To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Friday, December 19, 2014

Sabrina Rubin Erdely, Rolling Stone’s UVA Rape Writer, Has A 'LOL’ LinkedIn Account

Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s LinkedIn page offers some inadvertent humor in light of the train wreck her article about the “rape culture” at UVA has produced for Rolling Stone.

The RS contributor sees herself as a “feature writer and tireless reporter” whose work has appeared in a long list of impressive national glossies, as well as "possibly some other publications that don’t come to mind right now.” She adds that she specializes “in narrative nonfiction, with a particular focus on crime, health & society -- and anything, it seems, that requires about a thousand interviews.” Her work, she also notes, “has won an armload of prestigious awards.” In conclusion, she declares “I love what I do." 

As the UVA rape story enters its second month of controversy, the LinkedIn lulz stand in stark contrast to the Rolling Stone’s editorial agony. The magazine has been to forced to launch an “internal review” into where it’s reporting, editing and fact checking procedures fell down, which follows two different “Note to Our Readers,” both of which left critics and readers growling. The first focused on “Jackie,” the victim, who was the primary focus of much of the RS account, explaining that “Our trust in her was misplaced." Amending the note after an uproar for “blaming the victim,” the magazine took responsibility for reporting errors, saying "These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie."

So far, even without the results of the internal review, there’s mounting evidence that Rubin Erdely failed to do the due diligence required to verify that the main character in her Rolling Stone article on campus rape at the university of Virginia was in fact assaulted by seven men at a frat party, or to verify that there even was a frat party to begin with. She also seems to have misrepresented what the friends who came to her aid after the rape said and did when she called them out in the middle of the night for help. In the article, Rubin Erdley portrays the three friends as being more worried about the social repercussions of helping the victim than in getting her to the hospital and alerting authorities.

 The Washington Post, the AP and others have all reported that Rubin Erdley seems to have fallen fatally short of her “1000 interviews” claim, and made an agreement with the alleged victim not to contact the “perpetrators” for their side of the story. And other news organizations have also reported that Rubin Erdley did not interview the three friends who she said came to the alleged victim just after the supposed attack, despite reconstructing their encounter and the conversation at its center for the article she wrote.

Such revelations give the pronounced impression that Rubin Erdley may have lied about her efforts to contact them and instead lazily relied on the alleged victim for a reconstruction of the post-attack encounter, which did not remotely happen as Rubin Erdely reported. As one of these students told the AP: "I couldn't help but notice that everything that the article said about me was incorrect.” One of the other students told CNN that "That whole entire conversation about debating the social price of reporting a rape, and any sort of detriment to a reputation that might come around from reporting a rape, absolutely never happened." This student added that the description of the victim standing barefoot in a bloody dress was at odds with what he saw firsthand: "I didn't notice any sort of physical injuries. I didn't notice a lack of shoes. I really didn't notice anything that was consistent with the physical description that was in the article."

The tone of the LinkedIn page, which manages to be glib and grandiose at the same time,  is noteworthy ---the many publications for whom she has written and "possibly some other publications that don't come to mind right now." In fact, it’s kinda bi-polar. Which is an adjective that certainly captures the ups and downs Rubin Erdley has experienced since her piece came online November 19 for the December 4th issue of RS. In the week immediately after her piece was published, Rubin Erdely was the toast of the national media, profiled by the Washington Post and booked as a guest on public radio, PBS and MSNBC.  The Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg, like Rubin Erdely a University of Pennsylvania alum, tweeted that “Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story on UVA’s culture of rape is astonishing. A superb reporting job.” 

But once critics like Worth editor Richard Bradley, who had once been rooked by infamous New Republic fabricator Stephen Glass when Bradley was editor of George magazine, began to poke holes in her reporting, Rubin Erdely became a media piñata. The Washington Post was relentless, sending reporters into the field to speak to the subjects whom Rubin Erdley, it turns out, never did. The Post’s media reporter and its media critic added to the coverage which produced a string of devastating reports and commentary in the first half of December. PBS wound up appending a note to their Nov 21 interview with Rubin Erdely. Jeffery Goldberg, whose own badly sourced reporting on Iraq’s WMD in 2002 still haunts his credibility as the “official therapist” of the US-Israel special relationship, promptly tweeted that his “week’s biggest regret” was “praising that Rolling Stone piece.” Choosing to throw Rolling Stone under the bus and not his fellow alum even as he seems to have forgotten how fact-checkers at the New Yorker allowed his erroneous WMD reporting through the editorial gate, Goldberg added: “It never struck me that a magazine with fact-checkers on staff wouldn’t use them.“ Rubin Erdely retreated into a bunker, refusing to answer questions from journalists and even put her busy (and also boastful) Twitter feed to sleep.

