For a news professional, it is hard to say which is more discouraging: that Rolling Stone published an imaginary tale of gang rape from a crazy college girl without double-checking her story, or that no one at Rolling Stone was fired after the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism issued a report that revealed top-to-bottom incompetence and flatly unethical behavior leading up to the publication of the article. Yet the average person is not a news professional and doesn’t care which industry protocols the magazine ignored. The average person probably isn’t surprised at the outcome and, furthermore, isn’t interested in what steps the magazine will take to keep it from happening again. The average person doesn’t read Rolling Stone.
But those of us who follow these things know they affect the average person. Rolling Stone’s left-wing narratives seep into the mainstream media and find a place in the material average people do consume: their daily newspapers and the network news shows. Because repetition is the mother of learning, such unbelievable narratives become believable. One such narrative is that a “rape culture” permeates the American college campus. The proof? Twenty percent of college women are raped.
That is false. The number is 0.61 percent.
The narrative involving “A Rape on Campus,” Rolling Stone’s infamous hoax, followed the same trajectory. The military, the Church, and, in this case, universities—particularly, those evil, Southern institutions such as the University of Virginia—routinely ignore rape and indeed encourage it by refusing to punish or prosecute rapists. The savage gang rape of “Jackie” at the “overwhelmingly blond” UVA proved it.
Except that it never happened.
Writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone claimed, sans evidence, that seven members of a fraternity at UVA gang-raped Jackie and that UVA didn’t care. The details of the rape and behavior of university officials were so ridiculous that no one, least of all a writer of Erdely’s intelligence and experience, should have believed Jackie’s claims. Columbia’s report does not say that, but it does say Erdely and her editors ignored almost every basic practice of sound journalism, including verifying claims and speaking with the accused. Erdely and Rolling Stone failed Journalism 101.
The report says that confirmation bias—a reporter’s picking of facts that support her theory and ignoring of those that don’t—“seems to have been a factor here.” Seems? One doesn’t find the word hoax in the report. And lie does not appear in connection with Jackie, Erdely, or her editors. Those absent words are important, because they suggest a key question that Columbia didn’t ask.
Of course, we didn’t need Columbia’s report to know what was wrong. Richard Bradley, who raised the first doubts about the piece at his blog Shots in the Dark and wrote extensively about it, teased out the report’s tacit conclusion: “Sabrina Rubin Erdely is not just a horrible reporter, she is a deeply dishonest one,” who “puts the blame for her mistakes on other people.”
Among her other sins, Bradley noted, Erdely wrote flatly inaccurate things about UVA officials. One called UVA a “rape school,” Erdely falsely reported. Erdely told Steve Coll, who led Columbia’s review of her work, “I wish somebody had pushed me harder.”
Responded Bradley, “No. Just . . . no. You’re accusing people of rape. You don’t need an editor to tell you to get their side of the story. You need a conscience.”
But then there’s this: Erdely lied about contacting one of Jackie’s friends about the rape. Erdely claimed that the friend, “citing loyalty to his own frat, declined to be interviewed.” Not so, the Washington Post reported, about what it called Columbia’s “reportorial autopsy.” That friend “told The Post he was never contacted by Rolling Stone.” To its credit, the Post played a major role, not least by contacting Jackie’s friends, in unraveling the literary fantasy.
But back to Bradley. Amusingly, he wrote, “the one true thing about Jackie’s story . . . is that it disproves Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story. Erdely used Jackie to argue that UVa is indifferent to allegations of sexual assault. But as we know now, the university took Jackie’s story very seriously.” A dean repeatedly checked up on Jackie, Bradley noted. The school offered not only counseling to Jackie but the chance to pursue the crime with the school or the cops. “So why did Rubin Erdely choose as her avatar of official indifference a woman whose story actually disproved her thesis? Because Jackie’s tale of gang rape was just too sexy not to lead with.”
That thesis is key. “Official indifference” winds through three of Erdely’s sensational rape stories. Writing at RedState.com, Leon Wolf uncovered myriad falsehoods in Erdely’s tale of military rape in Rolling Stone, entitled “The Rape of Petty Officer Blumer.” That story also belies the “official indifference” narrative. Wolf called Navy officials to check Erdely’s claims:
[T]he Blumer story is eerily similar to her reporting of the UVA story. In each case, Erdely uses a central figure who has a similar tale to tell: she was a victim of a horrific rape, she reported the rape to authorities, and her concerns were ignored and/or used against her. The narrative in each case is used to advance the theory that the institution in question (college administrators in the UVA case, military command in the Blumer case) is indifferent to the problem of systemic sexual assault occurring right under their noses. In both cases, the stories read suspiciously as though Ms. Erdely arrived at her conclusion before writing her story, and simply set out to find the first person who would constitute a credible vehicle for the narrative she wanted to create, without regard to the factual accuracy of her story. Recall that during the initial investigation of the UVA story it was uncovered that Erdely had sent emails indicating that she was looking for a story that fit a particular fact pattern—it would be no surprise to discover that similar emails existed in this case.
