Get to know Sabrina Rubin Erdely: The reporter who wrote the Rolling Stone UVA hit piece

newspaperSabrina Rubin Erdely staked her reputation, the reputation of the well-respected national magazine that she wrote for and a top national university on the word of an emotional young woman who it now appears wanted to have nothing to do with being at the center of a media firestorm.

So who is this Sabrina Rubin Erdely? A two-time National Magazine Award nominee, for starters. If that doesn’t impress you, think two-time nominee for the writer’s equivalent of an Academy Award. A National Magazine Award is just short of Pulitzer in the journalism trade.

University lecturer – and again, nothing insignificant here, teaching courses at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania and at Temple University.

She has a nice, clean-looking website with a 3/10 Google PageRank at www.SabrinaErdely.com, which lists her writing assignments with the likes of The New Yorker, GQ and Mother Jones.

What we get here is: Sabrina Rubin Erdely has serious writing chops.

The Washington Post, in a Nov. 30 puff piece about her Rolling Stone article on the rape culture at UVA, gave background on how she ended up writing the story. Beginning back in June, according to the Post, she put out feelers to people at schools including Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Penn (her alma mater) before settling on UVA.

Interesting looking back at the Post puffer to one detail in that reporting: the writer of that piece noted how remarkable it was that no one had reported on the central part of Erdely’s piece, the alleged gang rape of a first-year student given the name Jackie for the sake of reporting the story at a frat party in 2012 that has now come into serious doubt to the point that Rolling Stone has backed away from the story and reporting by Erdely because of basic errors by the accomplished writer.

We now know that Erdely didn’t talk to the alleged perpetrators of the gang rape, and can surmise that she didn’t even know the identities of those alleged to have been involved, with the Post reporting today that the alleged victim has just recently revealed the name of the purported ringleader of the assault, and that even her closest friends now have doubts about him and about Jackie’s account.

But back on Nov. 30, the Post was retelling what Erdely was telling them about her “weeks corroborating details of Jackie’s account,” during which time neither Erdely nor anyone at Rolling Stone, editors up the chain of command or lawyers involved in the vetting of the story, felt it was necessary to seek out details like whether or not there was a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity the weekend of the alleged incident, or whether there was a young man by the name that Jackie had identified to Erdely at the fraternity.

Today, the Post is able to tell us that reporters there have been able to track down the student identified by Jackie as being the ringleader of her assault, and that he denies being a member of the fraternity, going on a date with Jackie or even having met her.

The Post also tells us that Jackie now feels that she was bullied into participating in the story by Erdely, who has yet to respond to any of the recent developments in regard to the story, after riding the wave of media love in the days following publication.

It’s unfathomable that someone with Erdely’s credentials and experience could make the basic mistakes that she did here in her reporting on UVA. Not checking sources, not making sure that dates lined up, writing in lurid detail about events that came down to the word of a single source, sloppy isn’t the word for this effort, or lack of effort.

Hubris, perhaps, fits better. You don’t get the assignments and award noms that Erdely has on her resume without having a teensy bit of self-confidence. Maybe she assumed that readers would be so enamored with her detailed account of the incident and what she felt it had to say about the culture of violence at UVA that the focus after publication would be on what the university needed to do to respond and not on whether or not she had the basic facts right.

Could be a lesson that she might be able to impart to her students at Penn and Temple, assuming she survives the disgrace of being the writer who slut-shamed the next several years of rape victims out of being able to seek justice and gets to at least keep the teaching gigs.

The facts do matter, even if the narrative that you’re trying to construct doesn’t fit neatly around them.

– Column by Chris Graham



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