Last month, Rolling Stone published a story entitled A Rape on Campus, which described a brutal gang rape of a woman named Jackie during a party at a University of Virginia fraternity house, the University’s failure to respond to this alleged assault—and the school’s troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults. . . . In the face of new information reported by the Washington Post and other news outlets, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account.
When a blockbuster story that took “months” to research and write must be prefaced, postpublication, with a note that suggests the story isn’t true, an editor knows he has a problem. But that’s what Rolling Stone faced when its December 4 cover story, by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, blew up. With a few days of shoe-leather reporting, the Washington Post and other media outlets forced Rolling Stone to retract—without using the word, of course—the 9,000-word article about a vicious gang rape at the University of Virginia, which had ended all Greek activities on campus during the fall semester. The “victim” wasn’t such a reliable source. Of course, Erdely and Rolling Stone would have known that if they had done what the Washington Post did: make a few phone calls to Jackie’s friends, to the accused, and to the fraternity to which they allegedly belonged.
With the story in ruins, its details don’t much matter. It suffices to say that Jackie’s account of attending a frat party—where seven frat boys raped her for three hours in the dark after the first one tossed her through the top of a glass coffee table—is, in a word, horsefeathers. The party never happened, the rapists don’t exist, and the other details are absurd. It was obvious to anyone who read the story closely.
Why, then, did Rolling Stone publish it?
The answer lies in the biases of the editors and writer. Three typically leftist biases were at work: a bias against white men; a bias against the South; and a bias in favor of believing phantasmagoric tales about “rape culture.” “Campus rape” is now among President Obama’s top causes, and he has been peddling the “1-in-5” myth—i.e., that 20 percent of college girls have been raped. It’s codswallop, as a report from the Department of Justice showed in December, and which Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute showed long ago. The real figure is 0.61 percent. No matter: 1-in-5 is feminist gospel, and it played into Erdely’s thesis: Campuses like UVA are dangerous for women. Jackie’s lurid tale of gang rape would prove it.
That Rolling Stone and Erdely were looking for white scalps at a traditional Southern college is obvious. Erdely admitted it in a podcast published by Slate: “I made contact with a student activist at the school who told me a lot about the culture of the school—that was one of the important things, sort of criteria that I wanted when I was looking for the right school to focus on.”
Erdely told Slate that she “looked around a number of different campuses,” including Harvard, which reported 128 rapes over three years, according to a story in the Daily Beast in 2010. Nothing to see there, so Erdely took her sinistral lamp into the murky shadows of the stately campus in Charlottesville. She admitted hunting for an “elitist” fraternity. In Rolling Stone, she described what she saw: “preppy success, where throngs of toned, tanned and overwhelmingly blond students fanned across a campus of neoclassical buildings.” Overwhelmingly blond? Are the majority of students at UVA blond? The suggestion slyly casts an Aryan tint upon its columned porticoes. UVA is full of frat boys who consider themselves blond-haired Übermenschen. One wonders why she didn’t toss in blue eyes.
Erdely is fixated on the feminist rape narrative that pits helpless victims, mostly women, against powerful institutions that circle the wagons to protect even more powerful men whom everyone knows are guilty. In 2011, she fired a salvo at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The key “victim” in that story, a former scribe for the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, is a pathological liar once collared for dealing smack. In 2013, Erdely launched a broadside against the Armed Forces. That story, too, has serious credibility problems. She has attacked “evangelicals” in Rep. Michele Bachmann’s district for their “war on gays,” and also told the tale of a boy who knew he was a girl when he was four years old. Erdely retails all the left’s narratives about sex, particularly “rape culture” in male-dominated and conservative institutions.
Part of Erdely’s problem was “confirmation bias,” meaning that what she found, or thought she found, confirmed everything she believes or is disposed to believe. Despite having a “healthy dose of skepticism” and a “finely-tuned bullshit detector,” Erdely said in an interview, “My tendency is to believe people. . . . My default mode is you are probably telling the truth.” No wonder she didn’t try to verify the details of Jackie’s story with anyone but Jackie. Gloomily pacing the paths of the afterworld, Richard Nixon no doubt wishes Erdely were around when Watergate broke.