RedState has now spoken with multiple members of Navy command who were either personally involved in the investigation of Ms. Blumer’s allegations or who had firsthand knowledge of the facts of this case. . . .
The key fact from these conversations is this: Everyone I spoke to in connection with this investigation was crystal clear that at no point did Sabrina Erdely or Rolling Stone ever contact them whatsoever, even to ask for background information. This is exactly the same lapse in journalistic standards that doomed the UVA story and ultimately led to its retraction. The fact that it occurred in this story is indication of a systemic problem with Rolling Stone and Sabrina Erdely’s reporting, not of a single lapse in judgment.
Another falsehood in the Blumer piece: Having been arrested for DUI and waking in jail, Blumer concluded that she had been drugged and raped, according to Erdely. But Wolf learned that Navy personnel asked Blumer whether she could have been raped. Blumer said yes; they reported her suspicion; and they investigated—thoroughly. They even ran down a witness and/or possible suspect in Iraq. The Navy could not find evidence to proceed. So the Blumer piece is full of allegations that “are either untrue or misleading on their face.”
Unprovable, outrageous claims pepper the story. A woman, Erdely claimed,
was assaulted so often during her four-year stint that she came to regard it as an unavoidable, even sanctioned, part of service. “I thought it was just a normal thing in the military, almost like a hazing process. It seemed like everyone gets raped and assaulted and no one does anything about it; it’s like a big rape cult.”
Really? The Marines are a “big rape cult,” and a woman Marine thought rape was an initiation ritual? Who but the editors at Rolling Stone and their gullible left-wing audience would believe such nonsense? And do even they believe it?
The third Erdely rape tale, “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex Crime Files,” concerns a “victim” in the Catholic archdiocese of Philadelphia. The problem in this case wasn’t that victims weren’t to be found, but that, once again, Erdely hitched her wagon to the wrong star. In this account of official indifference to rape, we meet Billy, “a sweet, gentle kid with boyish good looks . . . outgoing and well-liked.” He was also a smack dealer. At his Big Trial blog, Ralph Cipriano, a former writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and no friend of the Church, reported that Billy’s
crazy stories defied logic, common sense, all the evidence gathered by the D.A.’s own detectives, and established patterns of abuse as laid out in the secret archive files. They were also riddled with endless contradictions. Yet, since Billy’s story fit a pervasive media stereotype, innocent victims being victimized by predator priests, it was fit to print.
Billy, the key character in Erdely’s story, helped put an innocent priest in jail. According to Cipriano, the priest “spent his last hours handcuffed to a hospital bed while suffering from untreated coronary disease.”
All three stories “fit a pervasive media stereotype”—a relatively conservative institution’s privileged male bureaucracy that protects its own. But the stereotype is an invention. “[T]o ignore or cover up a credible accusation of rape,” Wolf wrote for RedState, “you would have to be a psychopath.” Such psychopaths simply don’t abound in the numbers required to fit Erdely’s narrative. When the authorities cannot pursue rape charges, it’s not the sexist, privileged patriarchy at work, but “problems of proof that are inherent in at least some rape cases. It is because a prosecutor (or school administrator or whoever) simply cannot factually corroborate a story or prove it by the applicable standard of proof.” But that is not what Erdely and Rolling Stone “want you to believe,” Wolf wrote. “They want you to believe that it is a relatively commonplace phenomenon,” but because it isn’t, “it’s not surprising that these stories of Erdely’s keep falling apart. It’s not that she’s unlucky, it’s that she’s chasing a narrative that’s untrue.”
In my last piece in these pages about the UVA hoax (“Rolling Stone Gathered No Facts,” January), which appeared before the Columbia report was published, I concluded that confirmation bias was Erdely’s and the magazine’s downfall. Rolling Stone’s editor favors biased stories, and the running theme in much of Erdely’s oeuv re carries all the current sexual obsessions of the radical left and its feminist and homosexual auxiliaries: transvestitism, bullied homosexuals, and “rape victims” who can’t get justice from officialdom. Unsurprisingly, with that obvious thread come the common problems that wind through Erdely’s other rape stories: pseudonyms, outlandish quotes and claims, allegations that are impossible to verify, no calls to corroborating sources, no chance for the accused to respond, and no way to confirm that the accused even exist.
The reality of these problems renders one line from Columbia’s report particularly troubling: “The collapse of ‘A Rape on Campus’ does not involve the kinds of fabrication by reporters that have occurred in some other infamous cases of journalistic meltdown.” Really? Was Erdely’s only crime ignoring the sacred commandments of “J School” and succumbing to confirmation bias? Veteran writers do not repeatedly break the basic rules of journalism and concoct fiction. They do not repeatedly fail, inadvertently, to get the basics right. Such a journalist’s career would end—quickly.
The report says Erdely and her editors believed Jackie. Maybe. But the rape Erdely described is medically and physically impossible. Other details were also ludicrous. No one with any sense should have believed Jackie, and even if Erdely and her editors did believe her initially, they could have easily proved, as the Columbia report shows, that she was lying.
This truth suggests the key question Columbia didn’t ask: What did Erdely and her editors know, and when did they know it?