There are two separate controversies this week over rape stories that have been challenged by critics. Both stories involve leading U.S. universities. Unlike the Duke Lacrosse controversy, neither school is accused of wrongdoing. Rolling Stone magazine has apologized for shocking failures in reporting a sensational rape story where a woman named Jackie alleged that she was gang raped at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, but the Washington Post reported on discrepancies in the account, including the fact that no party was held at the fraternity on the day in question. In the meantime, Lena Dunham’s story of being raped in college has been challenged as containing discrepancies and the man who has faced the most accusations is now considering a libel lawsuit against the author and director.
The Rolling Stone Controversy
Rolling Stone magazine ran the story containing detailed accounts of the rape of Jackie, but it agreed to a demand by the alleged victim not to interview with accused man. It was an astonishing lapse of journalistic principles and the magazine also failed to fully investigate the details of the alleged rape. Notably, however, the magazine issued an apology but then removed this line: “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.” That line was replaced with this line “These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.”
The story “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, discussed how Jackie was a freshman in 2012 when she was forced to perform oral sex by seven men at the prestigious Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. Various people raised questions over the reporting, including the fact that some of Jackie’s closest friends questioned her account despite Erdely’s insistence that her friends’ accounts were “consistent” with her story. These inconsistencies include Jackie’s initial claim, according to friends and the Washington Post, that she had been raped by 5 men and then later claiming it was 7. Other friends said that there was an absence of any physical injury despite the claim of the magazine that she emerged bloodied and battered. The fraternity also said that there was no party on the day identified by Jackie and that her identification of “Drew” did not match anyone at the house and that in conflict with her claims, no one at the house worked as lifeguards at the pool. One of the named attackers was from a different house and no one by his name is a member at the Phi Kappa Psi. The man named said that he never met Jackie.
The fact that the magazine agreed not to interview the accused was widely condemned. The magazine stated that “[b]ecause of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.” A Rolling Stone editor claimed that it could not reach some of the men, though others including the Post were able to do so.
The Post details clearly identified individuals who were never contacted by the magazine. The Post reported that the person identified in the Rolling Stone story as “Cindy” told it that Erdely’s version of events was “completely false.”
The story of the brutal rape is still available on the Internet with the addition of the apology.
The Lena Dunham Controversy
A man named “Barry” is reportedly considering a libel lawsuit against Lena Dunham for her account of being raped at Oberlin College. She supplied details of the rape by a “mustachioed campus Republican” named Barry. Dunham’s widely acclaimed memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, included an identification of Barry as the rapist and describes him as a 19-year-old student who was known as a “poor loser” at poker with a flamboyant mustache who worked at the campus library and hosted a radio talk show. She also stated that Barry was the “campus’s resident conservative.”
The seemed to reduce the suspects to one man named Barry who was on the campus at the time and named Barry who claims that he has been hounded by the allegation that he is a rapist and that Dunham has refused to speak with him or clear his name.
Dunham’s high visibility has made the rape allegation international news and that has magnified the alleged injury to Barry. She received a $3.7 million advance for the memoir and is a leading producer, writer, and director, including her celebrated work on on the HBO series Girls.
Dunham not only claims that Barry raped her but gives highly graphic details of the encounter. She also quotes a friend who said that after she “once her friend Julia woke up the morning after sex with Barry, and the wall was spattered with blood. Spattered, she said, “like a crime scene.” But he was nice and took her for the morning-after pill and named the baby they weren’t having.”
The conservative website Breitbart has investigated the claims and identified what it says are clear discrepancies. The Washington Post blog has said that those discrepancies offer a solid basis for a libel action.
It is difficult to judge the merits of the claim. However, a libel lawsuit could force a response from Dunham and discovery into her account. Such an action could be based on not just libel but false light. The latter tort is defined
in Restatement (Second) of Torts, Sec. 652E as:
(1) the portrayal must be found to be “highly offensive to a reasonable person” and
(2) the actor had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the other would be placed.
The risk for Dunham is that there may be enough details — and alleged discrepancies — to get such a case to discovery and possibly trial. Discovery could result in depositions of an array of acquaintances and Dunham herself under oath. “Barry” has reportedly set up a donation site to pay for “costs and related fees associated with defending Barry’s reputation including, but not limited to, potentially pursuing Lena Dunham and Penguin Random House for harm caused to Barry’s reputation from the publication and sale of Ms. Dunham’s memoir.”