Krakauer’s Missoula and the scrutiny of reporters who cover rape

July 6, 2015

On May 6, Jon Krakauer arrived in Missoula, Montana, to attend what was billed as a “public forum” about his new book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. In the book, Krakauer presents the stories of multiple rape victims and their struggles to find justice through different judicial systems, including the University of Montana’s University Court. Several of the alleged rapists were members of the university’s football team, the Grizzlies.

The release of Krakauer’s book was not a small event in Missoula, a city of about 70,000. On the May evening when he appeared in town, 600 people packed the ballroom of a local hotel to hear him, and many others were turned away once the room reached capacity. The book came in the aftermath of a 2012 Department of Justice investigation of the university, the Missoula Police Department, and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office. Missoula police received more than 350 reports of sexual assault between January 2008 and May 2012, according to the investigation. Of these, 114 were referred to the county attorney’s office, but prosecutors, largely under the supervision of a single attorney named Kirsten Pabst, filed charges in only 14 cases.

“If a prosecutor doesn’t want to pursue a case, she can simply state that there is ‘insufficient probable cause,’ and the case will not be prosecuted,” Krakauer writes. “Although this leaves victims with no recourse when their cases are disqualified, prosecutors will argue that such wide latitude is necessary to keep the wheels of the criminal justice system turning.” Many of the remaining 100 cases referred to the county attorney’s office were declined for insufficient probable cause; Krakauer argues that prosecutors cherry-picked cases that were certain victories.

Two of Krakauer’s sources, Kerry Barrett and Kaitlynn Kelly, both University of Montana students, told him they were sexually assaulted within a week of each other. For both women, the judicial process felt adversarial, and seemed to favor the men they accused. A detective assigned to Barrett’s case told her assailant during an interview that he seemed like “a really good person with a really good future ahead of you,” and the case was dropped. Pabst, whose office declined to prosecute Kelly’s assailant, later testified on his behalf during a university judicial hearing. After she resigned from the county attorney’s office, Pabst and another attorney successfully defended Jordan Johnson, the Grizzlies’ quarterback, against a rape charge.

“Police and prosecutors are morally and professionally obligated to make every effort to identify specious rape reports,” Krakauer writes. “At the same time, however, police and prosecutors are obligated to do everything in their power to identify individuals who have committed rape and ensure that the guilty are brought to justice. These two objectives are not mutually exclusive.”

Missoula hit shelves at a time of heightened scrutiny for reporters who cover rape. In April, two weeks before Krakauer’s book was published, the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism released its investigation of Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus,” Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s flawed and uncorroborated story about the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia student called “Jackie.” Among other shortcomings, Erdely and Rolling Stone’s editorial team over-relied on pseudonyms and failed to corroborate Jackie’s account of her rape. The Columbia report called “A Rape on Campus” a “journalistic failure.”

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This book is an effort to understand what deters so many rape victims from going to the police.

Like the victims whose stories they tell, reporters who cover rape face a powerful challenge to their credibility. A failure to withstand that challenge could silence reporters and rape survivors alike. Krakauer, best known for his narrative account of doomed climbers on Mt. Everest and, more recently, his takedown of Greg Mortenson, the philanthropist and author of Three Cups of Tea, hoped his book might provide “a counter-narrative to the Rolling Stone fiasco,” he told me in an interview. “I was really disturbed by that setback, this whole notion that women lie.”

Press materials for Missoula describe the book as “carefully documented” and “meticulously reported,” phrases apparently selected to bolster Krakauer’s credibility. The book delivers on these promises. Krakauer explains his methods and motives with great care, which makes Missoula a remarkably transparent work of nonfiction. In his introduction, Krakauer provides an overview of his sources; at the end, he offers a detailed dramatis personae, alongside a lengthy bibliography. He establishes his rules for dialogue: everything verbatim, from either interviews or transcripts. And he forewarns his readers against expectations of impartiality.

“This book is an effort to understand what deters so many rape victims from going to the police,” he writes, “and to comprehend the repercussions of sexual assault from the perspective of those who have been victimized.”

In 1987, Mary Koss, a clinical psychologist and a public health professor, developed a 10-question survey of sexual behaviors designed to quantify instances of victimization among college students. Based on more than 3,000 responses, Koss wrote that “since the age of 14, 27.5 percent of college women reported experiencing … an act that met legal definitions of rape.” The data became a rallying cry—“one in four”—for rape survivors and prevention advocates.

