richard Bradley has noted, that recently offered a glowing, wholly non-skeptical review to the movie “The Hunting Ground,” which operates from a premise very similar to that which motivated Erdely.

Perhaps the most dispiriting item of the CJR report came in its concluding section, when authors Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, Steve Coll, dean of the school, and Derek Kravitz offered three lessons for journalists from the affair. The third, entitled “holding institutions to account,” is the most off-putting. “Given the difficulties, journalists are rarely in a position to prove guilt or innocence in rape . . . .  [Analyzing how universities handle the accusation] can also make it easier to persuade both victims and perpetrators to talk.” So, having declared that journalists aren’t usually in a position to prove guilt or innocence, CJR did exactly that—there are “victims and perpetrators.” Two sentences later, the report’s authors use the word “accused,” as if “accused” and “perpetrator” are interchangeable.

CJR also recommends that reporters “gain a deep understanding of the tangle of rules and guidelines on campus sexual assault.” I couldn’t agree more. The first step in this would feature a reporter actually describing for readers what the university’s procedures are since many readers doubtless assume, incorrectly, that actual due process exists when schools consider a felony accusation. Yet CJR doesn’t recommend that reporters take this obvious step. Instead, they urge looking at “Title IX, the Clery Act, and the Violence Against Women Act . . .  directives from the Office of Civil Rights and recommendations from the White House.” In other words, all sources that accept as a given that a rape epidemic exists on college campuses. Notably absent from this list—defense attorneys or civil liberties organizations.

The CJR report faithfully exposes the journalistic errors committed by Rolling Stone. But because its authors appear to share the preconceived notions of journalists like Dana, Woods, and Erdely, it seems likely that anyone following the report’s advice would risk the same group think problem that destroyed Rolling Stone.