Lessons From the Rolling Stone Debacle

It would be absurd to insist that what happened in the case of the Rolling Stone story somehow stands in for every journalist, activist or editor who deals with rape.

Rolling Stone, and managing editor Will Dana, screwed up.

Photographer: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for The Norman Mailer Center

The saga of Rolling Stone's story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia continues, with more fine reporting from the Washington Post. This is possibly the worst installment yet. As Hanna Rosin notes, it "strongly implies, without outright saying so, that the gang rape at the center of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article might be fabricated." Washington Post got in touch with the friends who saw her the night of the alleged rape, and they tell a very different story from the one that Jackie does. I'm going to let Rosin narrate, rather than try to construct my own paraphrase:

Earlier, those friends told the Post that Jackie told them she’d been forced to have oral sex -- a much different story than what Jackie told Rolling Stone. This new Post article adds some details that make the entire account seem more suspicious. Jackie had told her friends -- referred to by the pseudonyms “Cindy,” “Andy,” and “Randall” in the original story and in the Post’s follow-ups -- that she had a date on Sept. 28, 2012, with a handsome junior in her chemistry class. (In the version she told to Rolling Stone, that date was with someone she'd met at her lifeguarding job.) But in the Post story, the friends imply that this junior might not exist and may have been invented by Jackie to make Randall jealous.

When the friends first heard about this junior, they were intrigued and asked Jackie for his number. They started exchanging text messages with him, and he described Jackie as a “super smart hot” freshman. He complained, though, that she liked a “nerd 1st yr” -- meaning Randall -- who is “smart and funny and worth it.” Jackie’s friends could never find this junior in the UVA database nor on social media. She provided her friends with a picture of him, but the Post has since learned that the guy in the picture is a high school classmate of Jackie’s who does not go to the University of Virginia and was in another state participating in an athletic tournament on the night of the alleged rape. (More recently, Jackie gave her friends the name of a different guy. The Post also contacted him, and he said he’d never met Jackie.)

The Post story doesn’t connect all the dots, but it’s not hard to do. Jackie has now given her friends two different names for the man she was with that night. Neither of them was in fact with her, ever dated her, or even knew her all that well. She appears to have invented a suitor, complete with fake text messages and a fake photo, which suggests a capacity for somewhat elaborate deception. Jackie, though, has not recanted her story. Her attorney would not answer questions for the Post's story on Wednesday and has told reporters to stop contacting Jackie.

A few things are worth noting here.

The first is that this was not a story that should have been investigated in the pages of the Washington Post. Jackie's story should have been checked, and quietly dropped from the article, by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. By choosing to say "I believe" rather than undertake the fraught process of questioning the story of a vulnerable and traumatized woman, Rolling Stone ensured that this girl's story would instead be litigated in a public way that is damaging to a girl who is already clearly very damaged. 

The second is that this is the danger of starting out knowing the story you want to tell. Generally, when I write a feature, I have no idea what I'm going to find. Is the thing I think is a problem actually going to turn out to be a problem? Sometimes the answer is "no" or "not the way that you think," and sometimes the answer is "it's exactly as bad as you thought, maybe even worse." The point is that my view of the subject frequently changes in some significant way. Erdely, by contrast, seems to have started out knowing the story she wanted to tell, about a campus where rape is out of control and authorities are indifferent, and sifted through stories until she found a place that matched the narrative. This is incredibly dangerous. It is also not rare. Indeed, scientists have a name for it: confirmation bias.

The third is that this story should be keeping every good reporter awake at night. Not because the editing and reporting process is set up to allow these stories through, mind you; there were numerous breakdowns in the process here, including the fact that Rolling Stone's in-house lawyer seems to have been in the process of departing as the story went to press. But the fact that it broke down so badly reinforces the need for eternal vigilance about the possibility of problematic stories making it through the editorial gauntlet at a storied magazine that is supposed to have a fairly thorough fact-checking process.

It also highlights the need to be willing to reconsider stories in the light of new questions or evidence. When questions first emerged, a number of people treated quashing those questions as the moral equivalent of war, attacking the questioners as if being skeptical of a story was itself wrong -- rather than exactly the spirit of inquiry that makes science, and public debate, work. Others pointed out that trauma victims often have fragmentary or contradictory memories, which is generally true of all eyewitnesses, not just trauma victims, and not really sufficient to explain the gaping holes in this particular story. When we get wedded to our narratives, we become blind. That is true of everyone -- the people who were appropriately skeptical of this story as well as the people who weren't -- and we all need to be on guard against it all the time.

And the fourth is that this should demonstrate -- to everyone -- the problem of taking extraordinary stories as representative. Before the problems emerged with the Rolling Stone story, I saw a lot of people talking as if this story somehow represented a broad and pervasive problem on college campuses rather than a single incident. Even if the story had held up, this would have been a vast overstatement. All sorts of horrific crimes happen in America, and the legal system does not always get the justice we would like. They are not necessarily representative of American culture, or even flaws in our institutions; they are reflections of the fact that we live in a big country, and like any big country, we have some bad apples.

But people who are worried about the problem of false rape accusations are now in danger of making the same mistake. If Jackie's story is a hoax, it is no more representative than it would be if it were true. It is one story. Were reporters and editors excessively credulous because of the nature of the accusation? That seems likely. But that doesn't mean that most accusations of rape are false, or that feminists are happy to tell fake stories in order to advance the cause. It is evidence for greater caution in repeating rape stories; it is not evidence of a vast conspiracy to falsely accuse young men of rape. Whatever happened at UVA, it is singular and complicated, at best an example of a potential problem, not evidence that it happens a lot.

The people who called the skeptics "rape denialists" or "rape truthers" made the mistake of making the specific stand in for the whole. Disbelieving this particular story was taken as disbelieving in the existence of rape, which is absurd. But it would be equally absurd to insist that what happened in this particular case somehow stands in for every journalist, activist or editor who deals with rape. The country is large, its institutions are many, and its people are incredibly diverse. No one story can sum us all up in a neat package. We would all do well to remember that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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