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HOLMBERG: Rolling Stone rolls the dice and loses with UVa. gang rape story

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Posted at 7:03 AM, Dec 06, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-06 07:58:10-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- I wouldn't want to be Rolling Stone magazine right about now.

The magazine's explosive University of Virginia gang rape story kicked that historic school founded by Thomas Jefferson right in the, well . . . teeth, for sure.

It's a story with glaring journalistic holes about perhaps the nation's top public university with proud alumni that include many rich and influential lawyers, politicians and judges all across the country.

The magazine's December "A Rape on Campus" story exploded into the national consciousness. Its vivid and painful keystone story told of a seemingly ritual gang rape at a UVA frat house two years ago that went unpunished, the story said, except for the shaming of the victim.

After weeks of an increasingly loud drumbeat of doubt from journalists across the country, the story fell apart Friday with a ripping sound that hasn't been heard in the reporting world since Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke.

"We made a judgment - the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. And in this case our judgment was wrong," tweeted Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana Friday.

He also wrote that readers should blame the magazine, not the female student - "Jackie" - who told of the grim ordeal.

"The failure is on us - not on her," Dana wrote.

This came after the Washington Post reported on several serious timeline and alleged perpetrator problems in the story that basic journalistic fact-checking would've exposed.

Richmond Times-Dispatch opinion/editorial writer Bob Rayner - UVa class of '82 - was among those writing earlier this week about whether the blockbuster story was a fable.

"Why can't the cops, why can't some good reporters, find this guy" who orchestrated the gang rape, Rayner told me Friday. "And I think we're finding out now that maybe it's because he never existed. Or he certainly didn't exist as he was portrayed in this story."

Quite troubling is the author's admitted mission before she even got to UVA

As her story went national, free-lance writer Sabrina Erdely told the Washington Post she wanted to write about sexual assaults at an elite university.

She struck out at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, she told the Post, but scored at Thomas Jefferson's university, founded nearly 200 years ago.

"She wanted to find a certain story and she found that story," Rayner said. "It turns out, it probably wasn't true."

The story ripped at the very heart of UVA. All fraternities and sororities were shut down. It touched off a campus-wide investigation and a national discussion about sexual violence on college campuses.

That important discussion will continue. University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan vowed that Friday in a statement.

"Today's news must not alter that focus," she said.

But it's worth asking how much damage this article has done to the issue.

At the very least, this scandalous piece of journalism underscored a key fear of rape victims: not being believed.

"There's work that needs to be done up there," Rayner said of his alma mater. "But this is not how to do it, by making things up."