Why We Still Need to Investigate the Rolling Stone Rape Story

It’s not to get the truth from Jackie. It’s to scrutinize the larger story Sabrina Rubin Erdely tells about sexual assault on campus.

A student walks on the University of Virginia campus on Dec. 6, 2014, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Photo by Jay Paul/Getty Images

This week, Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner asked the Columbia Journalism School to review Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia. As it became clear that the story’s central incident—a gang rape of a freshman at a fraternity—did not happen as Rolling Stone claimed it did, the magazine’s editors initially said they would reinvestigate the piece themselves. Now, they have turned the project over to Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, as well as the school’s dean of academic affairs Sheila Coronel. Coll, who said Rolling Stone would give Columbia “unfettered access” to staff and materials, indicated that he would focus mostly on the editorial process, but that he would move “in any direction along the way that we believe would be germane and of public interest,” which leaves the door open to re-reporting the story.

This is a classic crisis management move by Rolling Stone. When your own reputation is at stake, call in a big name brand to assure everyone that you’re doing the right thing. (See the NFL asking FBI Director Robert Mueller to look into its handling of the Ray Rice case.) In this case, it seems like a good move, for the magazine and for readers who care about what happened at UVA—the man who tracked down the Bin Ladens can surely figure out what went wrong at a magazine’s fact-checking department. Other reporters, particularly T. Rees Shapiro of the Washington Post, have done a lot of the work already to find out what happened on the night of the alleged gang rape. While that information is valuable, there’s another reason the Columbia investigation is important. We need to find out what University of Virginia officials knew and when they knew it, because that’s the only way to verify or debunk the larger story Rubin Erdely presents of a school that’s indifferent to sexual assault.

In the last two weeks we’ve learned a lot more about Jackie, the woman at the center of the story. In a critical scene, Rubin Erdely describes her meeting up with three friends after the alleged incident, two of whom she describes as behaving in a callow and indifferent fashion. Rubin Erdely, it turns out, never spoke to those friends, but other reporters have tracked them down and started to piece together another story. It seems that Jackie had a crush on one of those friends, who is called “Randall” in the Rolling Stone piece and is the only one who is portrayed as behaving heroically. Randall’s real name is Ryan Duffin, and in the version he tells, Jackie might have liked him so much that she went catfish, adopting the identity of another guy to make Duffin jealous and, ultimately, creating a space for Duffin to walk in and rescue her.

Duffin says Jackie told him she was dating a junior in chemistry class named Haven Monahan. (The best details are in this CNN story.) There was never a person by that name registered at UVA. Jackie gave Monahan’s cell number to Duffin, and Monahan then texted Duffin that Jackie was “super smart” and “hot.” On the night of Sept. 28, 2012, she called Duffin to come get her and, according to Duffin, told him that Monahan had led her to a room at a fraternity where she’d been forced to have oral sex with five men. Duffin now thinks there probably was no Monahan and he was texting with Jackie. Even at the time he thought it was fishy, because just after the alleged assault he got an email from Monahan titled “About You,” which contained a pagelong essay, written by Jackie, about Duffin and how great he was. That “seemed really weird to me,” Duffin told CNN, “because here’s somebody who allegedly just led a brutal sexual assault on a friend of mine, and now he’s going to email me this thing about me?”

The one thing that seems to confuse Duffin is his memory of how distraught Jackie seemed. He still thinks something bad happened to her, “only because the reaction she had on that night seemed so strong, and seemed so genuine, that I still think it’s difficult to believe that she would have been acting.”

At this point, the only person who actually knows these answers is Jackie. The local police are investigating, and the university has interest in knowing the truth, as does the accused fraternity. There’s a lot of pressure on Jackie to speak up, but it’s important to remember that she’s not the villain here. She surely doesn’t know much about journalism or fact-checking or what it means to have your story be the centerpiece of a blockbuster investigative article. The responsibility is still largely Rolling Stone’s, to account for why the reporter and her editors did not figure any of this out before they published, especially since Duffin says he would have been happy to talk to the reporter if she’d contacted him.

In his editor’s note, Wenner still hangs on to the notion that the story accomplished an important goal even if the central narrative was false. Before mentioning the inaccuracies, he points out that “the article generated worldwide attention and praise for shining a light on the way the University of Virginia and many other colleges and universities across the nation have tried to sweep the issue of sexual assault on campus under the rug.” The problem is that the story’s central narrative and Rubin Erdely’s assessments of the university’s behavior are interwoven, so it’s impossible to fully trust her conclusion. The media has mostly been focused on Jackie, but in some ways this is the more important question: How accurate is Rubin Erdely’s description of what the university did or didn’t do?

