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Defining Narrative Questioned In 'Rolling Stone' UVA Rape Story


The Rolling Stone offered this clarification late in the day - the magazine is at fault for its judgment, not that of the woman at the center of the story. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik has been reporting on the controversy surrounding the Rolling Stone article and joins us now. And, David, tell us more about that report. And what precisely has been retracted?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the reporter involved, was actually making a broader case - a wider argument in her article about - as she presented it - how laxly the University of Virginia was treating serious allegations of rape and sexual assault. But the core of the story, the emotional heart of it, was built abound the elide passages presented as almost as defining a narrative - almost without question - that it occurred precisely the way it was presented by this woman, Jackie - and identified by that name only - who had, she said, been raped by seven men at a fraternity party.And that's what's now been retracted. The wider story - University of Virginia's one of only a dozen schools under tough federal scrutiny even now and even before the publication of the story for its handling of such alleged attacks. But nonetheless, the emotional core of that story has gone.

CORNISH: As for the magazine, what's led to this partial retraction?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you've seen a number of things in the last 24 hours. And it follows some really tough critical questions raised by reporters at Slate, by Erik Wemple, the media critic of the Washington Post, and others. But you've seen the last - just today, in fact, the fraternity involved, Phi Kappa Psi, has said that there was no party at the fraternity at the night as identified in the report. And The Washington Post did a fairly deep dive here, talking not just to Jackie but the other people involved, including the man given the pseudonym Drew, who is said to be the ringleader of the gang rapists. And that he denies it. And in fact, there are a number of - the people who had been corroborating, seemingly, of Jackie's story in the Rolling Stone piece are now very much backing away, saying that her version of events have changed.

CORNISH: And, David, you've been among those critical of the article's approach. I mean, how did the reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely respond when you spoke to her this week?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, one of the key elements was that she had, in fact, agreed to a request from Jackie not to talk to the man that she said had assailed her and had been the ringleader, not to talk to the man identified as Drew in the story. And what Erdely told me was that she was very worried about the emotional state and distress of Jackie, that she felt she was very fragile, and she and editors agreed not to contact him.But, you know, in that case, you're presenting a long narrative, more or less, as fact in that opening stanzas of the article, and that's a problem. In addition, you know, once you've made the promise not to contact Drew - and that goes against most basic tenants of fairness that journalists grow up with - why publish if you can't do that, if you've got to promise not to do that? And moreover, if you do decide to publish, why would you not disclose that to readers? There was a complete lack of transparency about these very fateful decisions made not just by the reporter but particularly by the editors of Rolling Stone. And I think that's the real problem here for Rolling Stone as it tries to pick up the pieces.

CORNISH: Now, how should this affect our understanding of this story itself?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I don't think people should forget the fundamental truth I mentioned earlier, which is that, you know, the University Virginia is one of a select group of campuses under very tough federal scrutiny for its handling of rapes and sexual assaults. And that advocates say that actually a tiny percentage of such allegations turn out to be false. But nonetheless, you know, journalists have to think about larger truths and also base their reports on specific facts. And in this case, they couldn't pin down the facts. It doesn't mean something didn't happen to the woman who has been presented under the name Jackie. But it does mean they can't use that at the emotional core, and they can't present that somehow as the basis on which to attack the University of Virginia.

CORNISH: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks for talking with us.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.

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