Rubin Erdley’s LinkedIn account also cites the many journalistic awards the now disgraced writer has won. Among them is a 1993 “Rolling Stone College Journalism Award” for a profile of the “Christian rocker” Michelle Shocked.

What Rubin Erdley did not share however is she “borrowed” from other news organizations for the facts she “reported” in that story, which is also called “plagiarism” --- and that most of those “facts” in that award-winning story turned out to be bogus.

In a video clip of an October 2012 presentation she gave at her Ivy League alma mater, Rubin Erdley explained that she had missed a press conference Shocked had given and had “fused” her story together from other media sources. "I went to the library and pulled up tons of clips on her, borrowed whatever facts I could find. It turns out that those facts, which were in mainstream publications and magazines, were not actually factual. Which completely shocked me. I just assumed those were real and legit but they were not at all."

Erdley told her interviewer, RS contributing editor Anthony De Curtis, that Michelle Shocked’s husband at the time, the well-known music journalist Bart Bull called her up at home and stepped her through her errors. He did so less to scold her than to help her in a avuncular kind of way, she explained. “He had read the story and just about everything in the story was wrong," Rubin Erdley told De Curtis somewhat matter-of-factly.

Despite the factual inaccuracies of the profile, and its dubious methodology, which for the record entailed no interviews at all, Erdely took the RS award as a "sign from God" that she should be a journalist instead of a psychiatrist. She switched from pre med to major in English, graduating in 1994. She was immediately hired at Philadelphia magazine by Eliot Kaplan, another Penn alum, who is now head of “talent acquisition” at Hearst.   

Rolling Stone isn’t commenting right now about the UVA rape fiasco, or about Sabrina Rubin Erdely. I’m sure though that its editors now wish the magazine had noticed problems in her work long ago---and never gave her the award that she took as divine encouragement.  

Of course, a psychiatrist with a loose sense of the truth and a loose sense of professional ethics can do a lot of damage too. But it’s usually one patient at a time, and not anywhere near the broad damage that Rubin Erdley has wrecked on the reputations of a university, on a fraternity system, on nearly a dozen individuals who were defamed, slandered and libeled by this bit of “execrable” journalism, as the Washington Post has called it, and on the journalistic credibility of Rolling Stone, especially its rigorous fact-checking process.  

And that’s not even getting into the harm done to individuals and institutions at the center of Rubin Erdley’s other pieces for RS, as well as the ones she has written for well-known magazines such as The New Yorker, Philadelphia, Self and Cosmopolitan. Many of these pieces, which I’ve read over the last week or so, give off the same problematic odor as her dubious UVA rape story.  They are overreliant on anonymous sources who make outlandish claims and offer ringing quotes that are “too good to be true.” They’re also focused on traumatized victims who may become objects of solicitude or hypersensitivity for fact-checkers, if the fact-checkers were even allowed direct access to them, which in the case of UVA’s Jackie I’ll bet did not happen. I reached out to Philadelpha to see if they were planning an audit of the pieces Rubin Erdely did for them and was told they weren’t sure if they were planning on one but would get back to me. I spoke with Nicole Scott, the managing editor who said she was a Penn grad too, from the class of 2013. Penn grads seem to move up the ladder pretty quick.

The Rubin Erdely pieces I found troubling epitomize the very “radical chic” sensibility that Tom Wolfe, a Rolling Stone writer for some time, once satirized. These pieces take a sensational approach to the presumed moral and institutional failings of the Catholic Church, Christian evangelicals and the American military, with ideological feminism functioning as a pole star and filter, edged with ethnic snark and cultural prejudice.

The UVA story, for instance, is filled with what the cultural studies majors might refer to as Anti Wasp “hate signifiers,”  ---“dog whistles,” as ethnic guardians like Jeffrey Goldberg call them. Rubin Erdley describes ”the toned, tanned, overwhelmingly blonde” members of the UVA student body, as well as the university’s “aura of preppy success,” “old money” and “privilege.”  UVA is a place “where social status is paramount,” she writes, with the university’s “cherished Party culture” fusing “the decorum of the Southern aristocracy with binge drinking.”

Rubin Erdely has acknowledged that she had considered using other schools as her focus for an examination of campus “rape culture”---Harvard, Yale and her alma, Penn among them---“rape shopping,” it’s been called. But she chose UVa instead, a place where Scott McConnell of the American Conservative explains, “the perpetrators could unambiguously presented as white Christian males—a group which would likely be underrepresented at any other prestige college.” Indeed, you can say what you will about Penn, where the ethnic and religious composition of the student body is much, much different than UVA’s, but it’s hard to see anyone ever describing that school as “overwhelmingly blonde” or being Aryan Highball Heaven.  

