\ Rape, Reporting and Regret - Roger Simon

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Rape, Reporting and Regret

Roger Simon

By Roger Simon

Published Dec. 10, 2014

If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

That's what we were told; that's what we were taught. City News Bureau of Chicago, my first job. Gritty stuff. Police, courts, fires, "floaters" found in the Chicago River, stuff you went to. You talked to people; you got the facts.

They used to call it reporting.

There is a story now raging about a University of Virginia student who says she was gang raped by seven men in a fraternity there Sept. 28, 2012.

The woman, identified only as "Jackie," says she was taken to a room at the fraternity and thrown on the floor, breaking a glass table in the process, which cut her arm. The men then pinned her down on the broken glass, raped her in succession and left her bleeding between the legs.

She knew two of the attackers, including the guy who had lured her to the fraternity. She got out of the place, her dress now blood-spattered. She did not go to a hospital or call the police.

She called friends, who met her and, she says, talked her out of contacting authorities because of "the social price" they might all pay. In other words, they might be shunned and not get invited to any more fraternity parties.

Rolling Stone broke this story last month in a 9,000-word article, by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. It got huge attention. Campus rape is an extremely serious problem throughout the United States, and Jackie's story personalized it and made it human in horrendous detail.

But how much of it is true? Not all of it, according to stories recently published in The Washington Post, which found evidence that conflicts with Jackie's account.

At least one friend who saw Jackie after the incident disputes her account, saying he did not see any injuries to her or blood on her dress. He also says that she did not claim to have been raped but that she said she had been forced to perform oral sex. The group of friends urged her to seek help, but she wanted to return to her dorm, where the group spent the night comforting her.

Forced oral sex is a hideous crime. But under Virginia law, it is different from rape, which Virginia defines as forced "sexual intercourse," though conviction of either crime includes the possibility of incarceration for life.

But which story is true? Or is either true? Studies have found that false accusations of rape are rare, but they do exist.

At first, Rolling Stone stood by its story. Now it has backed away.

"In the face of new information ... there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account," Will Dana, the magazine's managing editor, wrote. "We have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced."

That caused another explosion.

The magazine was throwing Jackie under the bus. It was all her fault.

The outrage caused Dana to change his note to: "These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie."

But Dana also wrote: "Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie's story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her."

Oh, brother. You don't check out both sides of a story because one side doesn't want you to? I don't know what that is called, but it sure isn't reporting.

Which brings us to another old saying told to reporters, one less publicized: You can always ruin a good story by asking too many questions.

Get both sides of a story and the story might fall apart. So why get both sides?

Later, Rolling Stone said it had tried to find the attackers but said, "We did not talk to them. We could not reach them."

But it went ahead with the story anyway.

Jackie asked Erdely "to be taken out of the article" before it appeared, according to The Washington Post.

"She said Erdely refused, and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless," the Post reported.

What? Your main source says she no longer wants to appear in the story, and instead of hearing alarm bells, you refuse and muscle her into it?

That's not reporting. It's something. But it's not reporting.

Rolling Stone is now investigating its story, as are the University of Virginia and the Charlottesville, Virginia, police.

The Washington Post's T. Rees Shapiro has done excellent reporting on this incident. Real gumshoe stuff, the kind of reporting Rolling Stone could have done but didn't. The Post's Paul Farhi also has done excellent analysis, raising questions and issues that Rolling Stone turned a blind eye to.

The Post talked to Jackie several times. She sticks to her basic story, though admits some details may be wrong. Erdely at first refused to talk to the Post but then later did, saying that she "corroborated every aspect of the story" that she could.

Except that Erdely didn't talk to any of the alleged attackers or find any of the discrepancies the Post found.

Jackie says she feels manipulated by Rolling Stone. And many people across the country are very worried that women who have been raped and assaulted may now be even less willing to go to authorities and press charges.

But Rolling Stone had a blockbuster and went with it. The reporters and editors didn't ask too many questions — because they had too good a story. And now that blockbuster has landed on their heads and they are trying to squirm out from under.

If your mother says she loves you, check it out. Because if you don't, somebody else will.

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