- - Friday, December 5, 2014


Earlier today, Rolling Stone magazine issued a retraction in its recent story, “A rape on campus,” which reported the brutal details of an alleged fraternity gang rape of a University of Virginia freshman named Jackie.

The story sparked a wave of incendiary rage across America and even vandalism at the UVA Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, the Greek organization accused of hosting the alleged gang rape.

Managing Editor Will Dana issued an online retraction Friday afternoon around the same time The Washington Post published the results of its own dogged investigation that filled gaps Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely left in  the original story.

The Washington Post also conducted several interviews with Jackie and found that certain details reported in the Stone story were not consistent or could not be corroborated by Jackie.

However, it is important to note that Jackie still stands by the substance of her story and insists that she was raped.

Rolling Stone published its story on Nov. 19, and its account has undeniably caused irreparable damage to the university, the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and the entire Greek system. The story also created a temporary, frenzied atmosphere reminiscent of the paranoid notion that “all men are potential rapists.”

People have every right to be angry and upset.

But it would be a tragic, irrational reaction to redirect the same rage that UVA students originally levied against the university and fraternity toward Jackie; a foreseeable event since Rolling Stone has already shifted the blame on her shoulders.

“In the face of new information, there now appears to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion our trust in her was misplaced,” Mr. Dana wrote online.

But it was Rolling Stone that unquestionably misused its journalistic power, and made a very bad judgment decision: Rolling Stone “purposefully avoided” interviewing key sources and undoubtedly “failed to properly investigate” leads it knew about. The two key elements are often raised in libel cases.

Ms. Erdely justified this decision in her story by saying that Jackie requested the reporter avoid interviewing the seven men she claims raped her, and Mr. Dana validated the decision by explaining that the magazine was “trying to be sensitive” to Jackie’s feelings.

Certainly, such sensitivity is understandable and not in itself a bad thing.

But as the old adage goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

As a result of this story, Rolling Stone may have done more harm than good to the very cause of victim’s rights the magazine and Ms. Erdely were trying to champion, a tragic and undeserved result for victims everywhere.

“Journalists always hear about a story that’s too perfect; that’s why we learn to check facts and do our homework,” said Hawes Spencer, a Charlottesville-based investigative reporter who has been closely following the story. “Rolling Stone flunked Journalism 101.”

Let us not forget that Ms. Erdely readily admitted that it was she who sought out a victim to write about, not the other way around.

As Jackie told The Post, “If she had not come to me I probably would not have gone public about my rape,” she said. “I didn’t want the world to read about the worst three hours of my life, the thing I have nightmares about every night … I didn’t want a trial. I can’t imagine getting up on a defense stand having them tear me apart. I wanted to help people. …”

The Post also reported that at one stage during the interviews, Jackie even asked Ms. Erdely “to be taken out of the article,” which raises the question as to whether or not the college student even knew she was going to be focus of the story – or if she erroneously believed other alleged victims would be interviewed, too.

Jackie told The Post that at one stage during the story she felt “completely out of control of my own story.”

Sadly, the only way to resolve this state of confusion may lead Jackie to the one place she wanted to avoid. Since the Charlottesville Police Department has begun investigating the matter, future charges may in fact lead Jackie to the witness stand, a scenario she has feared all along.

Victim-rights advocates would call this a case of “revictimization” because once again, the power has been taken from the alleged victim. Ironically, in this case, that power was taken by Rolling Stone and used negligently, at best.

Already, some of Jackie’s own friends and most ardent supporters have told The Washington Post they are disappointed and now have doubts about her story. It is certainly understandable that they may have concerns; concerns that may or may not ultimately prove to be valid.

But even in the wake of Rolling Stone’s retraction, Jackie’s friends should exercise caution and compassion – and not abandon her. We should not rush to judgment about Jackie and persecute her the way the UVA lynch mob did Greek fraternities.

Such insensitivity has already proven to be unnecessarily cruel and wrought with dishonor.

Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a former Washington, D.C. prosecutor who spent three years investigating the Kobe Bryant rape case. Kellan Howell is a reporter for The Washington Times.

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