Likewise the aroma exuded from “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex Crime Files,” a 2011 expose of the “secret” archives that the Philadelphia Archdiocese maintained on its clerical abusers and their victims. The piece, accompanied by an illustration of bloody Jesus on the cross, focused on a former Philadelphia altar boy who claimed that two priests and a Catholic schoolteacher “raped and sodomized” him when he was ten years old in 1998, “sometimes making him perform stripteases or getting him drunk on sacramental wine after Mass.”  Rubin Erdley based this piece on a grand jury report that was found to have at least 20 factual inaccuracies, and failed to acknowledge that every time the victim told his story he changed it, in the end  dropping the most lurid accusations at trial. As former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Ralph Cipriano reported in Newsweek, Rubin Erdley also failed to tell readers of the accuser’s extensive criminal record and history of drug abuse that impugned his credibility, and that every witness who police interviewed, including the boy’s mother, brother and former teacher, contradicted the boy’s account.

On TV, Bill Donahue of the Catholic League often comes across a bit under-medicated. But his letter of complaint to Rolling Stone that Erdely’s clerical sex abuse piece inspired was spot on, especially about the article’s conspiratorial tone. Wrote Donahue

As with any form of prejudice, there are staples that are commonly employed by bigoted writers. Anti- Catholics, for instance, like to play on the stereotype that the Church operates in secret, as a top-down organization, run by Rome. True to form, not including the title of Erdely’s piece, the term “secret” appears 16 times in her article… This is the kind of melodramatic language that is important to Erdely’s agenda; it invites the reader to think the worst about the Church.

And let’s not forget Rubin Erdely’s 1998 Philadelphia piece about a high end suburban prostitute, who has come to be known as the “Mainline Madam.” This yuppie hooker/mother, Rubin Erdley claimed, was bothered by the fact that some people thought prostitution was immoral. The hooker, Erica, Rubin Erdley explained, was “a devout Catholic who goes to church twice weekly and considers herself an exemplary human being with a strong sense of values.” Like many other rubin Erdley pieces, this one too has a central character who was given a pseudonym (“Erica”) and whose claims, particularly about the frequency of her mass-going, were difficult if not impossible to fact check. 

Some journalists are now speaking of Rubin Erdley in the same breath as Stephen Glass, the New Republic’s serial fabulist and fabricator who, incidentally, also wrote for Rolling Stone before scandal brought him down in 1998. Some think RS, which was lackluster in reviewing the work Glass had done for them, and even went so far as to hire him again for a 2003 piece on Canadian marijuana laws, might be experiencing karmic payback.

 In fact, Rubin Erdley was a classmate of Glass’s, who was the editor of the Penn student newspaper when Rubin wrote for it. In a Penn alumni magazine piece about Shattered Glass, the film made from that 1998 episode, Rubin Erdley said she had once regarded her fellow student journalist as an endearing if “pathetic weenie," but began to realize he was a “sociopathic creep.” 

I wonder whether Rubin Erdley doth protest too much about Glass. In fact, if she would ever respond to my efforts to contact her, I would have to ask whether Glass may have coached her in putting together the piece that won that 1993 RS student prize--the one she admits to plagiarizing and getting wrong--- just as her victim Jackie might have coached her in inventing so many of the fraudulent details in Rubin Erdley's most recent, and probably her last, Rolling Stone article. As they say, it’s hard to make all this up. But it gets a little easier when you have help. 

Interestingly, it seems that  Jackie might have employed some of Glass’s manipulative methods to establish the persona of “Haven Monahan,” the UVA upperclassman she told her three first-year friends was interested in her and who took her on the ill-fated date that ended in the frat house gang rape. According to the Washington Times, the numbers Jackie gave her friends for “Haven Monahan” were from online texting services, like Pinger, which make it easy to hide or invent an ID and scam the unsuspecting. It’s also possible that Jackie used Glass-like digital tricks to fabricate an email account for “Randall” the friend in the story who came to her aid that night in 2012, who Rubin Erdely said in her article refused to talk to her “out of loyalty to his own frat.” Jackie may have even employed dummy emails for the two other rape victims who were said to have also been attacked at the same frat as Jackie who Rubin Erdley claimed “chose not to speak to RS.” 

With RS staying mum about it’s “internal review,” we’ll have to wait to find out whether Jackie created any fake websites along the lines of the one that Stephen Glass used concocted for “Jukt Micronics,” which led to his downfall. We’ll also have to wait to see what what lessons RS may draw about the kind of writers it hires and the rigor of the editing and fact checking they get. For now though, it’s safe to say that one of the important lessons of writing a LinkedIn profile is to be careful what you brag about. Especially the number of interviews you routinely perform in the course of your award-winning work.  


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