The dramatic Rolling Stone story of a gang rape at University of Virginia, which prompted national outrage until scrutiny of the alleged victim's account began to raise serious doubts, was based on "misplaced" trust in the still-unidentified woman, the magazine said Friday.
The 9,000-word story, titled "A Rape on Campus," detailed a young freshman's horrific account of being gang raped on a floor strewn with broken glass after being dragged into a darkened room at a fraternity party in 2012. The author, freelance writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, identified the victim only as "Jackie," and did not interview the alleged attackers. But the story blasted the Charlottesville school, saying university officials turned a deaf ear to Jackie's complaints in the latest example of its long history of indifference to alleged sexual assaults.
In recent days, Fox News' Howard Kurtz, the left-leaning Slate magazine, The Washington Post and other outlets had begun to question certain aspects of the account, noting, among other discrepancies, that no party took place in the location described in the time frame Erdely's story cited. The magazine initially stood by the story, published in the Nov. 19 edition, but on Friday reversed course.
"In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced," Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana said in a statement. "We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story."
In the wake of the story, university president Teresa Sullivan promised a full investigation and an examination of the way the school responds to sexual assault allegations.
“The wrongs described in Rolling Stone are appalling and have caused all of us to reexamine our responsibility to this community,” Sullivan said at the time. “We are committed - above all else - to accountability with regard to these serious matters.”
The case was reminiscent of the 2006 Duke lacrosse case, in which wealthy white fraternity members at an elite southern school were accused of being sexual predators. But unlike the Duke case, no suspects were named and no victim came forward, other than to Erdely, who has refused to fully identify Jackie.
In addition to a growing drumbeat of media skepticism, based partly on Erdely's departure from journalistic standards that critics said required her to attempt to talk the accused rapists, several of the women identified as Jackie’s close friends and campus sex assault awareness advocates cast doubts on the report.
The magazine said Erdely and fact-checkers spent months working on the story and found Jackie to be credible. Erdely said she did not pursue or name the suspects at the behest of Jackie, who said she feared retribution from them.
"She asked me not to name the individuals because she’s so fearful of them," Erdely told The Washington Post. "That was something we agreed on.”
Erdely would not say whether she knew who the alleged attackers were.
Capt. Gary Pleasants of the Charlottesville police department said that detectives are looking into the allegations at the request of the university but declined to comment on the status of that investigation.
The University of Virginia fraternity named in the story, Phi Kappa Psi, released a statement Friday afternoon saying the organization did not host a party on Sept. 28, 2012, the night the attack allegedly occurred. Fraternity officials also said that no members of the fraternity worked at the university’s Aquatic Fitness Center at the time, as Jackie claimed, and that no room in the fraternity house matches Jackie's description.
"It is our hope that this information will encourage people who may know anything relevant to this case to contact the Charlottesville Police Department as soon as possible," the statement read. "In the meantime, we will continue to assist investigators in whatever way we can."
The Washington Post has interviewed Jackie, now a 20-year-old junior at the school, and others involved in the case in recent days and tried to verify the story. The paper reported that Jackie’s close friends said they believe something traumatic happened to Jackie but have come to doubt her account because her story has changed and key points cannot be verified.
Mollie Hemingway, a media critic and senior editor at The Federalist, said she followed the story closely, from her "emotional" reading of the Rolling Stone story to the questions that soon followed. She said she prides herself on reading critically, but acknowledged buying in to Erdely's story until only recently.
"This has been an absolutely devastating blow to Rolling Stone's credibility," she said. "[Erdely] has a lot to answer for as well. She literally took the memories of one person who claimed to have been traumatized and built an entire story around it.
"But the worst things is that people who are victims of rape will not be believed," Hemingway said. "That is the worst part of this story. I don't think the writer or this magazine could have done more damage to victims of rape if they had set out to."