Part 3—Rolling Stone fails to ask: Let’s return to yesterday’s question. Did a college student tell Rolling Stone that this event occurred?
ERDELY (11/19/14): This past spring, in separate incidents, both Emily Renda and Jackie were harassed outside bars on the Corner by men who recognized them from presentations and called them "cunt" and "feminazi bitch." One flung a bottle at Jackie that broke on the side of her face, leaving a blood-red bruise around her eye.Did a college student named Jackie actually tell Rolling Stone that this event occurred? Did she tell Rolling Stone that someone threw a bottle at her head? That the bottle hit her with so much force that it “broke on the side of her face?”
She e-mailed [Dean Nicole] Eramo so they could discuss the attack—and discuss another matter, too, which was troubling Jackie a great deal.
As noted in yesterday's report, it seems hard to believe that such an event could have happened. Did the student tell Rolling Stone that it did?
We wouldn’t make that assumption. Once we realize that a journalist is an unreliable player, we should stop assuming the truth of various things she has said.
In this case, it may be that the student described some similar type of incident and the journalist embellished what she said. At this point, we can only know what the journalist wrote, not what the student said.
That journalist, Sabrina Rudin Erdely, told a compelling tale in the pages of Rolling Stone. It may turn out that some or most of the story she told is accurate, although the journalist’s failure to fact-check the student’s story has left this question in doubt.
Friends of the student have now contradicted some of the things the student seems to have said. That said, we’re focusing on the journalist here, not on the student.
The journalist told a compelling story in her 9,000-word report. She described the most heinous possible conduct on the part of various actors.
Indeed, the conduct is so unrelentingly heinous that some observers have found the story hard to believe. Along with the heinous conduct, events are described which seem impossible, given the basic laws of physics, including that bottle which was thrown with such force that it broke on the student’s face.
The journalist’s story is quite compelling. It carries a familiar cast of villains, including nine amazingly heinous men who stage a vicious, preplanned attack and three teen-aged friends of the victim who give her the world’s most shallow advice in the immediate wake of the heinous assault.
In effect, Erdely has written a Lifetime movie. It may turn out that the events she describes happened in much the way she reports them. But we don’t have much faith in Erdely’s accuracy, or in her morals or judgment.
Let’s return to that broken bottle so we can tell you why.
Erdely would have us believe that someone called the student a vile name, then threw a bottle at her with such force that it broke against her face. It seems hard to believe that this could have happened.
But as we continue this part of the story, the student reports this latest attack to the appropriate dean, Nicole Eramo. She also reports two other recent gang rapes on the UVa campus:
ERDELY: She e-mailed Eramo so they could discuss the attack—and discuss another matter, too, which was troubling Jackie a great deal. Through her ever expanding network, Jackie had come across something deeply disturbing: two other young women who, she says, confided that they, too, had recently been Phi Kappa Psi gang-rape victims.Forgive us for a flippant remark. But as Erdely extends the story there, the Lifetime movie continues.
A bruise still mottling her face, Jackie sat in Eramo's office in May 2014 and told her about the two others. One, she says, is a 2013 graduate, who'd told Jackie that she'd been gang-raped as a freshman at the Phi Psi house. The other was a first-year whose worried friends had called Jackie after the girl had come home wearing no pants. Jackie said the girl told her she'd been assaulted by four men in a Phi Psi bathroom while a fifth watched. (Neither woman was willing to talk to RS.)
As Jackie wrapped up her story, she was disappointed by Eramo's nonreaction. She'd expected shock, disgust, horror. For months, Jackie had been assuaging her despair by throwing herself into peer education, but there was no denying her helplessness when she thought about Phi Psi, or about her own alleged assailants still walking the grounds. She'd recently been aghast to bump into Drew [her principal assailant], who greeted her with friendly nonchalance. "For a whole year, I thought about how he had ruined my life, and how he is the worst human being ever," Jackie says. "And then I saw him and I couldn't say anything."
...That interaction would render her too depressed to leave her room for days. Of all her assailants, Drew was the one she wanted to see held accountable—but with Drew about to graduate, he was going to get away with it. Because, as she miserably reminded Eramo in her office, she didn't feel ready to file a complaint. Eramo, as always, understood.
The student continues to be taunted and failed by everyone around her. She is disappointed in the dean—but Erdely never explains what the dean should have done, given the fact that the student was still refusing to file a complaint.
