Campus After-Effects of the Rolling Stone Travesty

The collapse of Sabrina Rudin Erdley’s “don’t-tell-all” UVA gang rape story was quick. The Washington Post did what Erdely and Rolling Stone had refused to do—some actual reporting—and exposed massive holes in the accuser’s story. (Some examples: though the Rolling Stone article portrayed the alleged assault as some kind of fraternity initiation, no member of the fraternity fit Erdely’s description of the attack ringleader, Drew, a fellow lifeguard of Jackie. Indeed, there’s no evidence that a fraternity party even took place on the night of the alleged incident.) Both the accuser, “Jackie,” and Erdely herself have ceased doing interviews on the tale.

Erdely easily could have discovered at least some of her source’s problems that the Post uncovered. For instance, nothing in Rolling Stone’s agreement with Jackie not to contact the only other people possibly with first-hand knowledge about the alleged rape precluded Erdely from contacting other people at the alleged party to determine if Drew attended, if he attended with Jackie, and if Jackie were seen after the alleged incident. If Erdely had done that basic reporting, Jackie’s story might never have seen the light of day. But Erdely was committed by her own admission to finding a story that would confirm her preconceptions about a campus violent crime wave against women.

“We need to remember that the majority of survivors who come forward are telling the truth.”

Whatever happened to Jackie that night—real or imagined—made VA fraternities victims of this story. According to the ground rules of the interview with Jackie, Erdely couldn’t contact the men Jackie named as rapists. But she was free to talk to others at the fraternity and anyone else on campus.  (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.)

That’s what The Post did when it contacted Phi Kappa Psi’s lawyer and learned that the fraternity never hosted a party on the night in question and that Drew, the alleged rapist, claims he never met Jackie let alone invited her out on a date.

Backing the Wrong Horse

The rise and fall of the Rolling Stone article should—but almost certainly will not—focus intense attention on UVA president Teresa Sullivan. Trusting no more than Erdely’s word, Sullivan made a significant policy decision: she suspended not merely the fraternity in question, but all fraternities at UVA. She also expressed support for allowing campus police to enter fraternities (and, it seems, only fraternities) without probable cause.

Sullivan’s actions came not from well-reasoned consideration, but from a rushed acceptance of a flawed story. If Rolling Stone’s target had been a group on the other side of the campus race/class/gender divide, would Sullivan have acted as she did, accompanied by a ringing proclamation to drive out the “evil” that lurks on campus?

The Post article also buried an item of extraordinary significance on the university front. It turns out that Erdely discovered Jackie and her story not from an “activist” group or from the reporter’s own research—but from a University of Virginia employee.

“Even if the men win, their names likely will come up in such a story, and some people will believe the allegations more than the vindication.”

Earlier this year, UVA hired Emily Renda as a “sexual violence awareness specialist.” Renda told the Post that she introduced Erdely to Jackie in July. She didn’t reveal how she herself had come into contact with Erdely, and Erdely thus far has not commented on the connection. It’s unclear if Renda will face any consequences for peddling an inaccurate, unverified story—but one that badly damaged her employer’s reputation—to a national magazine.

J’accuse!

The story’s aftermath also has exposed the Orwellian language too often used to discuss sexual assault issues on campus. Here’s a comment from Alex Pinkleton, who The Post describes as one of Jackie’s friends and someone “who survived a rape and an attempted rape during her first two years on campus.” There was no trial, much less a conviction in the Pinkleton case, yet neither The Post nor Pinkleton use the standard qualifying “allegedly”— as someone who “survived an allegedly attempted murder” — if no evidence existed of any crime beyond the interviewee’s word.

In the event, here’s Pinkleton: “One of my biggest fears with these inconsistencies emerging is that people will be unwilling to believe survivors in the future. However, we need to remember that the majority of survivors who come forward are telling the truth.”

Pinkleton’s belief that only “the majority of survivors who come forward are telling the truth” means that even this extremist victims’ rights activist concedes that some unspecified minority of “survivors” are not telling the truth. But if someone is not telling the truth about being raped, in what way can she be a “survivor” of sexual assault? The “survivor,” in such an instance, would be the student falsely accused.

What’s at stake, of course, is that this kind of finger-pointing justice undercuts the real victims of rape. In college, an accusation is as good as a conviction – no trial, no DNA, no defense necessary. The more these charges are disproved as men fight back, the worse it is for the real victims.

Finally, Eugene Volokh, at The Post has a long, interesting analysis on possibilities of a libel suit against Rolling Stone for the students targeted by Erdely and Jackie. Though the grounds are plausible, he expresses doubts that such a suit will ever be filed. If the students sue, Volokh astutely observed, “even if they win, their names likely will come up in such a story, and some people will believe the allegations more than the vindication (or will just remember the allegations more than the vindication).”

This principle applies not merely to a libel suit in this instance but more broadly to due process suits for students branded a rapist as a result of rigged campus disciplinary procedures. More than a dozen universities nonetheless are currently facing such lawsuits. How many—including, perhaps, based on what we’ve seen over the past few weeks, the University of Virginia—fail to provide even basic due process to students accused of sexual assault?

Hanna Rosin, an analyst at Slate, summed it up this way: What this Rolling Stone story shows is that maybe we’ve reached a point where we hold stories about rape to a lower standard.

KC Johnson

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.

