Rolling Stone magazine will add 1.65 million dollars to the 3 million it has paid out so far to the victims of its completely false story “A Rape on Campus.” They agreed to the payout to settle the claims of University of Virginia’s Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The frat was the victim of lies told by Jackie Coakley, a woman who thought concocting a savage gang-rape and torture session at a frat house would endear her to a romantic interest. Ms. Coakley was aided by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a writer who had for some time been looking for a story to support a narrative she believed faithfully – fraternity men rape women with impunity, on campuses across America. Erdely found a perfect gift in Coakley, someone who confirmed everything she just knew was true about these men – only it wasn’t.
The Rolling Stone debacle is not a story about how alcohol, naivete, and desire can produce differing understandings and accounts of a late-night interlude gone wrong. Jackie Coakley did not just say she was raped inside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, a month into her freshman year at UVA; she claimed seven men did so in a pre-planned attack that went on for three hours. It was a truly shocking story that went on to allege that university administrators were uncaring in the extreme, worried only about keeping things quiet for the sake of the school’s reputation. Ms. Coakley even claims the dean she reported the assault to, who subsequently won a 3-million-dollar defamation verdict, said that assault statistics weren’t available “[b]ecause nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.”
After Rolling Stone published Coakley’s accusations, the fraternity and its members experienced the type of treatment reserved for monstrous rapists. The story amassed more than 2.7 million views online before the publisher pulled it. UVA President Teresa Sullivan suspended the fraternity and all Greek-life activities. The Phi Kappa Psi house was repeatedly vandalized, and its members went into hiding.
One slight problem with the story is that it was a total fabrication. There was no rape, no party, no date with a frat member, nada, zilch, zero. Jackie Coakley made it all up. After the cover story had gone viral, many other publications did some actual journalism and discovered that just about every assertion of fact made in the piece concerning the night in question was demonstrably false. Rolling Stone finally retracted the story 137 days later. It was too little, too late.
What went wrong? How many co-conspirators did it take to do so much damage? Well, one convincing liar named Jackie Coakley, and one credulous writer named Sabrina Rubin Erdely was enough. Rolling Stone demanded no confirmation from anyone in the story, including Ms. Coakley’s friends or acquaintances on campus. From the Columbia School of Journalism post-mortem report on this story and its publication, we learn:
Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.
Erdely was interested in advancing a narrative, not telling a story. She found someone willing to let her do so, and she ran with it. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Loathsome though it might be – this story was too good for Ms. Erdely. When narrative and conformation to prejudice is produced on a plate complete with garnish, critical thinkers must examine the evidence more thoroughly, not less. Rolling Stone fired no-one over this serial defamation. One hopes the multi-million dollar payouts hurt them as much as the vile lies they broadcast hurt their victims.