Part 4—The Washington Post checked facts: Today, a set of sad stories:
In the autumn of our own freshman year, a classmate had earned himself a derisive nickname: “The Birdman of Wigglesworth.” (Or it may have been Holworthy, a different freshman dorm.)
This young man had been behaving erratically. One evening, he had gone out onto his fire escape and issued bird calls into the night. In this way, he had earned the derision.
We can’t recall how we knew this young man; we don’t think we actually “knew” him at all. But we felt sorry for his plight. We spent an hour in his room one day discussing his situation.
We don’t recall a word that was said. Before long, he left the campus, never to return.
We felt sorry for that young man, who seemed to be struggling. We also feel sorry for the young woman at the center of Rolling Stone’s amazingly bungled “gang rape” report.
We think you should feel sorry for that young woman too.
As of today, Rolling Stone’s report has turned out to be one the most remarkable journalist fails of the modern era. We say that because the Washington Post has published a new report, in which a reporter actually interviews some of the people involved in this sad and strange story.
Truth to tell, Rolling Stone failed to interview almost everyone involved in this jumbled matter. The magazine published an horrific story—a story so unrelentingly horrific that it strained credulity in various ways for quite a few observers.
For reasons only the Stone can explain, its reporter and its editors didn’t seem to consider the possibility that the story they were publishing might be false in some major way. They didn’t seem to execute even the simplest fact checks.
The Post has now done some of those fact checks. Most significantly, they interviewed the three friends of Jackie—the victim of the alleged assault—who went to help her on the night of the alleged attack.
In major ways, the testimony of those three students fails to comport with Rolling Stone’s report. Their story involves a byzantine set of events.
These events suggest that the young woman at the heart of this story may be having some serious problems, like the young man with whom we spoke that evening, 49 years ago.
Please note. It’s entirely possible that Jackie was sexually assaulted that night. According to her friends, she did describe an assault that night, although the story they say they heard differs in major ways from the story which appears in Rolling Stone’s report.
According to her friends, Jackie described a heinous assault. A different, even more heinous assault is described in Rolling Stone’s report. By normal journalistic standards, no journalist has the slightest idea what actually happened that night. For that reason, Rolling Stone’s compelling report shouldn’t have been published.
You can read the Washington Post’s new report for yourself. In what follows, we won’t be talking about the student at the heart of this bungled story, which shouldn’t have gone into print. We’ll be talking about the bizarre yet sadly familiar behavior authored by Rolling Stone.
Why in the world did Rolling Stone fail to fact-check its report? We all can speculate about that. But let’s get clear on some of the ways the magazine failed to perform its most basic and obvious duties.
At the start of her report, Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Erdely told a truly horrific story about an alleged gang rape. In Erdely’s horrific report, Jackie is assaulted by seven fraternity men as two other “brothers” look on.
At the start of her ordeal, the student is thrown through a glass table; “sharp shards dig into her back” as a three-hour assault begins. At 3 A.M., she emerges from the fraternity house, barefoot, with her “bloody body” encased in “her bloody dress.”
Already, Rolling Stone’s report is deeply horrific. According to Erdely, this is what happened next:
ERDELY (11/19/14): Disoriented, Jackie burst out a side door, realized she was lost, and dialed a friend, screaming, "Something bad happened. I need you to come and find me!" Minutes later, her three best friends on campus—two boys and a girl (whose names are changed)—arrived to find Jackie on a nearby street corner, shaking. "What did they do to you? What did they make you do?" Jackie recalls her friend Randall demanding. Jackie shook her head and began to cry. The group looked at one another in a panic. They all knew about Jackie's date; the Phi Kappa Psi house loomed behind them. "We have to get her to the hospital," Randall said.In Rolling Stone’s report, unrelentingly heinous conduct occurs within the fraternity house. When Jackie emerges and asks for help, her friends behave in deeply uncaring ways.
Their other two friends, however, weren't convinced. "Is that such a good idea?" she recalls Cindy asking. "Her reputation will be shot for the next four years." Andy seconded the opinion, adding that since he and Randall both planned to rush fraternities, they ought to think this through. The three friends launched into a heated discussion about the social price of reporting Jackie's rape, while Jackie stood beside them, mute in her bloody dress, wishing only to go back to her dorm room and fall into a deep, forgetful sleep. Detached, Jackie listened as Cindy prevailed over the group: "She's gonna be the girl who cried 'rape,' and we'll never be allowed into any frat party again.”
