Gang Rape And “Trust Me” Journalism

uva-2-800-770x330The Rolling Stone article on an alleged brutal gang rape at a fraternity at the University of Virginia is stirring widespread disgust. But the details on the alleged assault appear to come almost entirely from one person who has not come forward.  When the Washington Post’s Paul Fahri sought information how journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely wrote the story, “Erdely declined to address specific questions about her reporting when contacted on Sunday and Monday.” Instead, Erdely sent the Post an email:

“I could address many of [the questions] individually . . . but by dwelling on this, you’re getting sidetracked. As I’ve already told you, the gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie — a person whom I found to be credible — told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way — i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.”

The issue is not whether the University of Virginia has sometimes failed miserably to thoroughly investigate sexual assault allegations in the past.   Nor is the issue whether UVA has a surplus of alcoholics, arrogant twits, and obnoxious fraternities.

The issue is whether nine guys participated in a brutal gang rape of one student at a specific fraternity two years ago. Erdely apparently never contacted the alleged assailants to get their response or defense.

The Rolling Stone UVA Gang Rape story is “trust me” journalism: if a single detail is false, then the entire story collapses.  And the heinousness of a crime does not absolve a reporter for providing hard evidence.

Working as a journalist the past few decades, I have had plenty of opportunities to write shocking articles based on sole sources who insisted on remaining anonymous.  I didn’t do the articles in part because I did not want to ask readers to rely on my assertions in lieu of other substantiating evidence.

If Erdely cannot prove that the key event in her story happened as she reported it,  there should be a tidal wave of questions for her and Rolling Stone. And if her story is accurate, then the perpetrators should be vigorously prosecuted and sent up the river for a long time. And if any university officials knew of the crime as Erdely reported it happened, heads should roll.

By the way – Rolling Stone was sued in 1998 for publishing fabricated information by Stephen Glass in an article about DARE America.  Many people recall Glass’es connection the New Republic but the Rolling Stone lawsuit has been forgotten by almost everyone.


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9 Responses to Gang Rape And “Trust Me” Journalism

  1. Brian Wilson December 2, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

    “Duke Lacrosse Team” strike a familiar note?
    Interesting how the Media’s heavy breathing increases and decreases with the racial components.

    • The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit December 3, 2014 at 10:24 am #

      Yeah, where’s a good corrupt prosecutor like Mike Nifong when you need him!

  2. Nicolas December 3, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    Many seem to have forgotten Wapo’s Janet Cooke and her bogus articles. Thomas Szasz explained how it could happen.

  3. Jim December 3, 2014 at 1:12 pm #

    Nicolas, thanks for posting the link to the excellent Szasz analysis.

    As more details come out on how the Rolling Stone story was written, it sounds like the journalist was searching for exactly the type of incident she wrote up.

    • The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit December 3, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

      Which, by itself, is not a crime. I want to write about X, I need to go out and find some facts about X to write about. But when X is something I want to write about, but have no facts to support it …. well, so long as it’s in the “editorial” section of the paper, it’s no big deal. However, turning to “let’s just make up facts to support X,” well, THEN we’ve got us some problems.

  4. Jim December 3, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    Even more problematic, apparently the alleged gang rapists are somehow identifiable from the story. (Not sure on the preceding point.) If one is alleging that identifiable individuals participated in a gang rape, getting their side of the story perhaps even more prudent.

  5. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit December 4, 2014 at 10:46 am #

    What are you, some sort of antediluvian Neanderthal? Suggesting there should be some sort of balance in journalism is SO 20th century (and not even much there)! Everybody knows that “good” journalists are zealous advocates for Righteous Causes. The rest are mere scriveners.

    Which is technically how newspapers functioned for a long time, as I understand it. There’s a reason why many of them had “Democrat” or “Republican” in their name….

  6. Jim December 4, 2014 at 10:55 am #

    Being labeled “antediluvian” is an upgrade for me. Folks usually suffice with calling me “simian.”


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