The collapse of Sabrina Rudin Erdley’s “don’t-tell-all” University of Virginia gang rape story was quick. The Washington Post did what Erdely and Rolling Stone had refused to do—some actual reporting—and exposed massive holes in the accuser’s story. (Some examples: Though the Rolling Stone article portrayed the alleged assault as some kind of fraternity initiation, no member of the fraternity fit Erdely’s description of the attack ringleader, Drew, a fellow lifeguard of Jackie. Indeed, there’s no evidence that a fraternity party even took place on the night of the alleged incident.) Both the accuser, “Jackie,” and Erdely herself have ceased doing interviews on the tale.
Erdely easily could have discovered at least some of her source’s problems that the Post uncovered. For instance, nothing in Rolling Stone’s agreement with Jackie not to contact the only other people possibly with first-hand knowledge about the alleged rape precluded Erdely from contacting other people at the alleged party to determine if Drew attended, if he attended with Jackie, and if Jackie were seen after the alleged incident. If Erdely had done that basic reporting, Jackie’s story might never have seen the light of day. But Erdely was committed by her own admission to finding a story that would confirm her preconceptions about a campus violent crime wave against women.
Whatever happened to Jackie that night—real or imagined—made VA fraternities victims of this story. According to the ground rules of the interview with Jackie, Erdely couldn’t contact the men Jackie named as rapists. But she was free to talk to others at the fraternity and anyone else on campus. (Leave aside the question of why Rolling Stone apparently wasn’t troubled by its sole source insisting that the reporter not speak to the only people who might be able to challenge her version of events.)
That’s what The Post did when it contacted Phi Kappa Psi’s lawyer and learned that the fraternity never hosted a party on the night in question and that Drew, the alleged rapist, claims he never met Jackie let alone invited her out on a date.
Backing the Wrong Horse
The rise and fall of the Rolling Stone article should—but almost certainly will not—focus intense attention on UVA president Teresa Sullivan. Trusting no more than Erdely’s word, Sullivan made a significant policy decision: she suspended not merely the fraternity in question, but all fraternities at UVA. She also expressed support for allowing campus police to enter fraternities (and, it seems, only fraternities) without probable cause.
Sullivan’s actions came not from well-reasoned consideration, but from a rushed acceptance of a flawed story. If Rolling Stone’s target had been a group on the other side of the campus race/class/gender divide, would Sullivan have acted as she did, accompanied by a ringing proclamation to drive out the “evil” that lurks on campus?
Related: Guilt by Accusation: How Colleges Deal with Campus Sex
The Post article also buried an item of extraordinary significance on the university front. It turns out that Erdely discovered Jackie and her story not from an “activist” group or from the reporter’s own research—but from a University of Virginia employee.
Earlier this year, UVA hired Emily Renda as a “sexual violence awareness specialist.” Renda told the Post that she introduced Erdely to Jackie in July. She didn’t reveal how she herself had come into contact with Erdely, and Erdely thus far has not commented on the connection. It’s unclear if Renda will face any consequences for peddling an inaccurate, unverified story—but one that badly damaged her employer’s reputation—to a national magazine.
The story’s aftermath also has exposed the Orwellian language too often used to discuss sexual assault issues on campus. Here’s a comment from Alex Pinkleton, who The Post describes as one of Jackie’s friends and someone “who survived a rape and an attempted rape during her first two years on campus.” There was no trial, much less a conviction in the Pinkleton case, yet neither The Post nor Pinkleton use the standard qualifying “allegedly”— as someone who “survived an allegedly attempted murder” -- if no evidence existed of any crime beyond the interviewee’s word.
In the event, here’s Pinkleton: “One of my biggest fears with these inconsistencies emerging is that people will be unwilling to believe survivors in the future. However, we need to remember that the majority of survivors who come forward are telling the truth.”
Pinkleton’s belief that only “the majority of survivors who come forward are telling the truth” means that even this extremist victims’ rights activist concedes that some unspecified minority of “survivors” are not telling the truth. But if someone is not telling the truth about being raped, in what way can she be a “survivor” of sexual assault? The “survivor,” in such an instance, would be the student falsely accused.
What’s at stake, of course, is that this kind of finger-pointing justice undercuts the real victims of rape. In college, an accusation is as good as a conviction – no trial, no DNA, no defense necessary. The more these charges are disproved as men fight back, the worse it is for the real victims.
Finally, Eugene Volokh, at The Post has a long, interesting analysis on possibilities of a libel suit against Rolling Stone for the students targeted by Erdely and Jackie. Though the grounds are plausible, he expresses doubts that such a suit will ever be filed. If the students sue, Volokh astutely observed, “even if they win, their names likely will come up in such a story, and some people will believe the allegations more than the vindication (or will just remember the allegations more than the vindication).”
This principle applies not merely to a libel suit in this instance but more broadly to due process suits for students branded a rapist as a result of rigged campus disciplinary procedures. More than a dozen universities nonetheless are currently facing such lawsuits. How many—including, perhaps, based on what we’ve seen over the past few weeks, the University of Virginia—fail to provide even basic due process to students accused of sexual assault?
Hanna Rosin, an analyst at Slate, summed it up this way: What this Rolling Stone story shows is that maybe we’ve reached a point where we hold stories about rape to a lower standard.
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