|The new media superstar|
The improbable story of "Billy Doe," the former Philadelphia altar boy who claimed he was raped by a couple of priests and a Catholic school teacher, has gone viral.
Rolling Stone opened the door by apologizing for the improbable story it ran about "Jackie," the University of Virginia freshman who claimed she was raped by seven guys at a fraternity party.
Big Trial's contribution to the unfolding scandal was to point out that before they fell for Jackie's story, reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone bought Billy's bogus tale. In a classic case of the media turning on itself, the Big Trial post about Billy and Rolling Stone attracted 50,000 hits to this website in two days.
The local scandal about Billy, ignored by the hometown press, was suddenly hot news to The Daily Caller, and a bunch of websites such as jimromenesko.com, hotair.com, and fark.com, Even The Daily Mail, the British national newspaper, weighed in with a story about Billy.
And we're not done yet. The Washington Post and Newsweek are hot on the trail as well. Over at the District Attorney's office, our stonewalling D.A. Seth Williams is probably hoping he gets through this news cycle unscathed. Seth, however, does have a distant but curious link to Rolling Stone's Billy story that has attracted the curiosity of the national media.
One of the issues the Post and Newsweek are exploring: why Sabrina Rubin Erdely didn't disclose to readers that while she was reporting the Billy Doe story her lawyer husband, Peter Erdely, worked as an assistant district attorney under Seth Williams in the Philly D.A.'s office. According to his online biography, Erdely was an ADA for eight years until July 2011, two months before his wife's Billy story ran on Sept. 15, 2011 in Rolling Stone.
Erdely, who proudly refers to his "lovely wife" on his Twitter account as Lois Lane and Wonder Woman, is now in private practice. It's great that Erdely is a supportive spouse, but as far as the reporter is concerned, holy undisclosed conflict of interest!
The conflict was first spotted by media reporter Paul Farhi of The Washington Post. Maybe Erdely's status as as the wife of a Philly ADA explains the overwhelmingly pro-prosecution slant on her piece. And why she only quoted a couple of former prosecutors, a former victim, a couple of dissident ex-priests, and a former seminarian who got kicked out, all of whom had axes to grind against the church.
Erdely has not responded to requests for comment from this blog as well as many other journalistic outlets, including The Washington Post. Meanwhile, the managing editor of Rolling Stone released an apology to readers that said the magazine's trust in Jackie had been "misplaced." Then the magazine backtracked again, saying the fault for not fact-checking Jackie's story belonged to the staffers at Rolling Stone, not Jackie.
On Friday, a spokesman for Rolling Stone told Farhi that Peter Erdely's work in the D.A.'s office didn't pose a conflict of interest because he wasn't part of the unit trying the defendants in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sex abuse case.
They sure have a loosy-goosey outfit over there at Rolling Stone, the home of gonzo journalism. When they write a story about an alleged gang-rape victim, for example, they don't have to talk to any of the accused rapists. So I guess being married to an assistant district attorney [and not telling readers about it] while you're prosecuting the case in the pages of Rolling Stone is no big deal.
"Catholic bashers have gotten a lot of mileage out of the sexual abuse scandal," Donohue wrote at the time, "but for sheer maliciousness, it is hard to top the piece in Rolling Stone. The factual errors, the stereotypes, the grand omissions, and the melodramatic language make for an incredible read."
In the absence of comment from Erdely the website gotnews.com posted a 2006 video of the reporter giving a talk at the University of Pennsylvania, her alma mater, where she says, "My tendency is to believe people."
Although she claims to her audience that she possesses a healthy dose of skepticism, Erdely says on the video, "My default mode is you are probably telling the truth."
That's why she pays attention to red flags. "I have a finely tuned bullshit detecter," she says. "And when it goes off I pay close attention because it doesn't go off without a reason."
Newsbusters also ran a story about Mediabuzz host Howie Kurtz raising questions about a third story Erely wrote for Rolling Stone, with this headline: "One Town's War on Gay Teens: In Michele Bachman's home district, evangelicals have created an extreme anti-gay climate. After a rash of suicides, the kids are fighting back."
"Bachman doesn't even live in the school district any more, and whatever her views on gays, linking her name to these tragic deaths seems more political than factual," Kurtz wrote.
Now that the Billy Doe story has gone viral, maybe D.A. Seth Williams will finally have to answer some questions he's been stonewalling for two years.
Man up, Seth. Rolling Stone has already apologized for the factual "discrepancies" in Jackie's story.
Isn't it time the D.A. in this town came clean about all the factual problems with Billy's story?
And why the D.A.'s office ran with Billy's story without doing any fact-checking of their own, in the form of an investigation that came two years later? An investigation, when it was finally done, where all the witnesses and all the documents gathered by the D.A.'s own detectives completely contradicted Billy's cockamamie stories?
Memo to Seth: you might want to start talking before the people from your office have to show up as witnesses in the civil case Billy Doe has filed against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. A civl case where those current and former employee of the D.A.'s office will have to answer those same questions under oath.
Even if some people admit their mistakes, however, the damage meter seems all out of whack.
Rolling Stone can always run a correction, or even retract their story about Jackie. After all, in Charlottesville, they shut down all the fraternities and sororities, but nobody's mug shot got splashed across the media. And nobody's good name was dragged through the mud in any bogus grand jury report.
But here in Philadelphia, our D.A. published an intellectually dishonest and mistake-filled grand jury report that smeared many people.
What can Seth do now about the four defendants he sent to jail for a crime wave that in all probability never happened, except in the imagination of the alleged junkie criminal "victim" scheming to bust out of jail?
What can Seth say to the family of Father Charles Engelhardt, the defendant priest who just died in jail?
Seth Williams, a former altar boy himself, may need a confessional for that one.
Ralph Cipriano can be reached at email@example.com.