Perhaps there’s an answer to that question. Erdely doesn’t attempt to provide it.
That said, note the deeply heinous situation into which we have now descended. It is now the end of the student’s sophomore year. By now, the following events have occurred:
The student has been brutally raped by seven men, as two other men look on.
The student has been attacked in a public place, in a way which presumably could have killed her.
Most remarkably, the student has become aware of two other gang rapes at the same fraternity where she herself was assaulted. One of these assaults has occurred that very year.
According to what the student has heard, young women are still being assaulted by other students—students she can name. But she still refuses to file a complaint. As far as we know, she still refuses to provide their names. This is a situation Erdely barely deigns to explore.
In the real world, a victim of a vicious assault might react in the way this student is said to have done. That said, we’re struck by the relative nonchalance Erdely seems to bring to this horrible matter.
Should it perhaps be troubling in some way when the student keeps refusing to name her attackers? Should the student perhaps be encouraged to step forward?
Even as others are being assaulted, Erdely never really explores these obvious questions. Instead, she offers this confusing account of the reasons why many victims at U-Va have refused to file formal complaints.
The student is now meeting regularly with a 45-member campus support group. Erdely offers this account of their attitudes about the pursuit of the heinous people who are conducting gang rapes:
ERDELY: After feeling isolated for more than a year, Jackie was astonished at how much she and this sisterhood had in common, including the fact that a surprising number hadn't pursued any form of complaint. Although many had contacted Dean Eramo, whom they laud as their best advocate and den mother—Jackie repeatedly calls her "an asset to the community"—few ever filed reports with UVA or with police. Instead, basking in the safety of one another's company, the members of One Less applauded the brave few who chose to take action, but mostly affirmed each other's choices not to report, in an echo of their university's approach. So profound was the students' faith in its administration that although they were appalled by Jackie's story, no one voiced questions about UVA's strategy of doing nothing to warn the campus of gang-rape allegations against a fraternity that still held parties and was rushing a new pledge class.“Although they were appalled by Jackie's story, no one voiced questions about UVA's strategy of doing nothing?” Was anyone concerned about the student’s refusal to report?
Some of these women are disturbed by the contradiction. "It's easy to cover up a rape at a university if no one is reporting," admits Jackie's friend Alex Pinkleton. And privately, some of Jackie's confidantes were outraged. "The university ignores the problem to make itself look better," says recent grad Rachel Soltis, Jackie's former roommate. "They should have done something in Jackie's case. Me and several other people know exactly who did this to her. But they want to protect even the people who are doing these horrible things."
Was anyone troubled by the fact that the student refused to name her assailants, even as assaults continued at their fraternity house? Did anyone try to persuade the student that, despite her apparent traumatization, she ought to report?
This problem doesn’t even seem to occur to Erdely. In the second part of that passage, she describes a student criticizing the university for failing to “do something,” even though the student in question was still refusing to file a complaint.
In the process, no one ever explains what the university should do. No one is ever asked if the student should be encouraged to name the criminals who assaulted her—the criminals who seem to be attacking other students.
At one point, Erdely seems to suggest one possible course of action. The university should have “warned the campus of gang-rape allegations against a fraternity that still held parties and was rushing a new pledge class.”
The university could have done that, of course—assuming the student in question actually made that allegation to the dean. Under the circumstances, though, would that have been a wise decision? Would it even be allowed under the federal guidelines which now regulate these matters?
Erdely rushes past these questions. And uh-oh! By now, it seems that the student may have named the wrong fraternity as the site of her attack—may have been confused about the location of her alleged gang rape.
Does it still seem that the university should have warned the campus about that fraternity? We don’t have the answer to that; Erdely doesn’t much seem to care.
Rolling Stone told a lurid, cinematic, highly compelling story. In the process, it included a range of events which strain credulity a bit, including a few which seem impossible on their face.
The magazine told a compelling story. Here’s what it didn’t do:
It didn’t attempt to fact-check even the most basic elements of the case. And it didn’t do a very good job of explaining what a university can and should do when faced with events of this type.
The deans are included among the villains; such villains help make a story compelling. That said, what should those villains have done in this appalling situation, assuming the student made the allegations Erdely describes?
Erdely is lazy and weak on that point. She didn’t bother checking her facts, nor did she outline solutions.
What kind of journalism is this? In part, it looks like the pleasing journalism of the perfect story.
Tomorrow: The role of the perfect story