The big reveal in the report on Rolling Stone’s rape story fiasco that no one is talking about
If you haven’t read the report put together by a team assembled at the Columbia School of Journalism regarding the fiasco that was the Rolling Stone reporting on a rape story told by one source, named “Jackie” in the story, I recommend reading it. The report is long but it’s a great primer in what, exactly, it means to say “trust but verify”. It laid out how, exactly, a fabulist can bully and manipulate a reporter, and what precautions reporters need to take to make sure that doesn’t happen. It also made me wonder if this sort of thing has happened before, but it wasn’t caught, because it wasn’t about rape and therefore didn’t have a built-in audience of people eager to catch someone in a lie like the ones Jackie was apparently telling.
As I noted in my piece at TPM about this, there wasn’t much in the report that surprised me. The various reporting and investigation that was released prior to this paints, I think, a fairly solid picture of what likely happened, which is that Jackie was telling a tall tale and even seems to have invented the guy who she claimed was the ringleader in a gang rape. (He seems to have been a composite character, constructed out of pictures of one guy and biographical details from a couple more.) Her friends suggested to the Washington Post that this was a habit of hers, as they suspected her of making up a date with an imaginary friend in order to try to get the interest of a guy who rejected her. Whether or not she made the rape up whole cloth or embroidered/fictionalized a real event remains unknown, though either way, what she did was very wrong.
(An aside from Amanda: It really should go without saying, but I’m already getting rape apologists accusing me of trying to let Jackie off the hook, so for the record: I strongly oppose lying like this, which, even if you don’t intend to hurt people, can cause collateral damage, such as the damage to Phi Kappa Psi’s reputation. However, I do find it interesting that anti-feminists who claim to be so angry about lying would deliberately misrepresent my views and try to imply that I am somehow excusing Jackie’s behavior.)
But while most of the report is known information, I did find this tidbit interesting:
In December, Jackie told The Washington Post in an interview that after several interviews with Erdely, she had asked to be removed from the story, but that Erdely had refused. Jackie told the Post she later agreed to participate on condition that she be allowed to fact-check parts of her story. Erdely said in an interview for this report that she was completely surprised by Jackie’s statements to the Post and that Jackie never told her she wanted to withdraw from the story. There is no evidence of such an exchange between Jackie and Erdely in the materials Erdely submitted to Rolling Stone.
I remember that detail from the original Washington Post story, because this accusation that Erdely refused to remove Jackie from the story was taken by many, including myself, as further proof that Rolling Stone fucked this whole thing up in every way possible. Here’s the original quote from the Washington Post reporting on this:
In July, Renda introduced Jackie to Erdely, the Rolling Stone writer who was on assignment to write about sexual violence on college campuses. Overwhelmed by sitting through interviews with the writer, Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article. She said Erdely refused, and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless.
Jackie said she finally relented and agreed to participate on the condition that she be able to fact-check her parts in the story, which she said Erdely agreed to.
They did reach out to Erdely for comment about this and she didn’t respond, so that’s on her. But the report from the Columbia investigators suggests that this was yet another lie from Jackie. But the fact that this accusation was printed gives me some pause. Unlike Erdely, T. Rees Shapiro seems to have gone into his conversations with Jackie with a suspicion that she was lying about the rape. Under the circumstances, it seems more suspicion was warranted that Jackie would make up more lies to make herself look better. The irony here is that Erdely is the only flesh-and-blood human being that Jackie appears to have falsely accused of anything. But there seems to be very little concern out there regarding this seeming false accusation, against a real person and not a fictional character.
I realize that part of that is that there’s little sympathy for Erdely in all this, though a little more with the report’s reveal of how her editors didn’t give her the guidance and support she needed. But I also think there’s a double standard in play here regarding concerns about false accusations. If we’re going to be angry at a woman for falsely accusing a man who apparently doesn’t actually exist—which we should be, see italicized note above—shouldn’t we also be angry at her for falsely accusing a woman who does exist and can be hurt by her lies?