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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Rolling Stone’s UVA Rape Hoax, In A Nutshell

The Columbia Journalism School’s report on the Rolling Stone UVA campus rape fiasco weighed in at 13,000 words and has been credited with being exhaustive in its attention to detail and sophisticated in its appreciation for nuance.  It probably offers far more information on RS author Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s faulty reporting methods and shortcomings in RS editing and fact checking processes than anybody would really ever want to know.  

Somehow though the report doesn’t quite convey the magnitude of the hoax that was involved, nor a sense of just how clever Jackie was in constructing it and how credulous Sabrina Rubin Erdley was in falling for it. In fact, the “nutshell” summary actually captures what was really going on in a much more forceful, even mind blowing manner. In its most distilled form, what we finally have is: 

A horrendous three-hour gang-rape that never happened  
Described with details that were forensically impossible
Committed by seven men who were never identified     
At a party that never took place
In a fraternity house the victim never entered  
After a dinner date she never went on
With an upperclassman who was wholly imaginary  
Whose picture had been downloaded from the internet
To fool three friends who came to the victim’s rescue
Whom the victim would later defame.

The episode made for some serious Big Trouble. But in trying to understand its central essence, less offers more here and cuts closer to the quick. The crimes involved in the fraud that was perpetrated at UVA are both real and journalistic. Yet they have less to do with the epidemic of "campus rape" than with its fraught politics. The void at the center of this case was filled with many things, facts and real people not foremost among them.   

Monday, April 20, 2015

Some Of The Many Things That Rolling Stone's Sabrina Rubin Erdely Probably Wishes She Never Said In & About Her Bogus UVA 'Rape' Story

Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s thoroughly debunked Rolling Stone story on the “rape culture” of UVA has been taken down from its website following its official retraction. But since nothing ever dies on the internet, it lives on in infamy, with a little help from the Way Back Machine for anyone who wants to read it. 

Far easier to find though are the arrogant, deceptive and misleading things she said in the course of publicizing her fraudulent piece. Likewise the things she said while defending it from challenges from reporters with far more professional skepticism than  she had, especially in assessing the credibility of  a three hour gang rape that never in fact happened by 9 UVA frat boys who never in fact existed.

There’s also her Linked in account, as well as a dozen or more examples of her past work---for RS, for Philadelphia and for a number of women’s magazines---which seem to have credibility problems much like her UVA piece.

The main problem with Erdely is not that she brought herself low on just on one piece but that much of her oeuvre is problematic. It’s filled with stories taking cheap shots at “patriarchal” institutions like the Catholic Church, the military and the evangelical Christian movement, and using suspicious pseudonymous, anonymous sources to do so, along with quotes too good to check and descriptions of circumstances far more politically, culturally and legally complicated to make the simpleminded, reductive conclusions she makes about institutional misbehavior.

As filled with damning evidence as the Columbia Journalism School report on the episode was, I think it SRE off easy, which in turn made it easy for RS owner Jann Wenner to announce, even before J School Dean Steve Coll had given his press conference to answer questions about the report, that no one at RS wd be fired, and that SRE would continue writing for the magazine. (Later that day someone at RS told the Times that SRE was actually already at work on another assignment.) Appalling. If she were a doctor or a lawyer engaged in such professional malfeasance, if not malpractice, at the very least her license would have been suspended.

SRE released a short apology that did not in the least begin to acknowledge the many individual parties she had victimized, omissions no doubt tied to the libel suits she and RS will face.  In such dicey legal conditions, an allocution that acknowledged her specific journalistic transgressions would be even more unlikely. It would also not be in keeping with the spirit of the J school post-mortem, and Steve Coll’s declaration that "We're not the DA's office. We're not a special prosecutor." 

But it might be more satisfying and revealing and in point of fact Erdely was a cooperating witness against herself, and cooperating witnesses often have to recite their wrongs for the record in order to receive leniency from the court.

