More Questions about Rolling Stone and UVA

Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Rolling Stone article detailing an alleged brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia has triggered widespread outrage. But it also has prompted varying degrees of skeptical commentary from (most importantly) Richard Bradley, and also Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, Reason’s Robby Soave, and Judith Shulevitz in the New Republic. I don’t intend to repeat the critiques in any of these pieces; I do recommend each of them. Rather, I wanted to raise three additional issues of concern with Rolling Stone’s (and Erdely’s) handling of the case.

In an interview with the New Republic, civil libertarian Wendy Kaminer stated, “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), 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.” That strikes me as a reasonable comment, based on what we now know. But there are many questions about Erdely and Rolling Stone got us to this point.

Troubling Explanations for Not Contacting the Accused Students

In the past few days, Erdely and her editor, Sean Woods, have offered deeply troubling revelations as to why Rolling Stone went to press without presenting the accused students’ version of events.

Here’s the story Erdely told to Paul Farhi of the Washington Post: “[Erdely] 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 [the accuser], who ‘is very fearful of these men, in particular Drew. . . . She now considers herself an empty shell. So when it comes down to identifying them, she has a very hard time with that.’”

This version, to put it mildly, makes no sense. Jackie was so afraid of Drew that she forbade Erdely from contacting him—but wasn’t so afraid of him as to accuse him as a brutal rapist in a national magazine? Indeed, the portrayal comes across as Jackie (and Erdely) afraid that speaking to the accused student might undercut Rolling Stone’s preferred storyline of widespread campus rapes, a storyline that Erdely herself told Farhi she had been pursuing for months.

Perhaps that’s why, in a podcast with with Slate’s Hanna Rosin, Erdely didn’t mention this journalistically troubling agreement. Five times Rosin asked Erdely (in different ways) whether she had contacted the accused students and what their response was. Five times Erdely sidestepped the question—talking about her contacts with UVA administrators, or with the national branch of the fraternity. She simply refused to say why she hadn’t performed elementary due diligence and sought to speak to the student she had portrayed as a monster—even as she conceded to Rosin that lots of people on campus would know the identity of “Drew.”

Then, after Judith Shulevitz was rebuffed in speaking with Erdely (based on the Rosin interview, it’s easy to see why Rolling Stone wouldn’t want her speaking with a neutral interrogator), the magazine offered editor Woods, who told Shulevitz that Erdely didn’t contact the accused students because, as Shulevitz paraphrased, “This was Jackie’s story, he said; it was clearly presented as such.” But the magazine presented Jackie’s recollections as factual, and a casual (or perhaps even not-so-casual) reader would come away from the article believing that the intent was to detail results of a comprehensive investigation by reporter Erdely, not to present an accuser’s story of what happened.

Shulevitz also reports that “Woods also confirmed that Erdely didn’t contact the alleged rapists out of respect for Jackie’s wishes.” This bombshell appeared nowhere in Rolling Stone’s article. Why did the magazine conceal this unusual arrangement from its readers?

Jackie’s Credibility

In her interview with the Post, Erdely reassured readers that she went to great lengths to establish Jackie’s credibility. Farhi reports that “Erdely spent weeks corroborating details of Jackie’s account, including such minutiae as her work as a lifeguard. She concluded: ‘I find her completely credible. It’s impossible to know for certain what happened in that room, because I wasn’t in it. But I certainly believe that she described an experience that was in­cred­ibly traumatic to her.’”

Editor Woods echoed the sentiment, telling the New Republic, “The piece was carefully fact-checked . . . we found Jackie credible.”

It’s good to know that Rolling Stone verified that Jackie could tell the truth about her life story. But the credibility issue in the article is a narrower one: did Jackie tell the truth about being brutally raped? Someone can easily tell the truth about several things and lie (or be mistaken) about another.

