Probably not bad advice, but with everyone from the source to the fraternity lawyering up, Rolling Stone may need to wait a while before acting on it. After questions began being raised by critics of Sabrina Rubin Ederly’s article alleging a horrific gang rape at a frat party in the fall of 2012, the Washington Post did its own investigation and found so many inconsistencies that even “Jackie’s” friends began distancing themselves from her allegations. Ederly specifically chose the University of Virginia to find a source for her narrative of a “rape culture” on American college campuses, and that was her first mistake, Erik Wemple wrote last night.
After the Rolling Stone piece began to surface fissures, Washington Post local staff deployed to familiar turf, seeking out the folks that Rolling Stone had bypassed. The effort called on a week’s worth of reporting by Shapiro, the work of two researchers and the oversight of two editors. If Erdely had chosen some other campus, perhaps her skewed reporting wouldn’t have attracted such scrutiny. Something to consider the next time a debate arises over whether The Post should sustain its local reporting.
This is more than just an object lesson on local reporting versus national activism. This is a clear-cut case of media bias, one that exposes the rot of “narrative journalism” and its corruption of legitimate issues:
In the case, of Erdely’s piece, however, there’s ample evidence of poisonous biases that landed Rolling Stone in what should be an existential crisis. It starts with this business about choosing just the “right” school for the story. What is that all about?…
Observe how Erdely responded to a question about the accused parties in Jackie’s alleged gang rape. In that Slate podcast, when asked who these people were, she responded, “I don’t want to say much about them as individuals but I’ll just say that this particular fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi — it’s really emblematic in a lot of ways of sort of like elitist fraternity culture. It’s considered to be a kind of top-tier fraternity at University of Virginia…It’s considered to be a really high-ranking fraternity, in part because they’re just so incredibly wealthy. Their alumni are very influential, you know, they’re on Wall Street, they’re in politics.”
The next time Erdely writes a big story, she’ll have to do a better job of camouflaging her proclivity to stereotype. Here, she refuses to evaluate the alleged gang rapists as individuals, instead opting to fold them into the caricature of the “elitist fraternity culture,” and all its delicious implications. Of course, one of the reasons she didn’t describe the accused is that she never reached out to them.
Wemple offers his advice to Rolling Stone, which as noted isn’t likely to act on it while the lawyers are preparing their lawsuits:
Anyone who touched this story — save newsstand personnel — should lose their job.
I doubt Rolling Stone would take that advice in any case. Let’s not forget that this is the same magazine that put an oh-so-dreamy image of the Boston Marathon bomber on its cover three months after the attack, so taste and journalistic ethics don’t appear to be highly-regarded qualities at the magazine.
Wemple’s colleague Paul Farhi followed up with a “what went wrong” piece last night that takes a more clinical tone, but no less condemnatory conclusion:
The failure to ascertain the whereabouts of key actors in such a revolting drama left Rolling Stone not with she said/he said ambiguity — a feature of every alleged crime or scandal — but with half a story, told from a single viewpoint. Except for two vague, inconclusive quasi-denials by the president of the local Phi Kappa Psi chapter and the executive director of the fraternity, no aspect of Jackie’s story was rebutted. …
To be sure, Rolling Stone was under no obligation to prove that Jackie’s account was true. That is a standard that eludes even the most rigorous trials, with eyewitness testimony and expert witnesses. News organizations, however, are responsible for independently verifying details, ascertaining facts, rooting out discrepancies and determining whether the discrepancies it finds are substantial enough to discredit a story.
How, for example, could Jackie recognize some of the men she said assaulted her in a room Erdely described as “pitch black”? How could she have exited the fraternity house via an entrance that, upon inspection, would have been shown not to exist? Did a party really take place at the fraternity on Sept. 28, 2012? (The fraternity maintains it did not.) If so, what did some of the partygoers, if not the alleged rapists, remember about that night? No such recollections were cited, leaving readers to wonder whether anyone was asked in the first place.
Plus, the magazine and its reporter didn’t exhibit much honesty in the aftermath of the collapse:
Erdely herself deflected questions about her reporting by engaging in a bit of misdirection. When asked repeatedly by The Post last week about her contacts with “Drew” — the purported ringleader of the gang rape — she demurred, citing her non-disclosure agreement with Jackie. Her answer left the impression that she had indeed had such contact with Drew, but was bound not to talk about it.
The magazine could also have disclosed to its readers what it did not know and what its reporting could not show. The story didn’t disclose, for example, that Erdely couldn’t find Drew, nor a second fraternity member who Jackie identified.
Wemple has a lot more about the “poisonous biases” of Erdely and how it created this result (be sure to read it all), but as his advice indicates, the problem is a lot larger than just the author. Rolling Stone’s editors obviously share those poisonous biases and the same drive for “impact journalism” at any cost. Managing editor Will Dana tried a do-over on Twitter about its ridiculous “blame the source” retraction yesterday, and made it clear that the refusal to do basic journalistic due diligence was an organizational decision:
3/We made a judgment – the kind of judgement reporters and editors make every day. And in this case, our judgement was wrong.
— Will Dana (@wdana) December 5, 2014
4/ We should have either not made this agreement with Jackie…
— Will Dana (@wdana) December 5, 2014
5/…or worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story.
— Will Dana (@wdana) December 5, 2014
To take Wemple’s advice, Dana would have to fire everyone — including himself. Rather than worry about that, readers should “fire” the Rolling Stone and its pretense of serious journalism, along with any writer or editor that chooses to associate themselves with it, as well as Dana’s other outlet — ironically, Men’s Journal.
Interestingly, I think Vox’s Amanda Taub gets the journalistic lesson mostly right, although she’s still arguing from the point of view that the holes in “Jackie’s” story shouldn’t automatically determine it as a hoax:
It is a depressing certainty that this story will be used for years to come as a defense by those who do not want to believe rape victims’ allegations. But that is the wrong lesson to draw. Rather, this story should be a reminder of how difficult it is to accurately report on traumatic events — and the heightened ethical responsibilities that fall on journalists who do so. …
Rolling Stone’s statement places the blame on Jackie, accusing her of being unworthy of trust. But the fact is that the magazine failed to report this story in a careful and ethical way. The reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not fully check the details of Jackie’s story before publishing them — or contact the alleged perpetrators involved. Today, the Washington Post reported that the fraternity where Jackie said the attack took place did not host a party on the night Jackie said she was raped, and that no member of the house fits Jackie’s description of her assailant.
Erdely claims that she was trying to protect Jackie, who feared that she might suffer retribution if Rolling Stone contacted her attackers. But failing to ensure that the story was accurate before exposing it to public scrutiny didn’t protect Jackie. It left her vulnerable.
That’s certainly the outcome, but the damage wasn’t limited to just “Jackie.” The fraternities at UVa got shut down for no good reason, the one fraternity named got vandalized on top of that, and several men came under suspicion for a crime that they not only didn’t commit but may not have happened at all. That is what happens when activists hijack journalism to further their agenda at the expense of the truth, a value which clearly wasn’t a high priority for either Erdely or anyone at Rolling Stone. If the truth had been their agenda, they would have doubled their efforts to make sure their story was solid, rather than simply act as stenographers for someone who told Erdely what she not only wanted to hear, but actively campaigned to find.
Activist, agenda-driven, narrative “journalism” is the real cause of this fiasco — and anyone practicing it anywhere should get canned, as Wemple advises.