The investigators at Columbia Journalism School offered plenty of discussion about confirmation bias in their post-mortem on the Rolling Stone scandal, both in their report and in the presser the next day discussing it. They missed another kind of bias, argues Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine, one even more pervasive than confirmation bias. Rolling Stone’s institutional bias is why confirmation bias became an issue at all, and it was shored up by those who shared it.
Chait raises another form of the same question I asked this week. We know that Rolling Stone ignored its own policies. But why did it do so?
But why did Rolling Stone flagrantly disregard basic journalistic safeguards in this instance? It seems very likely that the magazine’s staff was operating within a social and ideological environment that made the story’s narrative appear to be self-evidently correct. …
One of the peculiar, unexamined assumptions is that fraternity members are capable not only of loutishness or even rape, which is undeniable, but the sort of routine, systematized torture we would normally associate with serial killers or especially brutal regimes. The story describes a gang rape as a fraternity initiation ritual, complete with members referring to their victim as “it,” the way Buffalo Bill dehumanized his captive in Silence of the Lambs.
You don’t need to feel much affinity for Greek culture — I certainly don’t — to question whether depravity on this scale is plausible. It’s the sort of error that could only be produced in an atmosphere of unquestioned loathing. Caitlin Flanagan, who has reported extensively on the pathology of fraternity culture, told Hanna Rosin that Rolling Stone’s gang rape scene beggared belief. But Flanagan and Rosin have both offended the left in different ways, so their skepticism merely served to convince Rolling Stone’s defenders that the story’s skeptics were motivated by anti-feminism[.]
Give Chait a lot of credit here, since his own political leanings would normally align him more closely to Rolling Stone than, say, National Review. He could have shrugged his shoulders at this and chalked it up to the magazine getting hoodwinked, but Chait goes deeper to ask why. He then proceeds with a diagnosis that expertly identifies the disease — institutional bias.
In my column for The Week yesterday, I point out that the story was intended to feed that institutional bias from the beginning:
The topic of rape is serious, and it is ready for serious investigative journalism. But it requires journalists to start at a point of skepticism of both sides. Instead, Erdely and Rolling Stone went into this project with their minds made up about what they would “report,” and only needed a compelling story from a young woman to lend their predisposition some credence. “Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case,” the Columbia review states, “that would show what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,’ according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.” In other words, Erdely and Rolling Stone were eager to feed and justify the moral panic rather than use journalism to see whether it was warranted at all.
But are there more instances of that institutional bias overriding professional norms at Rolling Stone, especially involving Sabrina Rubin Erdely? Leon Wolf takes a hard look at another Erdely piece titled The Rape of Petty Officer Blumer from 2013, a piece whose narrative structure parallels that of the now-debunked A Rape on Campus. The latter piece attempted to tell the story of rapes disregard by callous college administrators and hostile, male-dominated social structures on campus, while the 2013 article took aim at similar issues in the US military. Wolf dug into the details of the 2013 story and finds that it has some serious holes in it as well:
RedState has now spoken with multiple members of Navy command who were either personally involved in the investigation of Ms. Blumer’s allegations or who had firsthand knowledge of the facts of this case. For obvious reasons, their names have been withheld to protect their identities. However, it seems clear that, if Ms. Erdely’s story concerning Petty Officer Blumer were subjected to the same scrutiny as the UVA story, it might well come unraveled just as quickly.
The key fact from these conversations is this: Everyone I spoke to in connection with this investigation was crystal clear that at no point did Sabrina Erdely or Rolling Stone ever contact them whatsoever, even to ask for background information. This is exactly the same lapse in journalistic standards that doomed the UVA story and ultimately led to its retraction. The fact that it occurred in this story is indication of a systemic problem with Rolling Stone and Sabrina Erdely’s reporting, not of a single lapse in judgment. …
According to members of Naval command who personally participated in the investigation, it is true that Ms. Blumer was arrested for DUI early on the morning of Valentine’s Day and was taken to the Richmond County Jail. Per usual protocol for members of the military, someone from Ms. Blumer’s Naval Command unit came to retrieve her from the County Jail (in such cases, the Navy will usually either post bail or the judge in question will simply release the defendant back into the custody of the her commanding officers, often times through the Shore Patrol liason, given that they present a low flight risk in such a case). The defendant is then taken immediately (or as soon as is practical) to their commanding officers for examination and for the possible application of non-judicial punishment.
Per the police report, Ms. Blumer did not at any time notify the police that she believed she had been sexually assaulted. The member of Naval command who came to retrieve her from jail was notified that she had indeed behaved in a bizarre fashion the night before, including that she had attempted to remove her clothes on numerous occasions. When questioned by Naval command, Ms. Blumer initially stated that she had a period of several hours that were missing from her memory and was unable to form a coherent narrative about the events of the previous night. The sources I spoke with were clear that it was members of the Naval command who first suggested to Ms. Blumer that she might have been sexually assaulted, and that they did so by way of asking, “Do you think that you might have been sexually assaulted last night?”
When Ms. Blumer responded that it’s possible that she might have, the USN personnel who retrieved her from the County Jail immediately reported this allegation to her commanding officers, and per protocol, further administrative action on potential non-judicial punishment for her DUI was halted while this investigation was completed, a process which took a year and a half (for reasons set forth below). The matter was then turned over to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).
To the extent that Ms. Erdely’s article implies that the Navy took no action to investigate the alleged sexual assault, the sources who spoke to RedState indicated that the article was categorically false. Ms. Blumer indicated to investigators that the reason she could not remember an assault actually occurring was that she suspected that she had been given a drugged drink, and accordingly a tox screen was taken which showed no traces of rohypnol or flunitrazepam, the most common date rape drugs.
Be sure to read it all. The difference between the two cases may be as simple as turf protection. Erdely chose UVA for her false narrative on campus rape, just a wee bit too close to the Washington Post for them to ignore it (an intriguing parallel to Stephen Glass’ fatal error by treading on Forbes Online’s turf with Hack Heaven). After T. Rees Shapiro went knocking on doors, Rolling Stone’s institutional bias blew up in its face. The story about the Navy may not have any turf implications for other publications who might otherwise feel bound to do follow-ups, except Stars and Stripes, which is busy with a broad range of issues and may not have the personnel to pursue it.
In my conclusion, I wrote this challenge to the national media that gathered to cluck their tongues at Rolling Stone’s exposure:
This decision raises another question. Just how many times has Rolling Stone decided that the agenda trumped the same journalistic policies they ignored for Erdely’s story? The press asked Coll and Coronel whether they planned to review the magazine’s other reporting for similar failures, to which they noted that Rolling Stone had not supplied them with the transcripts for any other story, and that it took four months to conduct this review.
However, reporters can certainly demand that Rolling Stone answer the question directly. If Wenner balks at cooperating, that would speak volumes about Rolling Stone’s credibility for the future. And if reporters don’t bother to ask, it will speak volumes about theirs in the present.
Leon Wolf answered that call, and so did Jonathan Chait, at least to get past the idea that this was somehow self-evidently anomalous for Rolling Stone. Where’s everyone else?