Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple penned an obituary of sorts on Friday for “the full demise of Rolling Stone’s rape story,” based on the latest discovery from the Post that the man that Jackie (the story’s accuser) cited as her date that night appears to be a student at the University of Virginia.
It all raises a mind-boggling possibility: that [reporter Sabrina] Erdely made an exhaustive effort to interview peripheral sources, leaving no time for the central ones. The Erik Wemple Blog has asked Rolling Stone for an inventory of the friends interviewed by Erdely, as well as other information about the reporting. That’s an extravagant request — but presumably Rolling Stone is already compiling such a file, if it’s serious about figuring out how it produced the shoddiest piece of journalism in recent memory. We haven’t heard back from the magazine.
The specifics of The Post’s latest story, titled “U-Va. students challenge Rolling Stone account of alleged sexual assault,” deliver bad news to Rolling Stone on two levels. For starters, the story upends the specifics of what Rolling Stone reported. Not only did the nature of the sexual assault alleged in “A Rape on Campus” not align with what Jackie told the three friends that night, but The Post reports that the man who was reportedly Jackie’s date that night “hasn’t been to Charlottesville for at least six years,” he says.
Publications can be excused for getting things wrong; that happens all the time. What’s inexcusable, however, is that in this case, Rolling Stone did nothing to stave off catastrophic error. As The Post reports, the friends were “never contacted or interviewed by the pop culture magazine’s reporters or editors,” meaning that neither Erdely nor the magazine’s fact-checkers lifted a finger to check with the story’s most obvious source of corroboration. In a “note to readers” following the collapse of the story, Rolling Stone acknowledged that it didn’t attempt to contact the alleged assailants in deference to the wishes of Jackie.
What’s the excuse for the failure to reach the friends? We’ve asked for an explanation on this front as well.
Behold the mammoth deception grilled into the Rolling Stone piece itself. In a paragraph outlining Jackie’s concerns about seeing the Rolling Stone article published, Erdely writes, “Greek life is huge at UVA, with nearly one-third of undergrads belonging to a fraternity or sorority, so Jackie fears the backlash could be big – a “s[---]show” predicted by her now-former friend Randall, who, citing his loyalty to his own frat, declined to be interviewed.”
Any consumer of journalism would conclude that Erdely had contacted “Randall” in an attempt to get his side of the story (just as any consumer of journalism would conclude that a reporter describing the attire, demeanor and statements of a man in a jail’s visitors hall was in the room with him). Yet “Randall” tells The Post that “he was never contacted by Rolling Stone and would have agreed to an interview.” So just how did this fellow “decline”?
Erdely could not claim she didn't talk to Jackie's friends out of consideration for Jackie. This phony article needed the friends to offer the propagandistic wallop about how oppressive the frat culture was on U-VA's social scene. No one will talk, or they won't get into any parties. Wemple talked to Post local editor Mike Semel about how they pulled the Rolling Stone story apart. Semel insists they weren't out to discredit anyone.
The latest Post installment outlines a complicated set of interactions among the friends. Semel explains: “We all agreed that the people she reached out to that night would have the best perspective on the university’s response. They were an untapped source that would have most firsthand knowledge.” Bold text added for a reason: Semel avoided directly addressing Rolling Stone’s actions, deferring such questions to media critics. That said, his comment that these friends remained an “untapped source” days after Rolling Stone ran the story is a devastating piece of accidental media criticism.
Laziness would be the charitable explanation as to why these friends weren’t contacted by Rolling Stone. As we’ve written in this space, Erdely’s mission appears to have been to present as sensational and damaging an account of fraternity excesses as she could gather. To have interviewed these three pivotal sources would have meant inviting the story’s demise.