Rolling Stone has published an incredible story about a rape at the University of Virginia, sending shock waves around the country.
But when I say the story is incredible, I mean that in the literal, largely abandoned sense of the word. It is not credible -- I don't believe it.
I'm not saying that the author of the story, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, deliberately fabricated facts. Nor do I believe that all of her reporting was flawed. There may be an outrageously callous attitude toward sexual assaults at UVA. Rape, particularly date rape, may be a major problem there. I've talked to enough people with connections to the campus to think that part is credible enough.
But the central story isn't about a spontaneous alcohol-fueled case of some creep refusing to take no for an answer (an inexcusable offense in my opinion). It's an account of a well-planned gang rape by seven fraternity pledges at the direction of two members. If true, lots of people need to go to jail for decades -- if.
The basic story is this: Jackie is asked out on a date her freshman year by a junior named "Drew" (not his real name). After dinner, they go to a party at Phi Kappa Psi. Quickly, Drew asks Jackie, "Want to go upstairs, where it's quieter?" Jackie is led to a "pitch-black" bedroom. She's knocked to the floor. A heavy person jumps on top of her. A hand covers her mouth. When she bites it, she's punched in the face. And for the next three hours she's brutally raped, with Drew and another upperclassman shouting out instructions to the pledges, referring to Jackie as "it." Many alleged details (though Erdely never uses the word "alleged") aren't suitable for a family paper. Others are simply hard to believe. The pitch-black darkness doesn't prevent Jackie from recognizing an attacker or seeing them drink beer. The assault takes place amidst the wreckage of a broken glass table, but the rapists are undeterred by shards of glass.
The most unbelievable dialogue comes later. Sometime after 3 a.m., Jackie leaves the still-raging party, "her face beaten, dress spattered with blood," without anyone seeing her. Distraught, she calls three friends, Andy, Randall and Cindy (not their real names) for help. They arrive in "minutes." One of the male friends says they have to take her to the hospital. Cindy replies, "Is that such a good idea?" adding, "Her reputation will be shot for the next four years." Erdely expounds: "Andy seconded the opinion, adding that since he and Randall both planned to rush fraternities, they ought to think this through. The three friends launched into a heated discussion about the social price of reporting Jackie's rape ..." Really? Neither boy put Jackie's medical needs above their pledge prospects? What a convenient conversation for an exposé of rape culture -- it reads like a script written for a feminist avant-garde theater troupe. Similarly, when Jackie reports what happened to school authorities -- again, a brutal, premeditated gang rape by nearly half the pledge class of a prominent fraternity -- the dean is described as responding with all of the emotion you'd expect if Jackie requested to change majors.
Meanwhile, it was all kept hush-hush until Erdely reported it.
Erdely admits she set out to find a sexual assault story at an elite school like UVA. She looked at lots of other colleges first, but "none of those schools felt quite right" in the words of a Washington Post profile of Erdely. But UVA, which Erdely describes in Rolling Stone as a school without a thriving "radical feminist culture seeking to upend the patriarchy," was just right. As Worth magazine editor Richard Bradley noted last week, the whole thing seems like an adventure in confirmation bias.
Initially, Erdely wouldn't say whether she even knew the names of the alleged rapists. Late Monday, according to the Washington Post, Erdely's editor said Rolling Stone "verified their existence" by talking to Jackie's friends, but the magazine couldn't reach them. Uh huh.
Erdely's story was reported uncritically for days as a powerful example of the "rape epidemic" that is somehow taking place amidst a 20-year decline in reported rapes. News outlets repeated the claim that 1 in 5 college women are sexually assaulted. This bogus statistic comes from "The Campus Sexual Assault Study," a shoddy online survey of just two universities that counted attempted (forced) kissing and the like as "sexual assault" -- and never even asked female respondents about rape.
Erdely's story may be proven true after a needed investigation, but I suspect it will turn out to have been one of those stories too useful to verify.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review.