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April 06, 2015

Rolling Stone Didn't Just Make Mistakes; They Deliberately Chose to Deceive Readers

Peter Suderman makes a point I made earlier, but with many more instances of Erdely and editor Dan Woods deliberately and consciously choosing to deceive readers.

As Sheila Coronel, Columbia Journal"sm School's Dean of Academic Affairs, tells CJR in an interview about the report, ďpseudonyms were used mainly to paper over gaps in the reporting. Of all the many reasons you might want to use pseudonyms, this one should never be considered."

The decision to use pseudonyms, in other words, was made in order to cover for the fact that critical story details hadnít been verified.

Readers are used to pseudonyms in stories, to protect whistleblowers, for example.

But Rolling Stone was not protecting a whistleblower in "Drew's" case. According to the narrative of their story, "Drew" was a brutal rapist.

So why use the pseudonym?

Maybe this is why media types like Richard Bradley sniffed this story out as a possible fake at first (which I definitely did not) -- they maybe understood that it made no sense to give a non-cooperating suspected rapist a pseudonym.

In fact, "Drew" was given a pseudonym for the most bizarrely irresponsible of reasons -- because neither Erdely, Woods, nor anyone at Rolling Stone had any idea who he was.

He was given a pseudonym, unbelievably, because they had no actual name for him!

Jackie the Fabulist refused to tell them his name, and got even more sketchy and dodgy when pressed on the point. This caused consternation at Rolling Stone... but nothing they couldn't fix with a deceptive pseudonym.

By October's end, with the story scheduled for closing in just two weeks, Jackie was still refusing to answer Erdely's texts and voicemails. Finally, on Nov. 3, after consulting with her editors, Erdely left a message for Jackie proposing to her a "solution" that would allow Rolling Stone to avoid contacting the lifeguard after all. The magazine would use a pseudonym; "Drew" was eventually chosen.

Later, of course, they would find out "Drew's" real name: Haven Monahan, a name that doesn't exist anywhere, except in teenaged girls' Twilling fan-fiction,* and which name Jackie claimed to not even know how to spell.

Haven Monahan, if you remember, then supposedly texted Randall/Ryan, the boy that Jackie liked, to tell Randall/Ryan what an amazing catch she was, and how he should definitely go out on dates with her.

Haven Monahan supposedly did this days after orchestrating a gang rape of Jackie.

Having given "Drew" a pseudonym to hide the fact that they had no idea if he actually existed (spoiler alert: He does not), they then went on to conceal more of their failures from the reader:

In addition, the report notes that Erdely's editor on the story, Sean Woods, made the decision to remove language noting that Erdely had not contacted "Drew" or even been able to identify him. As the Columbia report on the article says...
Rolling Stone's editors did not make clear to readers that Erdely and her editors did not know "Drew's" true name, had not talked to him and had been unable to verify that he existed. That was fundamental to readers' understanding. In one draft of the story, Erdely did include a disclosure. She wrote that Jackie "refuses to divulge [Drew's] full name to RS," because she is "gripped by fears she can barely articulate." Woods cut that passage as he was editing. He "debated adding it back in" but "ultimately chose not to."

That's not a reason. Itís not even an excuse. Itís just a decision to hide pertinent information from readers. Woods chose to remove language that would have clarified what the reporting had and hadnít established. He chose to make the story less transparent.

Read the whole thing, including the conclusion; Rolling Stone is claiming they did this all to protect Jackie (which would be troubling enough), but in fact these deliberate misrepresentations were done to protect itself from criticism: They knew they'd be picked to pieces for presenting such a shoddy, sketchy, all-from-a-single-uncorroborated source story. They didn't feel like getting picked apart, so they deliberately hid all their failures-to-fact-check from the reader.

Think about the story being written accurately, with full transparency: It would have made it clear that Erdely had not contacted the three friends; nor "Drew" aka "Haven Monahan" the Dreamboat Rapist; nor anyone at the fraternity (beyond a very vague request for comment on the allegations); nor the other suspects (whose identities Woods claimed to know) in the gang rape; nor even Jackie's mother, who supposedly possessed, at one time, the torn and bloody party dress, but then threw it away.

A transparent account of the story would have made it clear that every single claim came only from Jackie, with no corroboration, except the very weak corroboration of a roommate stating that Jackie had mentioned the alleged gang-rape four months after it had happened.

All the rest of it -- all the quotes, everything -- was only from Jackie, and furthermore, Jackie deliberately resisted all attempts to corroborate her claims.

Now:

Rolling Stone thought, "If we publish that, no one will believe this story."

So they decided to just hide all that from the reader.

Perhaps they should have thought about why no one would believe the story, were they to include all that detail about what they did know, and the much, much longer list of what they did not know.


* Someone on Twitter made this "Twilling fan fiction" joke. I'd hat tip this person, but I honestly can't remember who it was.

Correction: SarahW says that the obviously-so-fake-it's-painful name Haven Monahan was used early by Jackie for her catfishing attempts, but Jackie later fed Erdely a much more plausible name of a real person.

And then, only well after that, Erdely learned of the Haven Monahan name.

Correction, CORRECTION CORRECTION and a big one.

Erdely was not told the "rapists" name was Haven Monahan. Jackie made up a new name and point of first contact for her "rapist" by then.

New rapist, the only one Erdely ever heard of by name, until her friends came forward, had a new identity altogether.

Jackie had already reinvented her "frat date" as an upperclassman co-worker at a pool.

That kid got dragged through the mud on gossip boards at UVA, btw.

Police found a young man with a very similar name to "NewRapist" worked at an aquatic center and belonged to a frat (though not THE frat).

That kid had to get a lawyer. He was completely open and cooperated fully, but he had counsel to sit by his side - a lawyer with a fee.

He opened up his personal life, his bank records, his credit card records, to show no sign of having taken a girl out to the upscale restaurant she'd made a big deal about. He had to answer embarrassing and personal question and endure time consuming interviews to clear himself.

That was a REAL kid, not some picture on a phone. And not Haven.

Erdely only found out about Haven later on, when the story started coming apart.

I don't know if that is true. I know part of it is -- the part about finding a kid that fit part of the name Jackie had given them working at the pool, though he turned out, as SarahW says, to have not been a member of Phi Kappa Psi, and no one could find any evidence of his participation in this gang rape (for the reason, now obvious, that it hadn't happened).


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posted by Ace at 06:29 PM

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