On Easter evening, Rolling Stone published the results of a long investigation into its blockbuster story of a gang rape on the campus of a major American university that was supposedly a fraternity initiation ritual. The story was the toast of the liberal media until it began to fall apart at the seams. Now, that investigation seems to show that the music magazine went to press with its story without even determining if one of the story’s main attackers was even a real person.
The investigation conducted at Rolling Stone’s request by Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, revealed that rape victim “Jackie” proved to be a challenging source for Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely. Sometimes Jackie did not respond to phone calls, texts and emails. At two points during the writer’s process, she thought her “victim” might withdraw her cooperation entirely.
But there were other problems with Jackie’s story. For instance, Jackie refused to provide Erdely the name of the lifeguard who she said had organized the attack. Jackie explained this reticence by saying she was too afraid of him. According to Dean Coll’s investigation, that led to tense exchanges between the writer and her source.
Erdley’s worries over Jackie’s refusal to cooperate fully, though, evaporated once Rolling Stone editors agreed to go ahead with the story without knowing the lifeguard’s name or verifying his existence. After that concession, it appears that Jackie cooperated fully until publication.
The magazine claims it did attempt to verify the story by having editors and a second “fact checker” — whom the editors wanted to remain anonymous — speak to Jackie. Editors report that they spent at least four hours speaking to Jackie by phone to go over her experience. “She wasn’t just answering, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ she was correcting me,” the checker told the investigator. “She was describing the scene for me in a very vivid way… I did not have doubt.”
Still, there seems to have been some lack of communication among the magazine’s leadership early in the writing and editing of the now debunked article. The magazine was under the impression that the lifeguard’s name was “Drew,” but Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana said he was not even aware that his staff did not know the man’s full name and had not confirmed his existence. Nor was Dana told that “we’d made any kind of agreement with Jackie to not try to track this person down.”
If this is true, then Dana’s own Rolling Stone employees would have been conspiring to keep him in the dark about that key aspect of the story.
Even Erdley’s records prove that at first the magazine didn’t make an official offer to refuse to contact “Drew” the lifeguard. Jackie had requested that Erdely not try to contact the lifeguard, but there was no formal agreement over the matter.
Coll’s investigation also revealed that early in the process there was some pushback against this ban on further investigations.
“Can you call the pool? Can you call the frat? Can you look at yearbooks?” Rolling Stone editor Sean Woods recalled asking Erdely after he received the first draft. “If you’ve got to go around Jackie, fine, but we need to verify this,” meaning Drew’s identity. He remembered having this discussion “at least three times.”
Incredibly, when Jackie became unresponsive to Erdely by late October, Woods and Dana both gave the green light. They authorized Erdely to tell Jackie they would stop trying to find the lifeguard. Woods resolved the issue as he had done earlier with the three friends: by using a pseudonym in the story.
So, in the end, the investigation reveals a damning situation. Rolling Stone allowed a story that made extremely troubling accusations — charges that led to punishments for every fraternity on campus — go to press without even determining if one of the main players in a criminal sexual assault even existed.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter: @warnerthuston. Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.