Just after the now-infamous Rolling Stone /University of Virginia rape story was published, but before it imploded, I interviewed the author for SiriusXM radio. Sabrina Rubin Erdely would soon stop promoting the piece after the Washington Post and other media outlets raised questions about its accuracy. But when we spoke on Nov. 25, six days after publication, she was still a believer in the account offered by "Jackie," the pseudonym the magazine used for the UVa undergrad who claimed she'd been raped by seven men in a fraternity.
Last week, after reading the results of an investigation into what went wrong at Rolling Stone, I went back and listened to our conversation. Several things stood out. Such as when I asked Erdely about the absence of any qualifiers in the title to her story: "A Rape on Campus." "I don't write the headline, but this is Jackie's perspective, you know, on her assault and we do write a lot of alleged in there, so I think there is a lot of implied alleged," she said.
Not quite. By my recent count, the word alleged appears only five times in the 9,000-plus-word story, and only twice with reference to Jackie's account. Alleged is used once with regard to others accused of assaults; once in reference to Jesse Matthew Jr., who has been charged in the murder of UVa student Hannah Graham; and once quoting the president of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity named in the article.
It was also interesting to hear Erdely try to dissuade me from skepticism.
I asked her, "And, finally, because I have a healthy dose of cynicism about all matters, so I bring it to a case like this and everything else. As you were interviewing her, and interviewing all the people that you did for the story, you, Sabrina, had to be saying, 'Hey, ya know, does it pass the smell test?' I'm gleaning from what you wrote and the intonation of your voice that you buy it, that you believe it."
Her reply: "Yes. . . . I wasn't in that room, so I can't really know what happened, but everything about Jackie is entirely credible. I put her story through the wringer. I talked to all of her friends, all the people that she confided in along the way. Her story is very consistent; she has clearly been through a tremendous trauma. I don't doubt that something happened to her that night."
That answer illustrates a major problem. The investigation ("An Anatomy of a Journalistic Failure") completed by Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, and two of his colleagues, makes clear that, contrary to what Erdely told me, she did not talk to all of Jackie's friends. In fact, her failure to speak to the three friends in whom Jackie supposedly confided immediately after the alleged incident was perhaps the most egregious of a string of journalistic failures.
"In hindsight, the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped," the report said. "That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine's editors to change plans."
But the story was headed for problems long before any interviews were conducted, or the headline was written, a point that still might be lost on Erdely.
In reaction to the report, she released a statement saying, in part:
"I allowed my concern for Jackie's well-being, my fear of retraumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility, to take the place of more questioning and more facts. These are mistakes I will not make again."
That implies she erred out of consideration for Jackie and belief in her narrative, but her real failure was in surrendering any sense of objectivity before she even spoke to Jackie or sympathized with her plight. The Columbia report suggests that Erdely went looking for a story that would fit her preconceived agenda. Her eagerness in this regard is laid bare in the very first paragraph of the report:
"Last July 8, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a writer for Rolling Stone, telephoned Emily Renda, a rape survivor working on sexual-assault issues as a staff member at the University of Virginia. Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show 'what it's like to be on campus now . . . where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there's this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,' according to Erdely's notes of the conversation."
Erdely's notes then get even more damning, according to the report. It says that when Renda mentioned Jackie's story, she cautioned Erdely: "And obviously, maybe her memory of it isn't perfect." Erdely responded that she found the story "totally plausible."
In other words, she was accepting of Jackie's version of events even before speaking with her, and relying only upon a secondhand version that came with a warning. That partiality was then compounded by Erdely: lack of confirmation of what Jackie said she told her three friends; failure to learn the name of the student who facilitated the rape; and failure to figure out whether he even existed. Rolling Stone's solution to the latter two problems was to simply give the man a pseudonym, "Drew." Problem solved.
Likely the reason Erdely let her guard down on journalistic basics is that she'd decided Jackie's account was true before they even met. And it explains why she provided scant information in an e-mail to the fraternity before going to press ("I've become aware of allegations of gang rape that have been made. . . . Can you comment on those allegations?"), robbing the fraternity of an opportunity to defend itself, which, ironically, might have saved Erdely and Rolling Stone from the commission of journalistic malpractice.
Remarkably, Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, who himself read the story prepublication and found it both "strong" and "powerful," has already said that Erdely will write again for his magazine. Meanwhile, Brian Williams' six-month hiatus continues for conduct that doesn't look as bad.