The controversy that is the Rolling Stone‘s University of Virginia gang-rape story continues apace with Rolling Stone editor Will Dana penning a short update to his now-infamous postscript to the story. The editor’s note, posted in response to revelations surrounding Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story, was panned as irresponsible, insensitive, and tantamount to victim-blaming.
Bowing to pressure, Dana’s update deleted the bold-face portion of the following sentence: “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.” The following sentence was also added later in the note: “These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.”
The change in emphasis is a clear attempt to appease those for whom expressions of doubt in cases such as these are identical to rape apology. Dana’s first note received immense backlash in comment sections and social media, prompting the about-face — shifting the blame from Jackie onto Rolling Stone. And that’s how it should be; Will Dana screwed up by allowing an ideologically motivated reporter to cover such a story.
Yet, while Rolling Stone is correct in assuming blame, there is a fundamental truth here that should not be cast aside for the sake of assuaging criticism. Jackie’s story is full of holes, just as is Erdely’s ramshackle, biased reporting. Jackie’s story simply doesn’t jibe, it contains too many inconsistencies and contradictions. According to Jackie, the room in which the attack took place was “pitch-dark,” yet she also claims to have seen the faces of some of her alleged attackers, and even notes how spectators at the alleged ordeal “swigged beers.”
Jackie’s friends, cited as witnesses to Jackie’s mental and physical state following the alleged attack, contradicted much of Erdely’s reporting. One of those friends, “Cindy,” told the Washington Post that the discussion Jackie claims took place after her alleged attack, where friends dissuaded her from reporting her ordeal to authorities, never happened. And that is to say nothing about the fact that Erdely never bothered to actually talk to any of the accused.
There are many, many more problems with Jackie’s account and with Erdely’s story, but suffice it to say that Rolling Stone now stands utterly humiliated before the international press. Will Dana allowed Erdely to place ideology ahead of truth and ethics and is now reaping the consequences. If Rolling Stone is to rebuild its reputation, then some serious housecleaning is in order. Erdely must go — as must Dana. As editor, he bears ultimate responsibility for the actions of those underneath him and for tone and ethics at the magazine.
For her part, Erdely contemptuously threw journalistic ethics into the garbage. She scoured the United States for a university that was teeming with privilege but also one with a sinister underbelly, pregnant with salacious tales of rich kids behaving like monsters. She wanted a story with a luscious dynamic, a chiaroscuro of squeaky-clean tradition and fidelity secretly mired in filth. In Jackie, and UVA, she found her El Dorado; she now had a truly horrific rape narrative of which she could take advantage. Her purpose in finding Jackie wasn’t to tell a story in a fair and objective fashion, nor was it to bring an individual’s suffering into relief. Her intention was to strengthen the push behind the campus rape culture narrative; it was obvious agitprop, designed not to inform but to enrage.
Indeed, narrative, and not fact, forms the centre of Erdely’s reporting. There is a discomfiting pattern that emerges when going through her old stories. She gives scant credence to establishing solid facts and unquestioningly reports sources’ versions of events as though it were gospel. What emerges is a form of storytelling that is exceptionally unfair, unbalanced, and finally unethical. Erdely’s article “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex Crime Files” is one such piece of storytelling, awash with dramatic verbiage and a plot worthy of a Dan Brown potboiler. That story, like many of Erdely’s, are now being revisited, with some older criticisms that didn’t gain attention before resurfacing now in front of a new audience.
The coming days and weeks will see Erdely’s oeuvre sifted through for inaccuracies, falsehoods, and outright lies. At this point, Erdely is toxic, and anybody professionally close to her should don protective gloves and back away.
One can only hope that the lessons learned from this debacle find their way into textbooks and classrooms — and that our ethics come out the stronger.