It also attracted skeptics. In “Date Rape’s Other Victim,” a 1993 cover story for The New York Times Magazine, Katie Roiphe critiqued so-called “rape-crisis feminists,” arguing that they threatened to constrain female sexual agency. Roiphe suggested that active consent, a “yes means yes” approach to sex, infantilized women, and she argued that “verbal coercion” implied that men “are not just physically but also intellectually and emotionally more powerful than women.”

“If I was really standing in the middle of an ‘epidemic,’ a ‘crisis,’” Roiphe wrote, “if 25 percent of my women friends were really being raped—wouldn’t I know it?”

Would she? Early in her article, Roiphe seized on one of Koss’ questions from the so-called Sexual Experiences Survey: “Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?” The question, wrote Roiphe, was flawed: It implied that women are passive and naïve, absolved of their responsibility to choose to drink or do drugs and, perhaps, have sex. But Roiphe’s article spends more time with cultural rhetoric than with Koss’ study and its implications.

“Roiphe trivializes the research on rape prevalence by characterizing it in a single sentence that focuses on a lone data source,” Koss wrote in a letter to the Times. “Women will not feel free to report these incidents as long as articles like Roiphe’s fuel their fear of disbelief.”

Still, Koss revised the survey, and clarified the alcohol question. In 2004, she published a report that relied on feedback from another thousand subjects using the updated survey. According to the results, 191 respondents had experienced sexual coercion, 121 had experienced attempted rape, and 174 had been raped. A total of 383 respondents—nearly 40 percent—had experienced “some sexual victimization since age 14.”

Another Montana student, Kelsey Belnap, said she was raped by four members of the Grizzlies football team at an apartment party in Missoula on December 15, 2010. Belnap had drunk at least eight shots of liquor in under an hour before she was assaulted; afterward, an emergency room nurse found that Belnap’s blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit. Still, as Belnap told Krakauer, she had chosen to drink heavily. She said that she refused to have sex with the first man who assaulted her, but that after that, she passed out.

But Belnap gave slightly different answers to the detectives who interviewed her. Krakauer provides excerpts from the detectives’ report, which notes, “Kelsey stated she was so intoxicated she did not resist them.” Belnap told Krakauer that the detectives “seemed skeptical, like they thought I was just another drunk girl. I began to feel like I was the perp.”

If Koss is right—that a climate of skepticism could prevent disclosure and prosecution of sexual assault and rape—then journalists who cover rape might consider when and how they choose to act on that skepticism. Rolling Stone’s retraction of “A Rape on Campus” gave such critics another opportunity to shout down statistics, victims, and the reporters who cover them.

Krakauer told me there was “absolutely” an upside to the scrutiny of reporters who cover rape.

“I think it makes journalists uncomfortable,” he said during a phone interview the day after his Missoula forum. During his reporting, Krakauer “was very cognizant that I needed to fact-check every accusation of rape with great care, and that an accuser’s word was not enough by itself to report with certainty the details of sexual assault.”

In “A Rape on Campus,” Erdely mentioned a sexual-assault prevention and support organization whose members shared stories of assault. “Some were of sex while blackout drunk,” wrote Erdely. “Rarer stories involved violence, though none so extreme as Jackie’s.”

While Erdely built her narrative from a single, so-called “extreme” story, Krakauer built his around multiple, interconnected stories with substantial documentation. Much of Missoula concerns Allison Huguet, whose rapist, Beau Donaldson, confessed to his victim during a phone call recorded by Missoula police. Krakauer said he decided to write Missoula when he saw Huguet testify.

“There was a hearing,” he said. “There was going to be a transcript, there was going to be a paper trail associated with it. That encouraged me that this should be the woman I was going to write about.” There was no such documentary evidence for Erdely’s story about Jackie.

Only one of the rape victims in Krakauer’s book, “Cecilia Washburn,” is identified with a pseudonym. “And I didn’t interview her,” Krakauer said. (Krakauer says he discussed the possibility of an interview with Washburn’s attorney multiple times, but she replied each time that her client likely would not consent to an interview.) The rest of the victims identified in Missoula spoke with him and consented to having their names used. Krakauer offered each victim he interviewed an opportunity before publication to review each chapter in which she appeared. If a victim changed her mind about participating, then Krakauer promised to remove all mentions of her from the book—a way of giving victims the control over their stories that judicial systems sometimes deny.

