Phi Kappa Psi Plans to Sue 'Rolling Stone' After Report Lays Out What the Magazine Did Wrong

A review by the Columbia School of Journalism found a number of glaring problems with the way the magazine's viral "A Rape on Campus" story was reported.

by Allie Conti
Apr 6 2015, 9:38pm

Protesters outside of the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi. Photo via Flickr user Bob Mical

Just before 8 PM last night, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism released a long-awaited report on the Rolling Stone article that falsely reported a gang rape at a frat party in 2012. The article in question, Sabrina Rubin Erdely's "A Rape on Campus," opened with the scene of a brutal gang rape of a woman named "Jackie" that's now been declared impossible to prove by the Charlottesville Police Department and totally made-up by two deans and a researcher in an independent review.

And while the 13,000-word Columbia report was supposed to put to rest questions of veracity that were first raised by the Washington Post this past December, it's actually opened a whole slew of new ones. Jann Wenner, the magazine's longtime publisher, is saying that no one will lose their jobs over the debacle. And now, the fraternity at the center of the piece is saying they will pursue legal action, even though libel arguments can't typically be made if a group, rather than a named individual, is the subject of alleged defamation. So the question now that it's all said and done is: What will the consequences of one of the biggest journalistic fuck-ups in recent memory be?

After "A Rape on Campus" went viral, people began vandalizing the Phi Kappa Psi house, spraying graffiti that said things like "UVA Center of Rape Studies" and "Suspend Us" on its facade. "We applaud the bravery of those who have shared their stories, and we promise that their bravery will not be in vain," anonymous people claiming responsibility said in a letter sent to various news outlets. "This situation is just beginning. We will escalate and we will provoke until justice is achieved for the countless victims of rampant sexual violence at this University and around the nation."

The administration of the school acted swiftly, suspending all fraternities on campus. A blogger named Charles C. Johnson outed a woman he claimed was Jackie and circulated a picture of the incorrect woman with the intent of shaming her.

All of this happened as the result of an article that the deans from Columbia said failed on three basic grounds. First of all, Erdely failed to corroborate Jackie's story by contacting the alleged rapists. She also failed to check with three friends who Jackie said discouraged her from telling people about the supposed gang rape, even though she quoted them in the story and made it seem like she had. When seeking a response from Phi Kappa Psi, Erdely only asked for "comment" on the allegations without spelling them out. Had she, the frat may have told her that there wasn't even a party on the night the rape was supposed to have happened, and the frat didn't have a brother that fit Jackie's description of the person who she said orchestrated it—which would have likely put the brakes on the article. Columbia said the reporter and her editor, Sean Woods, failed to do their due diligence before making explosive claims.

But in an interview with the New York Times, Jenner said that the errors began with Jackie, who he described as a "really expert fabulist storyteller." He added that Erdely, who has written blockbuster articles for Rolling Stone in the past, like the one that inspired The Bling Ring, will continue to contribute to the magazine.

"Rolling Stone Magazine admits its staff engaged in reckless behavior while covering this story, yet the magazine refuses to take any action against those involved in reporting the story or address needed changes to its editorial process," Phi Kappa Psi said in a statement that announced their plan to sue the publication.

But it's not clear that the lawsuit has a chance of being successful. After all, the guy who Jackie said orchestrated the rape doesn't seem to exist. The allegations then, are against a group of nameless people, which makes it complicated to prove that they've been defamed.

So after months of stories, developments, and reviews, the outcome of Erdely's story and the dozens of stories about her story might be... absolutely nothing. The magazine did take down the article from its website, but it will still be available to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of how pages are archived. As Sheila Coronel, one of the Columbia report's co-authors said, "Nothing ever disappears on the Internet."

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