Yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education summarizes perhaps the main critique of Sarah Erdely’s “don’t-tell-all” article alleging a grotesque gang rape at UVA: the reporter’s decision not to seek contact from any of the people her article had described as gang rapists. That point, too, has now received a vigorous response from Erdely’s defenders. A faux-balanced piece in the New York Times offered various journalism experts excusing or even defending Erdely’s approach; an openly partisan column at Media Matters implied that because other campus rape reporting has been one-sided, Erdely should receive a pass as well.
Rolling Stone has defended Erdely’s decision on grounds that it was part of a deal with the accuser, Jackie: if Rolling Stone tried to contact the accused students, Jackie would no longer talk. In any case, assume that Erdely had functioned as a journalist and not an advocate, had reached out to the people she has portrayed as horrifying criminals, discovered that they actually existed, but then obtained (as might well have occurred) no comment. The piece would have been just as biased—although perhaps that bias would have not been quite so obvious.
The only people who know what happened (if anything did) in the bedroom the night of the party are Jackie and the students she accused. (Erdely herself has stated “I don’t know” when asked what occurred.) And according to the ground rules of the interview with Jackie, Erdely couldn’t contact them. (Leave aside the question of why Rolling Stone apparently wasn’t troubled by its sole source insisting that the reporter not speak to the only people who might be able to challenge her version of events.)
There were two more grievous errors in the Erdely article than not soliciting a comment from her targets. First: nothing in Rolling Stone’s agreement with Jackie precluded Erdely from contacting other people at the party—neutral observers—to try to verify aspects of Jackie’s story. This, in many ways, was Erdely’s greatest journalistic failure, especially since she didn’t have access to a police report or a trial transcript or medical records or any other documentary evidence that might have verified what Jackie told her. Some obvious questions to have presented to these neutral observers: did Drew, the alleged ringleader, attend the party? Did people see Jackie and Drew together at the party? Did people at the party see a bloodied Jackie after the alleged incident? Did they see the alleged attackers after the incident, and if so, were they behaving in any way that might have raised suspicions? Are there any photos of the party, or cell phone videos, or contemporaneous Facebook posts?
Erdely, it seems, wasn’t interested in the answers to any of those questions. Why not? Did she fear that the answers might undercut her source?
Erdely’s biases showed in a second, troubling way. In an interview with the Washington Post, the freelance reporter said that she spent several months searching for a story like Jackie’s. (If, in fact, she accepts the 1-in-4 claim that posits the typical college campus has a higher rate of violent crime than many of the country’s most dangerous neighborhoods, it’s odd indeed that it took Erdely so long to find a story that fit her needs.) Given her general approach to the issue, it’s unsurprising, if disappointing, that Erdely relied solely on fellow “rape culture” advocates in explaining alleged events at UVA.
That said, Erdely’s selection of “experts” from which to quote in her article was noteworthy, in that she appeared to rely on only the most extreme of the “rape culture” advocates. For instance, in recent days, two high-profile figures on this issue—and no friends of campus due process—have given somewhat skeptical remarks about Jackie’s story. Caitlin Flanagan’s biases are undeniable (for instance, she glowingly reviewed William D. Cohan’s attempt to rehabilitate Mike Nifong’s performance in the Duke lacrosse case). But even a Nifong apologist like Flanagan raised some red flags about the UVA case, telling Slate, “In all my time studying fraternity rapes for my own essay, I didn’t come across a single report of anything like this . . . I’m sure it’s happened, but again—as part of a ritualized gang rape . . . Never anything like it.” And Brett Sokolow, who has at best an uneven record on campus sexual assault matters, told the Chronicle that the UVA case was the “most factually egregious allegation I’ve come across in 17 years, and it’s absolutely unrepresentative of what’s typically alleged in campus cases.”
Quoting from Flanagan and Sokolow—despite their general ideological agreement with Erdely’s view of campus life—would have given the Rolling Stone piece a much different flavor. But instead, Erdely went with a much more extreme type of “expert.” The most indefensible choice, as I pointed out previously, was Wendy Murphy, best-known for her pattern of wildly false statements about the lacrosse case. Does Erdely share Murphy’s belief that women never lie about rape? If so, that casts her vouching for Jackie’s credibility in a different light. If not, why did she use Murphy as a neutral, seemingly “objective” source?
Slate spoke to a couple of other people referenced in the Erdely article—who, like Murphy, have extreme views on campus rape. The head of a group called “One in Four” told Slate that his approach to Jackie was as follows: “The first thing as a friend we must say is, ‘I believe you and I am here to listen.” A member of another victims’ rights group, “One Less,” who was quoted by Erdely, added to Slate: “A lot of the reason why we aren’t questioning Jackie urgently about who the names are or anything like that is because our role as advocates and friends is really just to support the survivor.”
Carrying this duo’s arguments to their logical conclusion, they continue to believe that Crystal Mangum was raped in the lacrosse case. Indeed, as long as an accuser says she was raped, even if video evidence shows otherwise, Erdely’s sources would believe the accuser. They’re obviously entitled to their beliefs. But hard questions need to be asked of Erdely as to why she relied on such figures to frame her story—and why she didn’t share their extreme beliefs with Rolling Stone readers.
Erdely, however, is no longer answering questions, hard or otherwise. Instead, Rolling Stone has resorted to issuing press releases—which, as Richard Bradley has astutely noted, no longer defend the accuracy of Erdely’s reporting. Instead, Bradley observed, Rolling Stone is now saying that it was proud to tell Jackie’s story, thus “shifting the discussion away from errors it might have made in its reporting, edition, fact-checking and editorial judgment—away, in other words, from its own responsibility—onto Jackie.”
But one place in which Erdely is still accepted as gospel is the UVA campus. President Teresa Sullivan responded to the article by immediately banning all fraternities for the academic year, and then issued a statement promising to root out the “evil” on campus that the article allegedly exposed. For Erdely, Jackie’s word was good enough. For President Sullivan, it seems, Erdely’s word suffices.