Krakauer also described for each victim he interviewed some of his own reporting practices and boundaries. “I told each of them, very explicitly, that except for withdrawal or correcting errors that clearly needed to be corrected, they would have absolutely no right to determine what I wrote about them,” Krakauer wrote during a follow-up. “I explicitly told each of them that if I discovered they had not been truthful, I would report it in the book. I also made it explicitly clear that I would try to get each of their alleged assailants to tell me his side of the story, and I would be including both sides in the book.”

As for confronting his sources, Krakauer said he challenged each one, but did so in terms that wouldn’t make them feel disparaged.

“I wouldn’t do it in a confrontational way,” said Krakauer. “I would ask [a source] if she got it wrong, if her memory was wrong.” He explained to sources that his credibility relied on theirs, and both might be damaged by inaccuracies.

“If you find out something that doesn’t jibe with the story you’ve been given, you owe it to the victim to sort that out,” Krakauer said. “You’re not doing the victim any favor by not confronting them with something you heard.”

Much of Krakauer’s argument for providing rape victims with better support—from police, prosecutors, and reporters—comes down to trust. He describes the Missoula police detective assigned to Allison Huguet’s case as “uncommonly empathetic,” an interviewer who let his subjects tell their version of an event in its entirety before looking for inconsistencies or voicing doubts. He also provides interview excerpts from a second Missoula police detective, who told the alleged rapist she interviewed that “men and women think completely differently,” and that women “sometimes create situations that maybe we read a hell of a lot more into.”

Krakauer chastises the second detective just as he might have criticized Erdely. “She never challenged his statements aggressively, or probed for details,” he writes. “Instead, again and again [she] let him know that she was certain he was innocent.”

Certainty—for detectives, attorneys, juries, and journalists—should be hard-won. In Missoula, Krakauer urges them all to follow the idiom Ronald Reagan favored: “Trust, but verify.”

Such an approach could add to the credibility of even the most responsible, careful journalism. On February 19, the Montana Kaimin, the University of Montana’s student newspaper, published a story headlined “Krakauer Sources a Mystery.” The story revealed that, only weeks before Missoula’s publication date, Krakauer had not yet contacted a number of prominent figures in the rape cases he investigated. Those figures included Pabst, the attorney under whose supervision the Missoula County Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute numerous sexual assaults.

The Kaimin reporter behind the story, Amanda Bryant, recently graduated from the University of Montana.* She had interned at the Missoulian as a general interest reporter, and joined the school paper during her final semester “to build my portfolio,” she told me.

“It’s scary,” she said about Missoula’s subject matter. “It makes you realize this is where you live, and you want to project how you live in a good way. At the same time, when you love something, you have to criticize it, look into it, and find the flaws to make it better.”

When I asked Bryant why she decided to find people who Krakauer hadn’t interviewed, she replied that she “felt a duty to show people whether the book was reported thoroughly.” She concluded, “There’s no such thing as too much reporting.”

Krakauer planned to wait as long as possible before contacting those sources. “I didn’t want to give these people three or four months’ head start to cause trouble, harass my publisher, threaten lawsuits,” he said. But he credited Bryant’s story for prompting him to wrap up. He contacted Pabst and, while she did not answer his questions, Krakauer preserved a crucial part of his credibility. As Krakauer treated his sources, so did Bryant treat Krakauer: She trusted, but she verified. Krakauer’s book is stronger for it.

Journalists, rape victims, and psychologists aren’t the only people who struggle to safeguard their credibility. Police departments, local courts, universities—systems whose actions sustain and shape our notions of justice—need people who will keep them accountable to the communities they serve. Finding flaws can make us better. But only if we fix them.

At the end of the semester, I paid a visit to the Kaimin office in the University of Montana’s journalism building. The paper had ceased production for the summer, so the doors were closed and the office was dark. I walked along the hallway and looked at the small collection of framed front pages from past issues.

One caught my eye. It was from a humor issue, published as the “Daily Disappointment” on March 13, 1959. Below the fold, I found a fake news story about rape.

Suffice it to say that the story—“ ‘No Rape Here,’ Woodsmanship Dean Declares”—hinges on a bad pun and makes light of sexual assault. During the school year, students, Kaimin staff, and journalism professors walk past the wall and this rape joke every day. I wonder whether anyone else ever sees it. 

*An earlier version of this story stated that Amanda Bryant was a “fifth-year senior” at the University of Montana. She is a recent graduate.

Brendan Fitzgerald is senior editor of CJR.