To take an obvious example: Erdely’s article doesn’t corroborate that Drew even attended the fraternity party, much less that he committed a brutal gang rape. Jackie appears to be her sole source for the assertion that Drew was at the party (which, I should point out, I have no reason to doubt). In this respect, Erdely’s threshold for believing an accuser appears to be even lower than the (very low) standards of the Durham Police Department in the lacrosse case. At least one of the police investigators in that case, Ben Himan, strongly hesitated moving forward with the (false) indictments until he could establish from a source other than the accuser that the three targeted students had, at the least, attended the spring break party from which the charges sprung. A list of party attendees compiled by one of the captains provided the necessary evidence.

Even if Erdely’s was bound by an unrevealed agreement with Jackie not to contact Drew, why didn’t Rolling Stone contact other party attendees to get a list of those in the building on the night in question?

Erdely’s Credibility

In the end, Rolling Stone’s message is “trust us.” Erdely vouches for Jackie’s credibility, and that’s good enough for the magazine. But that editorial style requires readers to take a hard look at Erdely’s credibility. And in that task, more troubling questions emerge.

In her article, Erdely quotes from eight figures other than Jackie, Jackie’s friends, and UVA administrators: an accuser in a previous case; the mother of an accuser in a previous case; a victims’ rights advocate; another victims’ rights advocate, from an organization called “SurvJustice”; the “founder of the national male sex-assault peer education group One in Four”; the head of the Obama administration’s OCR; the former public policy director of “the advocacy group Clery Center for Security on Campus”; and Wendy Murphy. It appears, therefore, as if Erdely spoke only to people who for personal or ideological reasons were inclined to vouch for Jackie’s credibility.

The first seven people in this list—however one-sided their compilation might be—at least are presented fairly. But then there’s the person Erdely describes “attorney Wendy Murphy, who has filed Title IX complaints and lawsuits against schools including UVA.”

While Erdely elects not to inform her readers, Murphy has a past as a commenter on high-profile campus rape cases. In the lacrosse case, she repeatedly misstated (and on some occasions simply made up) “facts” designed to make the lacrosse players look guilty. To take a few examples, Murphy (on national TV) wildly claimed, “I bet one or more of the players was, you know, molested or something as a child.” She later asserted, “I never, ever met a false rape claim, by the way.” Murphy falsely stated, “All the photographs showing how really fine [lacrosse accuser Crystal Mangum] was when she left scene were doctored, where the date stamp was actually fraudulent.” The attorney falsely told a national TV audience that “all” of the lacrosse players took the Fifth Amendment. (None of them had, and three had voluntarily given statements to police without their attorneys present.) Murphy fantasized about non-existent “broomstick DNA” and the “torn genitalia” of the accuser.

(For citations to these and many other false Murphy statements, see here.)

What does it say about Erdely’s credibility—upon which, in the end, the story relies—that she is willing to uncritically quote from a charlatan like Murphy, all while not informing readers of her source’s grievous misstatements of facts on a previous high-profile allegation of campus sexual assault?

As Richard Bradley pointed out in his critique of Erdely’s work, none of this is to suggest that Jackie isn’t telling the truth. But it is to suggest that Erdely and Rolling Stone had an agenda other than presenting the truth to their readers.

(Image Credit: John Ritter/Rolling Stone.)


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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30 thoughts on “More Questions about Rolling Stone and UVA

  1. Color me very skeptical about the story. I read the RS article, and many things struck me as “not right”. The part of the story where she was (allegedly) pushed onto the glass table and shattered it was the most prominent. If the table was made of tempered glass (most furniture uses tempered glass) it would be hard as hell to shatter – not to mention coming down onto the frame that holds it in place. Real furniture does not come apart as easily as Hollywood prop furniture. An impact hard enough to destroy a piece of furniture would more than likely result in severe injury – there would have been no question about whether or not to go to the Emergency Department. The healed fractures that would result from such an impact (probably rib fractures) would be visible years after the event.