As Jackie stands in her bloody dress, they debate their future social standing. Their conduct recalls the heinous stepsisters from the Brothers Grimm.
In the real world, people can behave extremely badly, of course. Incredibly, though, there is no sign that Rolling Stone interviewed any of the three friends to get their account of the events of that night.
On a journalistic basis, this was amazingly strange behavior. In the past week, the Washington Post did speak to the friends. Their account of the events of that night, and of the surrounding week, differs substantially from the story told in Rolling Stone—and they have emails, text messages and photos to support their deeply sad, strange, convoluted tale.
Question: Did Rolling Stone even try to interview these students? Note the slippery way this point is addressed in its report:
ERDELY: Two years later, Jackie, now a third-year, is worried about what might happen to her once this article comes out. Greek life is huge at UVA, with nearly one-third of undergrads belonging to a fraternity or sorority, so Jackie fears the backlash could be big—a "shitshow" predicted by her now-former friend Randall, who, citing his loyalty to his own frat, declined to be interviewed. But her concerns go beyond taking on her alleged assailants and their fraternity. Lots of people have discouraged her from sharing her story, Jackie tells me with a pained look, including the trusted UVA dean to whom Jackie reported her gang-rape allegations more than a year ago.Did Erdely actually ask Randall for an interview? Many readers will get that impression from that passage. But no such assertion is made.
Did Erdely ask for an interview? In the highlighted passage, Erdely may simply be reporting something Jackie told her. Beyond that, Erdely never reports what Cindy and Andy, the other two friends, said about the events of that night—nor does she offer any sign that she tried to interview them.
Alas! The friends say there was no bloody dress. They say there were no apparent injuries.
They say they did meet Jackie that night, but not near that fraternity house. They say she did describe a sexual assault—but an assault of a different nature than the one described in Rolling Stone.
Did Erdely try to interview the friends? We can’t answer that question. But this is what T. Rees Shapiro reports in this morning’s Post:
SHAPIRO (12/11/14): The Rolling Stone article also said that Randall declined to be interviewed, “citing his loyalty to his own frat.” He told The Post that he was never contacted by Rolling Stone and would have agreed to an interview.Did Erdely try to interview Jackie’s friends? We have no way of knowing. But on a wide array of points, there is no sign that Erdely conducted any basic fact-checking at all.
The article’s writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not respond to requests for comment this week.
Rolling Stone also declined to comment, citing an internal review of the story.
(At some point, Rolling Stone’s “internal review” may help resolve such questions.)
We recommend the Washington Post’s sad, convoluted report. Beyond that, we recommend that you feel sorry for young people who may be having substantial problems—and for a young woman who may have been assaulted on the night in question.
In closing, we want to note two basic points. Let’s start by noting something Erdely accomplished.
In her horrific report, Erdely told the “perfect story” about a campus rape victim. All the conduct is deeply heinous, as if drawn from a Lifetime movie by the Brothers Grimm:
The victim is raped on broken glass by seven different men. When she calls her friends for help, they turn out to be the most self-centered people in the known universe.
The dean is slippery and slick—a fixer. Someone throws a bottle at Jackie with so much force that it somehow breaks on her face.
Jackie says she learns about two other gang rapes at the same fraternity. But those women aren’t “willing to talk to Rolling Stone” either. (We aren't told if Erdely knew their names or actually approached them.)
This is a Perfect Story, a story of conduct which is horrific in every possible way. All too often, our modern “journalism” turns on such perfect stories.
Here’s the problem:
Often, facts must be rearranged, invented or discarded to create these “perfect stories”—perfect stories which fire the soul and compel the reader’s reaction. All too often, our journalism runs on embellished tales of this type. Tomorrow, we’ll consider the most consequential such story of the past twenty years.
Erdely told a “perfect story.” Here’s something else she did.
Erdely discussed a story she never should have discussed. As Rolling Stone went to press, its journalist had no real idea if its story was actually true.
Even as we write today, there is no way of knowing what actually happened, or didn’t happen, to Jackie that night. As of now, the facts are a deeply confusing mess, to the extent that the facts are known at all.
What actually happened to Jackie that night? There is no sign that Erdely knows. But so what? In the absence of actual knowledge, she penned a compelling tale.
Erdely told a perfect story. She didn’t know if the story was true. She made no apparent effort to check it. But still, she rushed the story to print.
As always happens in these matters, large numbers of people believed it.
Tomorrow: False belief changes the world