The only thing worse than Rolling Stone's botched coverage of the University of Virginia rape story was its almost unbelievably bad apology to its readers, which placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of "Jackie," the woman at the center of the allegations. But following significant backlash from sexual assault survivor advocates and a number of other media outlets and journalists, Rolling Stone has surreptitiously changed its apology to say that the "mistakes are on Rolling Stone." No kidding, Rolling Stone, but wouldn't it be great to also acknowledge the mistakes you made in the first apology, in which you epitomized victim blaming, so that readers are aware of your continually changing story? Or did you think that that would go unnoticed, too?
On Friday, following key revelations by T. Rees Shapiro of The Washington Post that cast doubt upon certain aspects of the UVA horror story, Rolling Stone published a three-paragraph apology for their piece, "A Rape On Campus" by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. In the note, signed by managing editor Will Dana, Rolling Stone claimed, "In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone's editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie's credibility." The apology then continues, in the concluding paragraph (emphasis mine), "In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced."
Those six words are, undoubtedly, the biggest copout in recent journalism's memory. To blame the factual inaccuracies of an entire expose, one that Rolling Stone must have known would set off a veritable firestorm in college campuses across the nation at a time when assault is at the forefront of many students' minds, on Jackie and Jackie alone is mind-boggling in its lack of responsibility. As Emily Renda, U.Va.'s project coordinator for sexual misconduct, policy and prevention, told The Associated Press, "Rolling Stone played adjudicator, investigator and advocate — and did a slipshod job at that. As a result Jackie suffers, the young men in Phi Kappa Psi suffered, and survivors everywhere can unfairly be called into question."
So in order to backpedal on yet another mistake, Dana and company decided to revise their note on Saturday, but gave no indication of any edits whatsoever, despite the fact that the apology went from three paragraphs to four, and included substantial edits and additions. The revised version states,
In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.
It also includes direct references to the Washington Post article and the evidence Shapiro cited that presented inconsistencies with Jackie's account of events.
This version of the apology, certainly, is one that is far more cognizant of what Rolling Stone itself admits is the "sensitive nature of Jackie’s story." Rather than placing the onus on a single woman to verify and prove her story, the team at Rolling Stone should have not only adopted the burden of proof and responsibility for journalistic integrity, but also have admitted to their own shortcomings in their initial apology, rather than throwing Jackie under the bus. Because that is precisely what they did. In their attempts to save what little face they had left, they chose to make a scapegoat out of their subject, blaming Jackie for essentially misleading the magazine and the author, rather than taking responsibility for their own lack of research.
The Post's Erik Wemple called Rolling Stone's initial apology "misogynistic" and "victim-blaming," while Hanna Rosin of Slate called the apology "even shoddier" than the "shoddy...reporting, editing, and fact-checking," or really, just lack thereof, in the story. And as Alexandra Brodsky wrote for MSNBC, "The magazine, then, pointed its finger at a young woman who cannot point back."
This is the real danger of Rolling Stone's initial apology, and perhaps in their quiet, underhanded revision that ignores this further error. Victim blaming in the case of sexual assault is not a myth, it's the name of the game. Women who choose to come forward with their stories are, almost inevitably, made to feel guilty or somehow responsible for the actions of another — why was your dress so short? Why were you flirting? Why were you drinking? Why were you even there in the first place? These are not questions that grant agency to women or to survivors, they are questions that further entrench the notion that rape, ultimately, is a two-way street — that somehow, women let it happen to them. And when Rolling Stone turned Jackie into the tired old trope of the woman who cried rape, they became part of the problem.
As Brodsky noted,
In so prioritizing its name over its ethics, Rolling Stone just reinforced long-standing obstacles to survivors seeking support and undermined the movement to end campus gender-based violence. Publishing the article in the first place suggests Rolling Stone wants to expose the problem of campus sexual assault, but their handling of their own mistake does just the opposite, sweeping victims back into the shadows.
When Eredly wrote "A Rape On Campus," she seemed to have two goals in mind — one, to draw attention to the very real problem of rape across college campuses (and the nation at large), and two, to bastardize the stereotype of the "elitist fraternity culture” that gives rise to what we have now termed "rape culture." But a culture does not commit rape — individuals commit rape. And as for our culture of victim blaming, the same thing goes — you can't persecute a culture. Instead, blame Rolling Stone for privileging its reputation.
Images: Rolling Stone; Getty Images (3)