    (Of course, if the glass were NOT tempered glass, then the shards would shred the skin of ALL PARTIES rolling around in it – which would leave scars that would still be visible.)

    Please note that I will not be held responsible for any injuries that you sustain doing a belly flop on a coffee table trying to disprove this fact. However, I do know a few really good trauma surgeons.

    And there is also the issue of keeping the whole thing quiet. If this was, in fact, an established ritual, known by the entire fraternity house, then what are the odds that EVERYONE would keep quiet about it – and that there would be NOT A SINGLE pledge who would come forward and report such barbarity? You might be able to find one or two sociopaths in a frat house BUT NOT EVERYONE.

    I am not necessarily saying that an assault did not occur. But if an assault really did occur, the story has been embellished to the point that (in the absence of physical evidence) it is no longer believable.

  2. All the directions you could take with this story, and you choose to discredit the author and subject. You obviously hate women and are probably a rapist yourself.

    1. Caron – please list “all the directions you could take with this story” that you are talking about – we are smart but cannot read minds – Also please visit Durham in Wonderland and read up on the Duke Lax Hoax – the RS article, the UVA administration’s reponse and the national media’s response to the RS article are all too eerily similar to the Duke lax case.
      We have unfortunately seen false accusations too many times before.

  3. The first thing that jumped out at me in the story is that she was raped on a floor littered with broken glass from the smashed table when she was first tackled. And not just raped, but repeatedly and brutally pounded (her words) for THREE HOURS. She must have sustained multiple cuts to her back and buttocks and legs. Moreover, she would have had many pieces of glass embedded in her skin. I’ve dropped a glass on my kitchen floor by accident and gotten slivers of glass in my foot, even after I’ve swept up. Yet she was forcibly shoved into shards of glass for three hours without incident?

    Did Jackie seek any medical care, even from the campus health services? Are there records? How did she treat the cuts that she must have had on her back? There wasn’t a single piece of glass that got embedded and infected? Anyone see her in the shower with wounds? Or at the pool where she worked? These are just a few obvious questions that any thorough investigator would have asked.

    But then again, this wasn’t an investigative reporter. This was someone with an agenda and she was looking for a sensational story to sell it. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s a conglomeration of various stories told to the reporter. Or maybe Jackie is a total invention. Sadly, there have been reporters in the past who have invented sensational stories to push their agenda.

  4. KC, another fact that has been overlooked is that the UVA fraternities do not even have pledge classes in the Fall. Thus, the description of the alleged gang rape as a pledge ritual is automatically false. This is the only detail about the rape that can actually be confirmed and it is untrue. What does that say about the likelihood of the rest of the story being true?

  5. The RS article indicated that Jackie was repeatedly raped while lying on shards of broken glass for three hours.

    A single photo of her back with numerous scars, no face or hair color would be needed to be seen , would conclusively prove if Jackie was lying.

    My guess we will never see such a there are most likely no scars, and probably no rape either.

  6. “Jackie appears to be her sole source for the assertion that Drew was at the party (which, I should point out, I have no reason to doubt).”

    It is being claimed in comments on other sites that fraternities at UVA are required to report all parties, in advance, to their governing body (IFC). Records are maintained, so it should be possible to determine whether Phi Kappa Psi even held a party that night. If they did not, that might be construed as reason to doubt Jackie’s story.

  7. K.C.

    As usual, an excellent forensic take down of Erdely’s article. The article is so obviously weak it needs to be exposed for what it is…….a gross fabrication.

    I am quite familiar with your work on the Duke lacrosse case. I wonder whether you ever feel that you missed your true calling in life.

    Good luck to you.

  8. Commenters at other sites, who purport to have knowledge of UVa’s Greek event calendar, have said that UVa’s pledge week happens in the Spring, not in the Fall as alleged in the article. Others have said that the fraternity in question had no event scheduled on the alleged date. These assertions could be either refuted or verified with ease.