19 thoughts on “Campus After-Effects of the Rolling Stone Travesty

  1. Rather astonishing art-imitates-life review of the film “Shattered Glass” (about serial fabulist Stephen Glass) written almost 11 years ago by (gasp!) Sabrina Rudin Erdley with the daring (nay, eyebrow-raising) title “Reflections on
    a Shattered Glass: The adorable little weenie I knew was nothing but a con artist.” at: http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0104/0104arts02.html

    Also, her journalism is sharply critiqued in “Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Old Stories Sure Read Like Bad Lifetime Movies” at: http://thefederalist.com/2014/12/08/sabrina-rubin-erdelys-old-stories-sure-read-like-bad-lifetime-movies/

  2. I believe that if you take these new campus rape courts run by the gender-studies students that systematically strip guys basic due process rights….and add it to the “manufactured statistics” that state law enforcement’s across the country have been getting federal dollars to “cook up” for over 25 years now….what you get is a recipe to pervert the course of justice…. on an industrial scale.

  3. At other times President Sullivan has sounded somewhat more reasonable: “In any crisis it can be far too easy to paint with a broad brush, and blindly attack entire groups of individuals,” Sullivan said. “This is not a responsible reaction. It is not fair to fraternity men here who are good and decent people and are just as horrified as we all are about these disgusting allegations and revelations. Moreover, rapes and other sexual assaults occur in apartments, in public venues, and more rarely, in residence halls.” Yet, I cannot reconcile her more measured tone above with some of her other actions, such as the cancellation of fraternity social events for the rest of the year and her support of a policy toward fraternity houses that seems contrary to civil liberties. The faculty was going to consider suspending the fraternities for a longer period of time, if I understand correctly.

  4. KC,
    SUllivan is in an interesting predicament with regards to the Greek system on campus.If she lifts the suspension ASAP,she undercuts the basis for her original decision. If she continues it-after the Jackie hoax has been exposed,she doubles down on a pupunishment not based on any thing.I feel she’ll let the suspension stand until the scheduled expiration date,and cite a ‘teachable moment’ passage.Still,it reminds me a lot of the Lord High Executioner in “Mikado”
    “There’d none of them be missed.”

  5. “It seems you want people to doubt that a crime occurred in the case of rape more than other crimes.”

    In “other crimes”, usually there is forensic evidence which is available independently of the complainant’s testimony. In rape (or sexual assault) cases, such forensic evidence often isn’t available, or subject to interpretation. When it isn’t available, it is sometimes due to the choices made by the complainant (i.e. not reporting the alleged crime shortly after it happened, showering, washing clothes &c).

    There’s no equivalency between rape/sexual assault and other crimes: no other crime is there where someone can be convicted based purely on the testimony of the complaining witness.

  6. I want to make one advisory note to an, otherwise, solid article:

    “That’s what The Post did when it contacted Phi Kappa Psi’s lawyer and learned that the fraternity never hosted a party on the night in question and that Drew, the alleged rapist, claims he never met Jackie let alone invited her out on a date.”

    The fraternity is question may not have OFFICIALLY hosted a party, but a number of fraternity members may have hosted a party unofficially.

    This is what happened at UCSD in 2010 during the “Compton Cookout” scandal. The fraternity itself did not officially host the “Compton Cookout” –a party deemed racist by the Black Student Union and the University–but a number of fraternity brothers did so, in a residence off campus. The fraternity could then technically say they had never hosted the Compton Cookout, while many party-goers knew that it was a quasi-fraternity function.

    Whether “Jackie” got raped or not is more than unclear, but her veracity should not hinge on fraternity lawyers claiming that the fraternity did not (technically) host a party.

    1. JoeJoe,Diffidently, I must pointout,Jackie detailed being raped in th Phi Psi house and escaping through a non existent door.A lack of evidence is not proof of anything.a few more things that may help you through
      1)The earth wasn’t created in 4004 BC
      2) Fahrenheit and Centigrade don’t switch values south of the equator
      3)No one has ever found a specific instance of ‘cultural bias’ in stdized test
      4)Hilary Clinton wasn’t under fire at a Bosnian airport
      5)Change utterly

    1. The parallels are obvious and they all come down to one thing – people in power who are too ready to believe unquestioningly when some girls start screaming and fainting.

  7. If someone tells a reporter their house was robbed but does not say who robbed them, the reporter does not need to say their house was “allegedly” robbed, they can just say “Joe said his house was robbed.” “Allegedly” is reserved for when someone is named as the robber. Yet in Pinkleton’s case, a woman she says she was raped, you want reporters to add the word “allegedly” even though no rapist was named. It seems you want people to doubt that a crime occurred in the case of rape more than other crimes.

    1. Joey, the reporter did not say “Alex Pinkleton says she was raped.” That would have been fine. It called her “a survivor of rape and attempted rape,” even though no hearing or conviction of any kind is on record.

    2. In that case there would have to be evidence of a “robbery”, i.e. stuff is missing. So yeah, if nothing is missing one would use the word “allegedly”. In fact, I’m quite sure my insurance company would require evidence that I did indeed own a 3 carat diamond if I said I was “robbed” and there was no evidence. I would have to produce a receipt. If you don’t have any evidence, chances are your story won’t be believed, especially if it fits the metanarrative a little too well and you have something to gain by telling it.

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