No means no: Would Rolling Stone have written UVA hit piece if it had checked sources?

chris9If Rolling Stone had made literally no more than a couple of phone calls, it wouldn’t have published its hit piece on the rape culture that it said exists at the University of Virginia.

Journalism 101, indeed.

The story of Jackie, the pseudonymous focus of the piece, would have unraveled with an answer to either of two basic questions: was there a party at Phi Kappa Psi the weekend of Sept. 28, 2012, and was a guy with the name of the alleged ringleader of the assault a member of the fraternity?

The answers, no and no, would have led the magazine to go back to its primary source, in this case the accuser, who is now telling the Washington Post, in a well-reported piece published today, that she was at best a reluctant subject.

Her friends might have also gotten a follow-up, and according to the Post they now have their own serious questions about the account that Jackie has been telling them for more than two years.

You probably don’t need any additional follow-ups from there. The Jackie story would have ended up on the cutting-room floor, and with her tale of a brutal, three-hour gang rape as the genesis of a lengthy ordeal through the UVA bureaucracy that didn’t take her seriously and tried to suppress her story from seeing the public light of day no longer at its disposal, you have to wonder if Rolling Stone reports on this rape culture at UVA thesis at all, or maybe puts another college or university in its crosshairs.

But the Jackie story was just so … perfect, you know? A gang rape at a frat full of privileged white boys who no doubt have insanely rich mommies and daddies at the ready to buy them out of any and all jams, at a school run by equally privileged administrators laser-focused on protecting the brand, at any and all costs, including the safety of young women on its otherwise idyllic Grounds.

Any of a number of other sexual assaults at UVA or any other college or university in the country could have been the starting-off point for a lengthy expose into how school administrators fall short in their responses, but why err on the side of the rudimentary when the story can be blown entirely out of the water?

Might this be why Rolling Stone was so willing to violate the rule that every kid in middle school in yearbook class knows about checking information to make sure that you have it right?

The note to readers from editor Will Dana reiterates what the author of the piece, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, had said in recent media interviews about her reporting on the story, that Jackie had requested that the magazine not contact her alleged attackers for fear of retaliation against her.

Which would raise a big red flag for any editor interested not just in making sure that what was being alleged was right, but also that the publication isn’t exposing itself to a massive libel suit.

Dana does say that the Rolling Stone made an effort to reach representatives of the UVA fraternity and national representatives of Phi Kappa Psi, and that the response was that the details of the story could not be confirmed or denied, but that both the local and national frats had concerns about the evidence that the alleged victim had offered.

It would be helpful to know more about the nature of the contact that Rolling Stone made to the local and national fraternities, most significantly whether it started and ended with a line similar to a general “we’re asking for comment,” or more details, including the date of the alleged party and names of the attackers were included.

According to the reporting done by the Post, Jackie only gave her close friends the identity of the alleged ringleader in recent days, and reporters with the Post were quickly able to make contact with a UVA student who fit the name and profile of the student featured in the story. The Post reported that the young man had worked as a lifeguard at the Aquatic and Fitness Center at the same time that Jackie had, but he said he did not know her, had not asked her on a date and also was not a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

How this plays out from here is worth some conjecture. It’s doubtful that UVA will have to end up filing suit against Rolling Stone, which is already backtracking from the story and is likely far from being done in that respect. Some staffers at the magazine, unfortunately for them, are going to have to fall on their swords, from the author up the chain to whatever editors had worked on the piece and ultimately managing editor Dana.

The reputation of Rolling Stone, one of America’s most important magazines for its tradition of hard-hitting investigative journalism, will take a big hit. The reputation of the University of Virginia, already having taken a big hit of its own, will continue to suffer in the fallout. People rarely remember that the poorly written and sourced story alleging widespread institutional misdeeds was retracted, and it seems from a scan of the blogs that there are plenty of people who just assume that Rolling Stone is pulling back on the story because the alleged victim got a couple of minor facts slightly wrong, and the privileged white boys and their insanely rich mommies and daddies are threatening to sue.

That’s the narrative that Rolling Stone was going for in the first place, after all. That the UVA culture is a cycle of wealth and privilege run amok with willing, pliant administrators doing the grunt work of protecting the brand by making sure that the outside world doesn’t get a glimpse at how fucked up things really are on Grounds.

That narrative will outlive the writers and editors falling on their swords, what UVA and other colleges and universities do to institute real, substantive changes in approach to dealing with campus sexual assaults, what legislators do to strengthen reporting laws to incentivize administrators to do the right thing at the expense of the brand, all of it.

And if you don’t believe that, what is the first thing you think of when you hear the words Duke lacrosse?

– Column by Chris Graham

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