The retracted Rolling Stone article about an apparently fictional gang rape at the University of Virginia is a blemish on an otherwise illustrious career for the journalist who wrote it.
Freelance writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely has made a living out of long, provocative articles, but none as contentious as the piece in November that turned a national conversation about campus sexual assault into a louder debate. Other journalists quickly found inconsistencies in the story titled "A Rape on Campus," and on Sunday, Rolling Stone published a review that it had asked the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism to undertake.
The report was scathing, saying it was a "story of journalistic failure that was avoidable." That came after a finding last month by police in Charlottesville, Virginia, that there was no evidence to support the claims of the woman identified in the story only as "Jackie" that she had been raped by seven men at a fraternity house. In a New York Times interview, Rolling Stone publisher Jann S. Wenner described "Jackie" as "a really expert fabulist storyteller" who manipulated the magazine's journalism process.
The Columbia report did not support what some critics have speculated — that Erdely made it up.
Such criticism is rare for Erdely, 42, who went to work at Philadelphia Magazine when she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1994 and has written for several other magazines, including Self and GQ, over the years.
Some of her most prominent stories have been about the seedy underbelly of prestigious worlds. She has written about a suburban mother addicted to heroin and another who ran a prostitution service; she told the story of an autistic boy busted for selling marijuana to an undercover police officer who had befriended him. She has twice been a finalist for National Magazine Awards for pieces on harassment of gay students at a Minnesota high school and sexual misconduct by a doctor.
The Philadelphia resident, who is married and has two children, repeatedly declined to speak to a reporter for this article. But she apologized for the Rolling Stone article in a statement Sunday, saying, "Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience."
She called the past few months "among the most painful of my life" and apologized to "Rolling Stone's readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the U.V.A. community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article."
Some of those who have worked with her see her as diligent and sensitive.
Lisa DePaulo, a longtime magazine journalist who also worked with Erdely for a time at Philadelphia, acknowledged it will be different for her now.
"Everything she does is going to be under scrutiny," DePaulo said. "The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. Except for this — and that's a big exception — her work is solid."
Stephen Fried, a magazine writer and author who hired Erdely, said he supports her. He usually has her speak to a magazine-writing class he teaches at Columbia, but with the investigation of her work being conducted there, this year's appearance was scrapped. He still wants to have her in next year, though.
"I have nothing but admiration for Sabrina's work," Fried said Monday. "I have nothing but admiration for how she has handled all of this."
Said Larry Platt, who was the top editor at Philadelphia Magazine when Erdely worked there, in an interview with the AP in December: "As an editor, if I had to pick a reporter to nail a story based on their reporting chops, Sabrina would have been right up there. She's just dogged."
No other publications have said whether they plan to review Erdely's work, and Rolling Stone didn't say whether it plans to review her previous work for the magazine.
In a question-and-answer session with reporters Monday at Columbia, journalism dean Steve Coll said the review team did read some of her earlier pieces but didn't "go out and re-report them." They didn't ask to see her files on any stories, he said, and doesn't know what Rolling Stone would have said if they had.
Sheila Coronel, the journalism school's dean of academic affairs, said that the team spent two days with Erdely and that she cooperated "fully and professionally."
"The moment that was, that really she nearly broke down, was that moment when she was narrating, when she realized that Jackie's account was not true," Coronel said. "It was very painful for her, and I think more painful than all of the things written about her was the feeling that she had been betrayed by a source that she trusted and invested a lot of time and emotional energy on."
Asked whether Erdely should ever write again for a national magazine, Coronel said: "I don't believe that's our decision. This would be the decision of people who ask her to write for them."
Associated Press writer Deepti Hajela in New York contributed to this report. Follow Mulvihill at http://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill