Saturday, December 6, 2014
Did Rolling Stone Pull a Duke Lacrosse on the University of Virginia
Accusations of rape must be taken seriously. They are not to be brushed off, disregarded, or ignored. Yet, not every allegation of sexual assault can be proven, at least legally. A growing awareness in America is the problem of sexual assaults on campus, especially when alcohol is involved. Thus, when Rolling Stone Magazine ran a featured article, “A Rape on Campus,” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely on November 19, 2014, detailing the sordid attacks on Jackie, a University of Virginia coed two years earlier, it was believed. It fit the narrative of drunken fraternity brothers coupled with a culture of willfully ignoring campus rape and apparent university indifference. Animal House in the 21st Century! The well-written article is compelling, graphic, and sickening. The description of the University’s reactions to claims of sexual assault is as compelling as the attacks themselves. When asked why the crimes weren’t reported, the response was “No one wants to send their daughter to the rape school.” Phi Kappa Psi voluntarily suspended itself, followed by the University suspending all fraternity and sorority life until next semester. The University is reassessing its policies and asked for a special counsel to be appointed. The board of Visitors, the governing body, convened a special meeting. Over 1,000 alumni wrote critical letters to the university. The Phi Kappa Psi house was vandalized. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges sent the University of Virginia a letter demanding assurances that the school is in compliance with student safety standards. It is a powerful narrative. So was the narrative 8 years ago of the Duke Lacrosse team. An exotic dancer alleged she was raped by three players at a party on March 13, 2006. The tale went viral. 88 Duke professors ran an ad in the student newspaper in protest of the players’ actions. The lacrosse coach was fired and the team suspended for the season. Michael Nifond, the District Attorney, vigorously prosecuted the three accused players, eventhough the innocence of one player was clearcut. Reade Seligman was clearly photographed at an ATM machine several miles away at the precise time of the alleged assaults. DA Nifong was so eager to convict that he withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense. The complainant’s case slowly fell apart. Even her companion denied anything occurred. The national rush to judgment was a mistake. It was a costly mistake for Duke. Reports are that it might have cost Duke as much as $80 million in settlements and attorneys fees and costs. The Duke Lacrosse Team narrative was believed because it fit an existing narrative. So too with the Rolling Stone article. A sexual assault may have occurred with the victim’s memory playing games with her. It happens. But it did not happen as depicted in Rolling Stone. Jackie has told differing stories to supporters and the media. She said she had met the initial acquaintance when they were both lifeguards at an aquatic camp. He was a brother in Phi Kappa Psi, where the assaults allegedly occurred. She identified him a short time ago to friends. He is not in fact a Phi Kappa Psi brother. He denies ever having met her. Nor did the fraternity apparently have any members working at the Aquatic Club at the time. She claimed in the article that the assaults occurred on September 28, 2012. The fraternity had no parties scheduled around that time and says no brother fits the description of her initial attacker. The writer did not contact the seven (earlier) five attackers out of respect for Jackie who did not want them contacted. She explained: “I am convinced it could not be done any other way or any better. I am not interested in diverting the conversation away from the point of the article itself.” That’s now what’s happening. The violation of basic rules of investigative reporting is drawing attention away from the narrative. Rolling Stone’s first response to criticism was denial: “Through our extensive reporting and fact-checking, we found Jackie to be entirely credible and courageous, and we are proud to have given her disturbing story the attention it deserves.” The editor changed his position yesterday: “In the face of new information, there now appears to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan promises the University will conduct a through investigation of the incident and of the school’s response activities. Sabrina’s article got the desired impact in the short run.