Coll’s report is long and detailed, but it buries its own lead by failing to connect the dots between obvious journalistic dishonesty on SRE’s part---including lying, either directly and by omission--- and her overall journalistic integrity and fitness.  In short, the report says SRE doesn’t deserve to be fired because she didn’t evince the kind of dishonesty--“lying to colleagues, lying to your boss" that would be required to do so even though the report bears evidence of exactly that. Strange, inexplicable really, especially coming from someone ike Steve Coll whose tenure as ME of the Washington Post was not lacking in tough-mindedness, both  in his own investigative journalism  and in the star chambers he conducted in the cases of Post reporters who screwed up. I put some questions to him about that and he wouldn’t take them.

The list I’ve put together below, of things Sabrina Rubin Erdley probably now wishes she never said or wrote, annotated for context, might be a component of that allocutional accounting. In fact, maybe she should keep the list of these howlers taped next to her bathroom mirror and be required to read it every day as a stay against the pathological narcissism that plagues her work, her professional comportment and her own self awareness.  With the CJS report, SRE may no longer be professionally radioactive, but her professional sensibility is toxic.   Rolling Stone allows her to write again at their own peril. 


* The description of “Jackie’s” gang rape.

“Shut up," she heard a man's voice say as a body barreled into her, tripping her backward and sending them both crashing through a low glass table. There was a heavy person on top of her, spreading open her thighs, and another person kneeling on her hair, hands pinning down her arms, sharp shards digging into her back, and excited male voices rising all around her. When yet another hand clamped over her mouth, Jackie bit it, and the hand became a fist that punched her in the face….

"Grab its motherfucking leg," she heard a voice say. And that's when Jackie knew she was going to be raped.

She remembers every moment of the next three hours of agony, during which, she says, seven men took turns raping her, while two more – her date, Drew, and another man – gave instruction and encouragement. She remembers how the spectators swigged beers, and how they called each other nicknames like Armpit and Blanket. She remembers the men's heft and their sour reek of alcohol mixed with the pungency of marijuana. Most of all, Jackie remembers the pain and the pounding that went on and on.

As some early skeptics pointed out, the grab it’s leg” quote is from Silence of the Lambs, the shattered coffee table was probably borrowed from Ben Affleck’s Gone Girl. A full-on punch in the face like Jackie said she received would have broken her nose and possibly caused a concussion. Forced intercourse with seven men over three hours, one of them using a coke bottle, would very likely render a victim unable to walk.  Both Erdley and the RS fact checker showed incredible lack of professional skepticism in accepting this account, just on the physical details alone. Had they consulted a sex crimes investigator or prosecutor instead of experts in the psychology of  “trauma,” they would have been told that the forensics involved here are simply physically impossible.   


* Description of UVA’s apathetic, apoliticized culture: 

Four weeks into UVA's 2012 school year, 18-year-old Jackie was crushing it at college. A chatty, straight-A achiever from a rural Virginia town, she'd initially been intimidated by UVA's aura of preppy success, where throngs of toned, tanned and overwhelmingly blond students fanned across a landscape of neoclassical brick buildings, hurrying to classes, clubs, sports, internships, part-time jobs, volunteer work and parties; 

Genteel University of Virginia has no radical feminist culture seeking to upend the patriarchy. (It) isn't an edgy or progressive campus by any stretch… At UVA, rapes are kept quiet, both by students – who brush off sexual assaults as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture – and by an administration that critics say is less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal.

A phrase like “toned, tanned and overwhelmingly blonde” is a clear indication of anti WASP cultural and intellectual prejudice.  Use of the term “patriarchy” shows an obvious feminist ideological bias. In the end, the evidence Erdely cited about UVA’s preoccupation with protecting its repuation over protecting its students was erroneous, again reflecting an agenda but also her own journalistic ignorance of the limitations that federal guidelines place on universities in making public internal efforts to adjudicate campus sexual assaults.


* Rubin Erdley on UVA being known as “the rape school.” 

Asked why UVA doesn't publish all its data, President Sullivan explains that it might not be in keeping with "best practices" and thus may inadvertently discourage reporting. Jackie got a different explanation when she'd eventually asked Dean Eramo the same question. She says Eramo answered wryly, "Because nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school."

