Regardless of their impact on Dean Eramo’s lawsuit, the release of the Rolling Stone affidavits leave little doubt that Sabrina Rubin Erdely isn’t a very good reporter. She had her thesis—existence of a campus “rape culture”—in advance. As Cathy Young noted, the spine of the article, Jackie’s story, “had more red flags than a Soviet military parade.” Yet as Jackie was unwilling or unable to answer key questions, Erdely, a true believer, plowed ahead. And even the discrediting of Jackie’s story didn’t shake Erdely’s confidence in her thesis. In her affidavit, she suggested that if she learned that Jackie had invented the tale, she just would have substituted the experience of another person she had decided was a victim, “Stacy,” as the central vignette.
Earlier today, Worth editor Richard Bradley found it “fascinating to read some of these pre-debunking tweets.” I took a look. He’s right. It’s easy to see how people could have been horrified by the article. But it’s remarkable to observe how many high-caliber editors and reporters praised the quality of Erdely’s journalism. It seems their agreement with Erdely’s thesis blinded them to her flaws—a consistent problem in how most of the mainstream media has approached campus sexual assault.
It’s worth reiterating: Bradley, along with Robby Soave, expressed doubts about Erdely’s work from the start. And within a couple of weeks, the Washington Post (with assists from the Daily Caller and a disastrous Erdely appearance on Slate’s DoubleX podcast) had done the reporting Erdely had not. The overwhelming tendency to praise her reporting, therefore, is notable.
Three categories stand out:
Praising the Caliber of Erdely’s Journalism
“Fantastic reporting,” gushed Nina Gregory, senior editor on the arts desk at NPR. New York contributing editor Marin Cogan described the piece as “easily one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read this year.” NBC’s Luke Russert hailed this “extraordinary piece of journalism.” Voactiv’s Susie Banikarim recommended this “important and very well-reported piece on rape culture.” The normally even-handed Richard Deitsch, of Sports Illustrated, expressed “thanks” to Erdely for “her reporting.”
Among editors: Eric Umansky, deputy managing editor at Pro Publica, deemed Erdely’s article—which he said had exposed “lawlessness”—“a triumph of investigative storytelling.” Philadelphia Magazine’s featured editor Richard Rhys described Erdely’s work as “mag[azine] journalism at its best.” BuzzFeed deputy culture editor Karolina Waclawiak celebrated Erdely’s “brilliant reporting.”
Steven Ward, the news director at the Clarion-Ledger, hailed Erdely as a “superstar” who exposed “rape culture at UVA.” For widely published freelance reporter Alex Suskind, Erdely’s article was “required” reading. Former Gawker editor Maggie Shnyarson remarked, “I’d love to get my hands on those little shits.” She presumably wasn’t referring to the campus activists who uncritically championed Jackie’s story.
A tweet from Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg deeming Erdely’s reporting “amazing” survives. But Goldberg had another, presumably more detailed, tweet, in which he also passed along the link to the article. Erdely thanked him for it; many people responded to it. But the tweet has vanished from his timeline.
Calls to Action
David Beard, executive editor for Public Radio International (and formerly of the Washington Post) had a message for Erdely: “You are making change happen. This editor thanks you.” “Thank you, David,” Erdely replied.
Retweeting a Washington Post article on UVA president Sullivan’s decision to suspend all fraternities at the school, Post reporter Dan Zak had a blunt message: “Now burn ‘em down.” Imagine the (appropriate) outrage if—under any circumstances—a Washington Post reporter had publicly advocated burning down a Multicultural Center or a Women’s Center after an allegation that some of their students had committed misconduct.
Neal Rogers, U.S. editor-in-chief of Cycling Tips, said that after reading Erdely’s article, he wanted to “‘rush a frat’—with a semiautomatic.”
The New York Times
The Times has led the way in flawed reporting of campus sexual assault, so it was little surprise to see several of its reporters praise Erdely’s work.
Jessica Lustig, deputy editor at the Times Magazine, commented on how, after Erdely’s “devastating” report,” UVA suspended all fraternities. Times tech policy reporter Celia Kang likewise gave her “kudos” to Erdely, after her “deeply reported” article led to the suspension of all UVA’s fraternities. Times Sunday Styles reporter Katie Rosman also praised Erdely’s role in getting the fraternities suspended: “THIS is a journalist affecting change,” she wrote.
Times business columnist Claire Martin hailed the “incredibly well reported” article. Times political reporter Ashley Parker shared a link to the “devastating” article, which exposed the “culture of rape” at UVA, to people on her twitter feed. David Dobbs, who has written features and essays for the Times, almost sounded like an Erdely fan-boy: “Incredibly good and important work there, Sabrina,” he gushed. “Deep bow to you. Splendid, vital reporting and writing.”
Before her piece was discredited, Erdely responded to some of the praise. She also offered her own additional analysis. “Not to state the obvious,” she noted on November 22, 2014, “but enlightened men are key to fixing the rape epidemic. It’s so good to have you on board. Let’s recruit more.” (Meanwhile, she deemed herself “shocked” by the phenomenon of “women perpetuating rape culture.”) The next day, she anticipated a movement, hoping “that fraternities at UVA & elsewhere will embrace this as an opportunity to be leaders in turning the tide against rape.” Administrators needed to get in on the act, as well, since the “scary truth is, the culture of rape and impunity is hardly limited to UVA. Every school should be taking a hard look at itself.” And Erdely deemed it a “good time” for “very, very rich” alumni to pressure the UVA leadership.
A final note. Because Rolling Stone replaced Erdely’s article with the Columbia Journalism Review’s (partial) autopsy of the magazine’s editorial failures, reporters whose tweets included an embedded URL now look like the below.
Somehow fitting to see the praise for Erdely’s work accompanied by “what went wrong?”