  9. There are reasons why our legal system has very High Standards when it comes to accepting the truth of a criminal accusation. It’s not just because some “old white men” decided to be mean to people; it’s because false accusations are a very old game, and in something like this it is very easy to get a group emotionally worked up and hence frame an innocent man – has everyone forgotten that this was done over and over to black men back in the bad old days of institutional racism? It’s a powerful way to oppress someone that the system doesn’t like, and always has been. And that’s what the legal requirements of evidence are meant to forestall.

    For an allegation to be actionable, you have to NAME the accused, you have to allow those who are accused a chance to PUBLICLY defend themselves, and you have to have hard physical evidence to CORROBORATE the accusation. (In this case, is there any medical report showing lacerations on her back from the broken glass?)

    If an accuser cannot meet ALL of those standards (and this story doesn’t meet ANY of them) then the working legal assumption is that the story is false. In this case, it screams of being a fabricated and fictionalized account, although in defense of the supposed victim, it may simply be the result of mental illness.

    As far as whether it is right or wrong to doubt an accusation, the standard of our legal system is to ALWAYS doubt an accusation, until it is proven. Or, as Instapundit said, is Atticus Finch now the Bad Guy because he doubted a rape accusation???

    1. This is not yet in court where these standards apply, but even if it were you have probably overstated the law. You can certainly convict someone of rape without physical evidence. If the victim says she was raped by Drew and no one — including Drew — says she was not raped by Drew — that would be proof beyond a reasonable doubt assuming the jury finds the victim credible. That is the state of the “evidence” as it were, to date when only one witness has made a statement. Even if Drew denies it — here there are 6 alleged co-rapists — if one of them comes forward, confesses and implicates their frat brothers then you could certainly have a conviction without physical evidence.

      The lack of physical evidence can raise practical difficulties of proof, but there is nothing in the law that prohibits eyewitness testimony from leading to a conviction.

      1. JDesq….. You are one misguided individual….. That’s for sure….

        Hey…. what does the esq… Stand for? Surely you are not an attorney….

        And if you are, please state your real name so I know never to hire you.

  10. I note that the alleged perpetrators could have by now, or could today, hold a press conference or speak to a reporter. Rolling stone and every other media outlet would be happy to cover it. The people writing these article criticizing the Rolling Stone piece could go to the Uva campus, find out pretty easily who the alleged perpetrators are, and ask for their side of the story. Do you really think they have a side of the story they would have told to Rolling Stone if only they had been tracked down and asked? If so, I have not heard it yet.

    I think Rolling Stone did its job. Now it is time for the police and the courts, as well as UVa, to do theirs.

    1. Actually, no. We have the quaint practice, in this country and except for charges of campus rape, of requiring the accuser to prove the charges. At this point, RS is in serious danger of being found to have libeled those it has implicated.

    2. “The people writing these article criticizing the Rolling Stone piece could go to the Uva campus, find out pretty easily who the alleged perpetrators are, and ask for their side of the story.”

      No – this is ridiculous. Rolling Stone and its writer were responsible for doing this. To print this article without making any attempt to do this was journalistic malpractice, and wouldn’t have passed muster on a high school paper. The frat’s webpage is outdated? Go knock on the door!

    3. You are an idiot. Do me a favor and go to UVA for me to do the checks you suggest. Then we won’t have to pay attention to RS Magazine anymore, right? Also check up on stories written by my hometown newspaper the LA Times while your at it. That will save me a bunch of time as everything in that paper is a lie too. I really appreciate all your help.

    4. And the undergraduate members will be told to not speak to the press by the National office and their local Board of Governors. Nothing good can come of these young men speaking to the press.

      Let’s presume that these men present themselves professionally and with an air of authority in any theoretical interviews. Those who are inclined to believe the Rolling Stone article will say that they have been well coached (which, in fairness could be true) and they are not to be believed. That’s a best case scenario.