The dean in question here, Nicole Eramo, never gave an interview to Erdley so quoting her on this point is journalistically dubious. Most likely the quote to Erdely as hearsay, through Jackie and was never verified. Eramo will have the laugh word, probably in a libel or defamation suit, as an email she wrote to Columbia seems to suggest. Rolling Stone, she wrote through her lawyer, "made numerous false statements and misleading implications about the manner in which I conducted my job as the Chair of University of Virginia's Sexual Misconduct Board, including allegations about specific student cases…

…contrary to the quote attributed to me in Rolling Stone, I have never called the University of Virginia "the rape school," nor have I ever suggested — either professionally or privately — that parents would not "want to send their daughter" to UVA.  


* Erdley’s reporting on the “Three Friends” who Jackie called after the “attack” and the answers she gave to skeptical reporters who challenged her about them.
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 "shitshow" predicted by her now-former friend Randall, who, citing his loyalty to his own frat, declined to be interviewed.
In fact, Erdley never contacted any of the three friends to corroborate Jackie’s account, and so quoting the one she pseudonymously calls Randalls is journalistically dishonest and the statement that he declined to be interviewed out of loyalty to his own frat is simply a lie, on Jackie’s part but on Erdely’s part too.   
* Derogatory reference to one of the “Three Friends” that RS called “Cindy.”
(Jackie) was having an especially difficult time figuring out how to process that awful night, because her small social circle seemed so underwhelmed. For the first month of school, Jackie had latched onto a crew of lighthearted social strivers, and her pals were now impatient for Jackie to rejoin the merriment. "You're still upset about that?" Andy asked one Friday night when Jackie was crying. Cindy, a self-declared hookup queen, said she didn't see why Jackie was so bent out of shape. "Why didn't you have fun with it?" Cindy asked. "A bunch of hot Phi Psi guys?" One of Jackie's friends told her, unconcerned, "Andy said you had a bad experience at a frat, and you've been a baby ever since."
According to the Washington Post who actually interviewed her, Cindy never said anything like this to Jackie, much less openly referred to herself as a “hook-up queen.” Reports speculating on the likelihood of libel actions stemming from the RS piece have not focused on actions that Cindy could bring, but it’s hard not to think she’s might have a case against Erdely for making her look so callous and for erroneously depicting herself as a slut.
* Erdley to CJS on never contacting the three:
“They were always on my list.”
This one would be funny of it weren’t so indicative of Erdley’s lack of journalistic rigor and lack of professional ethics.  Corroborating Jackie’s account of the rape, as well as the derogatory nature of the discussion they had after being called by Jackie in the middle of the night, was central to the reporting, and not an afterthought as this lame statement seems to suggest. Finding and interviewing them was something Erdely, who the Columbia report depicted as an investigative reporter with 20 years of experience,  should have done first before proceeding to anything else, not leaving it on a checklist of other tasks she just didn’t get around to.

* Erdely on being poorly supervised:   
“In retrospect, I wish somebody had pushed me harder.”
At the very least, this is Erdley not taking personal responsibility for her own reportorial lapses and putting the blame on someone else, i.e. her editor Sean Woods. But in fact it is a lie. According to the account Wood gave CJS, Woods says he recalls have more than one conversation about this and did press Erdley on contacting the “three friends.” The report says Woods only relented after Erdley gave him the impression that she had “exhausted” her efforts to find them.

* Erdley’s evasive responses to journalists who asked if she knew who the fraternity attackers were and whether she had reached out to them for their side of Jackie’s gang rape.
Slate: Did you try and call them. Was there any communication between you and them?
SRE: “I reached out to them in multiple ways…. They were kind of hard to get in touch with because [the fraternity’s] contact page was pretty outdated. But I wound up speaking … I wound up getting in touch with their local president, who sent me an email, and then I talked with their sort of, their national guy, who’s kind of their national crisis manager. They were both helpful in their own way, I guess.
SRE: “I don’t want to say much about them as individuals but I’ll just say that this particular fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi — it’s really emblematic in a lot of ways of sort of like elitist fraternity culture.

* Responses to the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi who also asked about identifying Jackie’s attackers.

“She asked me not to name the individuals because she’s so fearful of them. That was something we agreed on.” Erdely would not say, however, whether she knew who they were. “I can’t answer that,” she told the Post. “This was a topic that made Jackie extremely uncomfortable.”

