The Obama administration disclosed Tuesday it first learned about Rolling Stone’s ill-fated story on campus rape in Sept. 2014, about two months before it was published, when reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely called seeking information on the government’s investigation of the University of Virginia’s handling of sexual assaults.
The revelation from the Department of Education came the same day that a media watchdog group asked congressional oversight committees to start an investigation into what the administration may have known about the story before and after it was published and what it did to address the concerns raised in the article.
“The larger question we raise regards the role of public officials: Was this contrived, indeed fabricated story, part of an orchestrated power grab over U.S. universities by administration officials intent on using a major publication as a political weapon?” the Institute on Government and Media Integrity wrote in a letter to Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and House Education and the Workforce Committee chairman, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee.
The request could open the door for Congress to obtain access to documents that have also been sought by news reporters but so far have not been released.
White House officials who talked to The Washington Times on Tuesday said the administration had virtually no involvement in the story except to arrange a short interview between an Education Department official and Rolling Stone, which was supposed to be limited to a broad discussion about Title IX investigations and the Office of Civil Rights ongoing inquiry into UVa.
“In response to the [Rolling Stone] reporter’s inquiry, the press office arranged an interview with Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon for Sept. 24, 2014. The interview focused on what it means to be under Title IX compliance review by the OCR. That was our only participation in the reporting of the Rolling Stone story, other than some fact checking about Title IX investigations once the story was written and ready for print. We did not suggest any other people for the reporter to talk to, and she did not tell us who she had interviewed for her story,” the department said in a statement to The Times.
Administration officials also clarified Tuesday the relationship between the White House and a UVa. rape victims’ advocate who has emerged as an important figure in the telling of a now-discredited story about a purported gang rape at a fraternity house on the Charlottesville campus.
Emily Renda, a UVa. graduate and adviser to the university on sexual assault issues, first disclosed the story of a student named “Jackie” during congressional testimony in the summer of 2014. She then introduced the woman (and four others) to Ms. Erdely, who made the victim’s account the primary focus of her article in Nov. 2014, according to court filings by the magazine.
Police have since concluded there is no evidence such an attack occurred, and the magazine has retracted that story in what has become an embarrassing journalism debacle for Rolling Stone.
Ms. Renda has been publicly identified in media stories as an adviser to the White House Task Force on campus sexual assaults and testified to Congress that she was consulting with the task force.
A White House spokeswomen clarified that point to The Times on Tuesday, explaining that they did not consider Ms. Renda an “adviser” or “consultant,” but rather a “stakeholder” who was invited to several of the task force’s events to “share [her] views.”
“The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault is comprised of federal agencies. There are no nongovernmental individuals on the task force, and there were no formal outside advisers to the task force. The White House Office of Public Engagement and the Office of the Vice President, in the normal course of their outreach, have met with hundreds of stakeholders on sexual assault and related issues,” a White House spokeswoman told The Times on the condition of anonymity.
She confirmed that Ms. Renda visited the White House on several occasions along with other “stakeholders.”
White House entry logs show Ms. Renda visited the White House six times in 2014, the last time for a private group meeting of about 300 people with President Obama on Sept. 17, 2014.
Two days later, Ms. Erdely contacted the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) seeking information about the university’s record of handling sexual assaults. The OCR’s investigation of UVa. began in June 2011.
The Education Department official added that there was no relationship between Ms. Lhamon and Ms. Renda despite the two traveling in similar circles.
“Catherine [Lhamon] has never had one-on-one contact with Emily Renda, and they have only been in the same room a handful of times, including at a Feb. 2014 UVa. conference on sexual assault and a public congressional hearing on sexual assault. They have never corresponded by phone or email,” the official said.
Ms. Renda confirmed that fact by telephone to The Times on Tuesday evening.
The institute that requested the congressional investigation was recently formed by a group of former journalists and lawyers concerned about the growing lack of independence between media outlets and the government and political figures they cover, according to spokesman George Landrith. It was inspired by the aftermath of the Rolling Stone debacle, he said.