Having fired at the military and the Church, Rolling Stone and Erdely went hunting for a third major institution they could charge with being soft on rape. They found it in the “overwhelmingly blond” university whelped by Thomas Jefferson, who raped Sally Hemings, in case you hadn’t heard. The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same. UVA is chock-full of rich, white preppies, the very kind who got away with raping that poor black girl at Duke. It’s unsurprising that one of Erdely’s expert sources for the UVA story was a woman lawyer who peddled dozens of lies about the defendants in the Duke rape hoax. Naturally, Erdely did not disclose that truth. Amusingly, Erdely was so biased that the Washington Post accused her of stereotyping.
Let us not forget Rolling Stone’s Managing Editor Will Dana. In a speech at his alma mater in 2006, “The Myth of Fair and Balanced: A Defense of Biased Reporting,” he boldly averred that reporters needn’t “worship the grail of objectivity” or “play twister to hide their bias.” Said Dana, “I want to do stuff that’s biased,” although bias “does not mean unbalanced.”
Well, in this case, it did. “I couldn’t help but notice that everything that the article said about me was incorrect,” Ryan Duffin told the AP. Identified as “Randall” in the story, he was calling 911 when Jackie “begged off.” Erdely accused the young man of refusing an interview for the article because of “loyalty to his own frat.” Neither Erdely nor the magazine genuinely tried to verify the story, they confessed, having agreed they would not contact the accused. Nor did they contact the three friends who supposedly told Jackie not to report the rape. Why didn’t Erdely contact Jackie’s friends? Erdely simply “found [Jackie] to be very credible,” she told Slate. Dana should have demanded that she or the magazine’s fact checkers confirm the story with someone beside Jackie. Dana doubted Erdely’s yarn, but went ahead. Why? The story confirmed his bias. And remember, he wants “to do stuff that’s biased.”
As for those ballyhooed fact checkers, not to be ignored is the head fact checker at Rolling Stone, Coco McPherson. Richard Bradley, former editor at George (himself once fooled by story fabricator Stephen Glass), was the first to question the UVA rape story publicly, noting Erdely’s and the magazine’s obvious agenda. After the story collapsed, he fingered McPherson, too: Responding to the claim that fact-checking at Rolling Stone is like an “IRS audit,” Bradley wrote: “[A]ny fact-checker that good would raise a dozen red flags with this story. Which means that either McPherson isn’t as good as they say, or she raised concerns and they were overruled.” Based on his own fact-checking of McPherson, Bradley guessed that
Coco McPherson was blinded by ideology; like Sabrina Rubin Erdely, she wanted to believe in this story. What makes me say this? McPherson’s tweet of November 20th: “So proud of @SabrinaRErdely and @RollingStone and the incredibly brave young women of UVA for coming forward . . . ”
“Never mind that the central woman in the story did not actually ‘come forward,’” Bradley continued. “That tweet—‘so proud’—is the tweet of an advocate and a cheerleader, not a fact checker. If you are so proud of these women merely for speaking anonymously to your magazine, are you really going to look at them with your most critical eye?”
Even liberal critics concluded that “A Rape on Campus” was hopelessly biased, not only in concept but in execution. Erdely and her editors knew that trying to verify Jackie’s story could be a journalistic buzz-killer. Forget about their claim that trying to verify the story would shame the victim. If “Randall” and the other two friends had contradicted Jackie’s account—as they did when real journalists contacted them after the story was published—the gang at Rolling Stone would have had to rewrite if not kill their tale of gang rape and “rape culture” at UVA.
That’s what should have happened, but it didn’t. Rolling Stone, as one wag put it, gathered no facts. The result was a fiction that may well cost Rolling Stone a bundle of money and end Erdely’s career.