Blame Rolling Stone

Hanna Rosin,  Slate

Whether Jackie’s account is truthful or not, the magazine failed her, its readers, and rape victims everywhere.

Rolling Stone issued a statement today saying it can no longer stand by its story about a brutal gang rape of a young woman named Jackie at a University of Virginia fraternity party. “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.” The magazine did not elaborate on the new information but the Washington Post, which has essentially been re-reporting the story since it broke last month, and representatives for the Virginia chapter of the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, started providing the details.

According to Phi Kappa Psi lawyer Ben Warthen, the frat apparently did not host a party on the night of Sept. 28, 2012, which is when Jackie said she was lured upstairs by her date, “Drew,” and gang raped by seven men. Jackie had said she met Drew because they were lifeguards together, but no member of the fraternity was employed by the university’s Aquatic Fitness Center during that time frame. Also, the Rolling Stone story implied that the rape was some kind of an initiation ritual, but pledging takes place during the spring semester, not the fall.

Up until now, Jackie had been reluctant to reveal the name of the man who took her on the date. But this week, according to the Post, she told it to some of her friends—activists who had supported her since the alleged rape. The man whose name she gave belonged to a different fraternity, not Phi Kappa Psi. A Post reporter contacted him and he said he knew Jackie’s name but had never met her in person or taken her on a date. That’s a detail to pay attention to. He could be lying, of course, but that’s a pretty bold lie, not just to say he’d never dated her or taken her to a party but he’d never met her.

The rest of the Post story so far paints a confusing picture and leaves the impression that the Post reporters are not quite ready yet to call Jackie’s story a fabrication. Jackie recounted to Post reporter T. Rees Shapiro the same story she had told Rolling Stone and added some details, saying, for example, that her date had taken her to an extravagant dinner at Boar’s Head Inn. She called the night of the rape “the worst three hours of my life” and said “I have nightmares about it every night.” Her roommate from that year Rachel Soltis confirmed that Jackie changed during that semester and became “withdrawn” and “depressed,” although she wasn’t with her the night Jackie says she was assaulted.

So where does that leave us? It’s still quite possible that something happened to Jackie that night. It’s possible she was so traumatized that she is getting a lot of the details wrong, or that whatever happened to her has taken on greater levels of baroque horror in her imagination. It was hard to take in her original story, of a calmly orchestrated gang rape during a big party. But it’s just as hard to take in that a young woman would make up such a story, tell it to a reporter, and not expect it all to unravel. But strange things happen. And more information will surely come out soon.

One thing we know is that Rolling Stone did a shoddy job reporting, editing, and fact-checking the story and an even shoddier job apologizing. In his statement, managing editor Will Dana says the magazine relied on Jackie’s credibility and now realizes its trust was “misplaced.” (In a later series of tweets on Friday, Dana wrote that the failure “is on us—not on her.”) But any story, much less one as damning and explosive as this one, should never rely on just the credibility of one source. Earlier this week, the editor of the story, Sean Woods, told the Washington Post about the men Jackie was accusing, “I’m satisfied that these guys exist and are real. We knew who they were.” But the Washington Post reported today that Jackie never told anyone who they were until this week. Jackie may turn out to have partially or totally fabricated her story, but the blame is on Rolling Stone for putting her in this position, and for the damage done to the members of Phi Kappa Psi whose names have been circulating around the Internet for the last few days. People lie. It’s better when they don’t. But it’s Rolling Stone who blew this woman’s story up into a huge national issue without doing any of the work to make sure it was true. (Which is why we are not using Jackie’s full name.)

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