Here, Erdley dodges the question of whether or not she knows who the attackers were by implying that she had some kind of agreement with Jackie which barred her from even trying to uncover who they were. In fact, there was no such agreement. Erdley can’t identify the attackers because her reporting was so shoddy she never even learned their names, much less established they existed and that the rape actually happned.  CJS said Erdley shouldn’t be fired because they didn’t find any “lying to colleagues,” “lying to peers.” But the interviews she conducted with reporters from other publications, especially after she learned on Nov 26 that something was amiss and was frantically trying to discover exactly what sre studded dwith lies of omission and evasion. 

* The dodgy, snotty email she sent to Farhi after reporting performed by journalists from other news organizations had impeached her central anecdote and the dubious forensic details Erdely described in her account. 

As for your list of new questions, I could address many of them 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.

That I’ve received so many emails from other women saying similar things just further makes the point.) The point holds true whether or not you personally believe Jackie’s account, which it sounds like you don’t. You’re entitled to your opinion.

Here, Erdley is doing nothing less than trying to gaslight Farhi, and insult him for being obtuse in the process The email exchange between them took place several days after Erdely had started to doubt her own account, as per the Nov 26 phone call she had with Jackie that tripped off alarm bells and begun the week long process that finally led Erdley to realize that Jackie was unreliable. She’s not only not answering Farhi’s question, she’s basically saying that whatever factual problems her account of Jackie;s rape might have, the larger truth about campus rape is true, and that Farhi is a dunderhead for not seeing that. Why someone whose reporting was so undependable would try to “diss” the media reporter of the Washington Post is beyond me, but I guess that’s how some reporters roll when they’re cornered.

* Erdley’s reply to Farhi’s questions about the bottle throwing attack that Jackie suffered in response to her campus activism against sexual assault. The report prepared by the Charlottesville Police Department said that the bruises Jackie said she incurred were not consistent with a blunt object like a bottle and left the clear impression that the incident may have been invented.  

“No one ever said this never happened,” Erdely told Farhi. “So that’s the conclusion I came to. It was the closest I was able to come [to confirming it].”

Great journalistic standard here and logic: If no one tells you something did not happen, that means it did?

* A statement Erdley made about UVA’s repeated efforts to “stonewall” her, in investigating Jackie’s story, in obtaining statistic about sexual assault at UVA and in her inquiries about UVA’s policies and procedures for handling such cases.

“At first, I thought they were just incompetent,” she said. “But when I realized that they were not cooperating and there was no transparency at all . . . it occurred to me that they were stonewalling. All they cared about was [protecting] their reputation.”

According to the Columbia report, UVA never responded with any specifics to the account of Jackie’s rape because Erdely never asked them about it. And given the documented incompetence of her own reporting, it’s rich to hear her to talk about someone’s else, especially in connection with responding to information they did not have in their possession at the time because Erdely withheld them from it in flagrant disregard for the journalistic custom of “fair comment.” 

* Grandiose declarations she made on public radio about the significance that her story has in the larger public discussion of sexual assault in America.  
“What’s happening at UVA is what’s about to happen everywhere. What’s different now is that we are at a cultural moment when for the first time rape victims are being believed….That’s why we are seeing so much discussion now about rape in the military, rape on college campuses, Bill Cosby. It’s all coming together now because for the first time we are allowing ourselves to have a general discussion of the problem. Because we are giving rape victims some credibility.”

* Her risable self-description on LinkedIn.
I’m a feature writer and tireless reporter whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Philadelphia, The New Yorker, GQ, Reader’s Digest, Mother Jones, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Men’s Journal, Glamour, SELF, O: The Oprah Magazine, Us Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping, Men’s Health, and possibly some other publications that don’t come to mind right now.

I specialize in narrative nonfiction, with a particular focus on crime, health & society -- and anything, it seems, that requires about a thousand interviews. My work has won an armload of prestigious awards…. 

I love what I do.
And we love you for it. Especially the women whose credible accounts of sexual assault will be more difficult to believe --and act upon--- in the aftermath of Erdely’s stupendously implausible account.  The Linked In page is also noteworthy for boasting about winning Rolling Stone’s 1993 College Journalism award. During an interview at her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, Erdely actually admitted plagiarizing the article she wrote for that award, which was a profile of Christian rocker Michelle Shocked. Even then, Rolling Stone should have known.