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November 10 2015

Not a Frat Prank: Rolling Stone Sued for $25 Million for Discredited Gang Rape Story

Charlotte Hays

The University of Virginia fraternity that was the subject of a discredited gang rape story in Rolling Stone has filed a $25 million defamation suit against the magazine. 

Also named as a defendant in the suit, which was filed yesterday in the Circuit Court of Appeals in Charlottesville, is Sabrina Rubin Erdley, author of "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA."  The story was published in November 2014.

The Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi alleges in the suit that its reputation was damaged and that members of the fraternity received death threats after the story was published. The story was about the gang-rape of a coed identified as "Jackie." The story was quickly shredded, with the Washington Post, among other news outlets, debunking the details. The Washington Post got the scoop that the lawsuit had beenf filed.

This is the third lawsuit generated by the story. An associate UVA  dean previously filed a suit, as did several former fraternity members. The Hollywood Reporter characterizes the new suit:

But the lawsuit from the fraternity specifically contests the ways the story indicates the complicity of the fraternity organization, not just the members, in the alleged rape.

The complaint states wording like "Phi Kappa Psi gang-rape victims" and "gang-rape allegations against a fraternity" and quotes from the alleged rapists including "Don't you want to be a brother?" falsely implicate the organization in the rape, as did the story's illustration of the Phi Kappa Psi house and banner behind a woman covered in bloody handprints.

“In characterizing Jackie’s gang-rape as a Phi Kappa Psi initiation ritual, the Article associated the fraternity brand and reputation even more closely with gang-rape. The concept of gang-rape as initiation inexorably leads the reader to conclude that being a brother at Phi Kappa Psi means being a gang-rapist,” continues the complaint.

Rolling Stone’s failure to contact the men in the story was “a textbook example of publication with actual malice," states the complaint, which adds the allegations are false: “Jackie was not gang-raped, or sexually assaulted by anyone in any manner at Phi Kappa Psi, nor was she assaulted by any Phi Kappa Psi member at any other time or place."

The fraternity further claims Erdely contacted the president, Stephen Scipione, for comment, but told him nearly nothing about the allegations in the story.

"When Mr. Scipione replied that the scant information Erdely supplied made it impossible for him to comment, Erdely resolved again not to provide that information to him. Erdely knew that she could recast Mr. Scipione's inability to comment as the fraternity closing ranks," states the complaint.

Rolling Stone richly deserves this suit.

After the story was discredited in the press, the magazine appointed a team from the Columbia School of Journalism to an "external analysis " of the story.  It was led by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll, dean of the J School.

At the time, I wrote a piece headlined "Like a Rolling Stone: You Don't Have to Have Two Pulitzers under Your Belt to Know How the Magazine Got it Wrong."

I could have told them for free that the story fit so nicely with the prejudices of the reporter and her editors that they didn't bother to do elementary reporting. A venerable southern university with a fraternity system--what could be more conducive to producing preppie sociopaths, in their eyes? 

And the Coll report was disappointing, as predicted. It admitted tepidly admitted that there had been some bias and noted:

The story's blowup comes as another shock to journalism's credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry. The particulars of Rolling Stone's failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.

You mean that, if a story fits your prejudices, you still have to report it out?

This was one way to address one of the journalism profession's biggest embarrassments since Janet Cook.

If Rolling Stone and its handpicked investigators can't explain why the story was a colossal betrayal of journalistic ethics and ordinary honesty, then let us hope a lawsuit can do the job for them.   



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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