A few days ago, emails between Rubin Erdely and university officials, as well as a taped phone conversation with UVA President Teresa Sullivan, were released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from several news outlets. Jezebel titled its story on the emails, “How UVA Stonewalled Rolling Stone on Rape Story,” and there is a teeny bit of truth to that. Rubin Erdely made several requests to speak to Nicole Eramo, the associate dean of students who heads the school’s sexual misconduct board and who met with Jackie to discuss her sexual assault claims, but the university would not make her available. The school did, however, grant Rubin Erdely an interview with the president, which is not exactly stonewalling. In her article, Rubin Erdely says Sullivan’s most frequently invoked answer is “I don’t know,” but this is an exaggeration. In fact, some of Rubin Erdely’s most damning information comes from that interview, such as confirmation of her statistic that 183 students have been expelled for honor-code violations such as cheating on exams while not a single UVA student has been expelled for sexual assault.

The bigger omissions are on Rubin Erdely’s side. She doesn’t mention Jackie’s case during the entire 40-minute conversation with Sullivan. The conversation happened late in her reporting, so she must have known that the incident was going to be the centerpiece of her story. If she had told the university about Jackie, it’s possible their reaction would have been different. They might have, for example, made Eramo available to the reporter if they knew the gravity of what she was about to report. They might have panicked. They might have immediately investigated. They might have tried to minimize the incident or refused to talk, which would have revealed something significant about how they handle such cases. But Rubin Erdely never mentioned it, so we don’t really know. (It’s possible that Rubin Erdely did mention Jackie’s story to the university at another time, but based on listening to her interview with Sullivan, it seems this was her big chance to air her major allegations and get the official response. Also, the emails cover six months of interaction between the university and the reporter, and Rubin Erdely doesn’t lay out the details of the incident there either.)

In the Rolling Stone story, Rubin Erdely builds her case of university negligence around Eramo. Several times she puts words in Eramo’s mouth, expressions on her face. “As Jackie wrapped up her story, she was disappointed by Eramo’s nonreaction. She’d expected shock, disgust, horror,” she writes. Also: “If Dean Eramo was surprised at Jackie’s story of gang rape, it didn’t show.” There is also a too-perfect quote in Eramo’s voice. When Jackie asked the dean why UVA doesn’t publish statistics on sexual violence, “she says Eramo answered wryly, ‘Because nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.’ ”

Whether Eramo actually reacted or nonreacted or said anything like this, we don’t know. As this batch of emails shows—and as Rubin Erdely acknowledged in the Rolling Stone piece—Eramo never spoke to the reporter. Because Rubin Erdely only knows those interactions from Jackie’s point of view, we still don’t know what exactly Jackie told Eramo—if she indicated that she’d been gang raped or said something else—and what in turn Eramo told the university. Rubin Erdely mentions another friend, Alexandria Pinkleton, who accompanied Jackie to a meeting with Eramo. But Pinkleton told me she doesn’t know what Jackie originally told Eramo, because she came with her late in the process, when the student and the dean were discussing ancillary things. 

The central thesis of the Rolling Stone story is that the university failed to respond to even the most terrible accusation of rape. Rubin Erdely has a potentially important insight into how universities handle sexual assault. She illustrates how deference to the sensitivities of rape victims also serves the university’s needs. Nobody presses victims to report and few do, which is better for the school’s reputation. That may be a crucial dynamic in underreporting of assaults, but we can’t trust Rubin Erdely to make that connection. Her accusation, after all, is built on a case the university may not have even known about. That means we don’t know what it is that Sullivan and UVA failed to react to.

A couple of times in the interview, Sullivan tells Rubin Erdely that if Eramo or anyone else hears about something criminal, they take it to the police. She says the disappearance of Hannah Graham—the student who was later found murdered, allegedly by someone who’d earlier been accused of sexual assault at two different universities—made that mission even more urgent. Maybe Sullivan is full of it. Maybe the university would sweep the most heinous criminal case under the rug, just so they wouldn’t be known as “the rape school.” If that’s the case, we certainly didn’t learn that from Rolling Stone. Maybe now, with Columbia launching an investigation, we’ll get closer to the truth.