Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s 2014 Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus” was an account of a gang-rape at the University of Virginia that crumbled disastrously under scrutiny. The saga, with the anonymous “Jackie” at its center, ended in expensive lawsuits, lost jobs, and 13,000-word autopsies from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Most devastatingly, it also contributed to undermining the accounts of other survivors of rape and sexual assault, discouraging them from speaking up. In the post-“Jackie” world, journalists writing about rape and sexual assault know how high the stakes are; they know well to show their work.
But in a recent piece, Cosmopolitan falls far short. On June 26, Cosmopolitan.com published “She Told a Guy She Worked at an Abortion Clinic. On Their Next Date, He Raped Her.” Calla Hales, the director of a chain of four abortion clinics in North Carolina and Georgia, told freelance journalist Rebecca Grant that the rape occurred after she cut short her second date with a man whom the story does not name. He walked her to her car—it’s not clear where it was parked—and then attacked her. The details are both savage and confusing:
[H]e walked her to her parking spot, and as she was getting into her car, she says, he came up behind her, pulled her into the backseat, and raped her. “He had me in between the seats, wrapped the seat belt around my neck, and at some point, bit me on my chest,” Hales said.
Grant makes clear that the rape was intended as a sort of punishment for Hales's work as an abortion provider. On their first date, Hales said, she told him she worked in “women’s health”; he later pressed her by text to say she worked at an abortion clinic. As he attacked her, he called her a “jezebel” and a “murderer,” and told her she should repent. The attack lasted for 15 minutes, she said, until he was scared off by a noise.
Hales said she later drove to the house of friends, who urged her to call the police; she declined. She went to a Planned Parenthood “the Monday after the rape” (although the piece doesn’t say when the rape occurred) and, sometime later, to an unnamed hospital, where she was told to come back the next day; when she returned, she said, the hospital couldn’t find a record of her visit, and she realized they had given her someone else’s paperwork.
The disturbing details continue. Hales said her rapist started showing up to the protests outside the clinic where she worked. Soon, other protesters started using the epithet “jezebel” as they screamed outside her clinic. Another protester made a reference to a hidden tattoo that would have been visible to her attacker. Hales also said she received anonymous harassing text messages, letters, and voicemails.
Some of these details are so remarkable that it’s baffling to see the article gloss over them. Did the rapist tell the other protesters what he had done? Did he prompt another protester to ask about the tattoo, and encourage others to use specific words such as “jezebel”? Was he responsible for all those anonymous calls, letters, and texts, or were others involved? Did the hospital bungle her paperwork intentionally? Questions along these lines were first called out by Reason editor Robby Soave, who tweeted several times on Wednesday about his attempts to contact Cosmopolitan:
There were no witnesses to the attack itself, but many of the other details in the piece would be straightforward to corroborate. Presumably Hales knows her attacker’s name, but Grant does not mention attempting to contact him or anyone he knows, or even googling him. If Grant interviewed any of the friends Hales saw on the night of the rape, she doesn’t mention it. She doesn’t say whether she saw or heard any of the harassing texts, letters, and voicemails, or the earlier text exchanges about Hales's line of work. She doesn’t say whether or not she contacted the unnamed hospital about Hales’s treatment there, or even whether Hales shared its name with her. (It is not unusual for a reporter to ask a source for sensitive details she has agreed not to include in the piece, for the purposes of verifying the story.)
The piece is riddled with strange elisions: Grant quotes Hales’s mother, who opened the chain of clinics in 1998, but doesn’t name her. If it’s a question of security, why not say so—and in that case, why does her photograph appear in the story? Grant interviewed several people who regularly demonstrate outside Hales’s clinics, but doesn’t seem to have asked any of them about the alleged rapist’s repeated appearances there.
These are serious failures of both reporting and editing. (Grant and the editor of Cosmopolitan’s website, Amy Odell, have not responded to requests for comment.) And what is confounding is that the magazine seems to have invested real time and money in producing the story. Grant’s website says she is based in Brooklyn, but she reported on location in North Carolina. The magazine also sent an accomplished photojournalist to shoot Hales, her mother, and scenes in and around their clinics.
None of the red flags listed here are necessarily problems with Hales’s story; they are significant problems with Cosmopolitan’s. Corroborating a source’s account does not mean that you don’t trust her—it means that you want to do everything you can to present her story as airtight, unimpeachably accurate. Thorough reporting is a form of respect, even protection. The bottom-feeders who insist that women regularly lie about sexual assault had a field day with the disintegration of “A Rape on Campus.” Cosmopolitan might have just handed them more fodder.