In an embarrassing reversal Friday afternoon, Rolling Stone magazine acknowledged serious problems with last month’s sensational report about an alleged rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house of a first-year student identified only as “Jackie.”
The magazine said that it was a mistake not to have observed standard journalistic protocol and contacted Jackie’s alleged attackers to obtain their side of the story and test the veracity of Jackie’s narrative, in which she said that in the fall of 2012, she was lured from a drunken frat party to a darkened room by a young man with the pseudonym “Drew” and then was repeatedly raped by seven of Drew’s fraternity brothers as he cheered them on.
“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” managing editor Will Dana wrote in a “Note to Our Readers” posted on on the magazine’s website. “We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.”
Suddenly casting doubt on Jackie’s credibility, the statement does not suggest that the magazine is probing possible flaws in its fact-checking and reporting practices.
As recently as Thursday, Rolling Stone was still defending the story against a growing chorus of critics. The magazine’s in-house publicist sent The Daily Beast this statement:
“The story we published was one woman’s account of a sexual assault at a UVA fraternity in September 2012—and the subsequent ordeal she experienced at the hands of University administrators in her attempts to work her way through the trauma of that evening. The indifference with which her complaint was met was, we discovered, sadly consistent with the experience of many other UVA women who have tried to report such assaults. Through our extensive reporting and fact—checking, we found Jackie to be entirely credible and courageous and we are proud to have given her disturbing story the attention it deserves.”
That statement became inoperative on Friday.
The Daily Beast left messages—as yet unreturned at the time of this posting—for Rolling Stone’s in-house publicist and a University of Virginia communications official.
The 9,000-word story—by Rolling Stone contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdley—had immediate nationwide impact and prompted University of Virginia administrators to shut down all of the campus’s fraternities and sororities pending an investigation by the Charlottesville police department of the alleged incident.
But a growing number of critics, including Michael Moynihan in The Daily Beast, expressed skepticism about details of Jackie’s harrowing account, about Erdley’s unorthodox journalistic methods, and about Rolling Stone’s decision to publish the extremely damaging story without attempting to confirm or rebut the allegations with the accused rapists or their representatives.
In several interviews to promote her scoop, Erdley explained that she didn’t reach out to the university’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity members because she was concerned about Jackie’s safety and the potential that the fraternity members would seek retribution—an explanation that didn’t account for how the Phi Kappa Psi members might react to having their entire fraternity house accused of a serious felony.
On Friday, The Washington Post reported that Ben Warthen, an attorney for Phi Kappa Psi, said the fraternity planned to issue a rebuttal of Erdley’s claims in the story. The Post reported that several of the alleged victim’s close friends and campus sex assault awareness advocates also said they doubted elements of Erdley’s narrative.
In key discrepancies reported by the Post, “officials close to the fraternity” said that Phi Kappa Psi didn’t, as Erdley alleged, host a party on September 28, 2012; nor was any fraternity member, during the time frame alleged in Erdley’s story, employed as a lifeguard along with Jackie at the university’s Aquatic Fitness Center.
According to Erdley’s story—which the magazine initially claimed was meticulously fact-checked—Jackie went on a date with Drew, the supposed fellow lifeguard, and afterward attended an alcohol-fueled party at the Phi Kappa Psi house.
Drew allegedly lured her upstairs to a pitch-black room where she was tackled by another man, shattering a glass table, and brutally gang-raped over the course of three hours, with shards of glass digging into her back, by seven male students; one them punched her in the face while the others laughed, and another allegedly penetrated her with a beer bottle.
Erdley’s story—which was written from Jackie’s point of view without the usual journalistic caveats and qualifiers—also portrayed a widespread campus culture, from students to university administrators, that looked the other way at sexual assault complaints.
As for Jackie, while she told The Washington Post that some details in Rolling Stone of her story might not be accurate, she maintains the rape happened.
“What bothers me is that so many people act like it didn’t happen. It’s my life. I have had to live with the fact that it happened every day for the last two years.”
UPDATE: Managing editor Will Dana took greater responsibility for Rolling Stone's errors in a series of tweets Friday evening.