      Investigative reporters can trip up the best trained people who speak to reporters for a living if they aren’t extremely careful. these are college kids who do not have any formal media training. Even if they are 100% innocent (and I am not suggesting that is the case – I don’t think anyone has enough information to come to a 100% conclusion), they could easily come off like entitled rich kids, smarmy ‘frat boys’, or worse.

      I would tell them to avoid the press as well, because any additional interaction only gives this fraternity additional exposure on a terrible issue.

    5. “find out pretty easily who the alleged perpetrators are,”

      Get with the program, Dude. It is not possible to find the “alleged perpetrators” because “Jackie”, who apparently does exist, is unwilling to say who they are. How easy would it be to track down the unicorn I claim raided my garden last night, and ask him why he did it?

    6. @JDesq- no, actually, the alleged perpetrators cannot hold a press conference or speak to a reporter or tell their side of the story because “Drew” and his merry gang of rapist frat brothers DO NOT EXIST. Trying to track them down at UVA would be about as fruitful as going on a hunt for Big Foot, Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

    7. I note that you must be a complete fool…. First for having JDesq as your name…. Most libtards I know that post NEVER use a real name…. You are no exception…. And second of all to even suggest that the alleged perpetrators should go on national TV or even print media is complete absurd. The burden of proof is on the accuser and the state, not the accused. The accused does not HAVE to say anything at all to anyone if they so choose. Liar Jackie decided to tell her story to the press, which is her choice. Her story is being picked apart not because she is a woman. It is being picked apart because some of the “facts” she claims are not true and thus she is damaging her own credibility.

      And please tell me…. which un-biased, fact based broadcast news organization would you suggest these individuals speak with???? Come on…. The floor is yours….. Which one is capable of providing un-biased coverage? We are all waiting…. My guess is that you want them to go on MSNBC……

    8. Why don’t we just accuse you! Of what you ask? How dare you… What’s the difference, the courts will sort it out in a couple of years and many many thousands of dollars later….

  11. KC .. very obvious question .. RS and writer claim story was fact-checked.

    Are there audio recordings? Can’t they be ‘masked?’ To establish credibility?

    Like Duke/UNC-Chapel Hill .. UVa is a small community. It can’t be that hard to find someone.

  12. Thank you KC for speaking up for those of us that have insisted from the start that this article did not pass the “smell test”. It smacked of agenda and self promotion period. I don’t have to use the same level of integrity as you so I’ll be blunt. The writer is a crusader.

    Best of luck to you.

    Al Morris
    Charlottesville Virginia

    PS – I did not attend UVA FWIW

  13. At the very least, Erdely needs a better explanation for not speaking to the accused.

    ““I reached out to [the accused] in multiple ways,” Erdely said in the Slate interview. “They were kind of hard to get in touch with because [the fraternity’s] contact page was pretty outdated.”

    I hope that wasn’t the extent of her efforts to get in touch with “Drew”.

  14. KC, One thing that has often struck me about so many of the left wing ‘true believers’ is their ability to know how not to know. I’m afraid anyone (this means you) attempting to pierce the veil of deliberate ignorance is going to be attacked.Good luck

    1. Why is this story left vs. right wing? This was (or was not) a freakin’ gang rape. The “law and order” conservative should be all over this, and be up in arms about bringing these guys to justice, or at least ferreting out the truth. Right?

      (Speaking of true believers and deliberate ignorance: ‘Evolution’.)

      1. Law and order conservatives would like to see crimes investigated and criminals tried in the justice system with their rights protected through due process. It is the best and most efficient way to achieve actual justice.

        It becomes a “left” and “right” debate because, as in the Duke Lax case with the exception of KC Johnson (to his credit) that’s how the sides break down. Those that want to satisfy a political metanarrative vs those who want actual justice.

        I have no idea what your parenthetical means. Are you taking a swipe at the very few creationists out there just to be obnoxious?

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