No surprise here, right? Rolling Stone and Sabrina Rubin Erdely committed negligence at the very least in their reporting, and the damage to Phi Kappa Psi suffered undeniable damage in both physical and reputational terms. CNN’s Brian Stelter reported while Columbia School of Journalism held a presser on their post-mortem that PKP will take Rolling Stone to court:
Exclusive: Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at UVA is moving forward with lawsuit against @RollingStone magazine, source confirms.
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) April 6, 2015
Also Fox News:
BREAKING: Fraternity: Rolling Stone rape story was defamatory, reckless; says it's pursuing legal action.
— The Associated Press (@AP) April 6, 2015
I’d guess that the lawsuit will get settled rather quickly. Rolling Stone’s liability insurer will try to contain the damages to the limit of the policy. One has to assume that they carry a multi-million-dollar policy for this kind of event, so there should be plenty of room in which to work. The insurer will want to limit the damage, plus the magazine will have lots of motivation to stay out of depositions, let alone court:
— “Dr.” The Monster (@SumErgoMonstro) April 6, 2015
Exactly. Don’t expect this to end up in court, in other words.
The Columbia presser went on for quite a while, offering an interesting if not exactly newsmaking Q&A. Steve Coll, himself a Pultizer Prize recipient, remarked that he didn’t want to make this a normal adjunct of the J-school’s activities. Reporters asked whether Erdely or the editors should be fired, but Coll and Sheila Coronel refused to weigh in on those matters. Coll did emphasize, though, that the practice of finding an “emblematic” anecdote to spin a narrative is a dangerous practice. It might work on occasion, Coll warned, but its potential for backfire is huge.
Jay Rosen agrees. He picks this out as the primary lesson in an extensive commentary on the Columbia findings at PressThink:
5. The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative. The key term is emblematic. The report has too little to say about that fateful decision, probably because it’s not a breach of procedure but standard procedure in magazine-style journalism. (Should it be?) This is my primary criticism of the Columbia report: it has too little to say about the “emblem of…” problem.
6. Not that it’s entirely missing. The basic facts are there:
“Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case 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.”
Idea: Maybe “a single, emblematic college rape case” does not exist. Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start. Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.
Lloyd Grove at the Daily Beast can’t believe that Jann Wenner was still painting himself as the victim:
Wenner “acknowledged the piece’s flaws but said that it represented an isolated and unusual episode and that Ms. Erdely would continue to write for the magazine,” the Times reported. “The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as ‘a really expert fabulist storyteller’ who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. When asked to clarify, he said that he was not trying to blame Jackie, ‘but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.’”
Wenner’s attempt to assign responsibility for the bogus story to the alleged victim—rather than the journalists on his payroll—echoed Dana’s initial reaction when the story began to collapse.
“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” Dana wrote in an editor’s note—written “very quickly” and “under a lot of pressure,” according to Dana, and posted on Rolling Stone’s website as the journalistic catastrophe unfolded.
The J-school study reports: “That language deflected blame from the magazine to its subject and it attracted yet more criticism. Dana said he rued his initial wording. ‘I was pretty freaked out,’ he said. ‘I regretted using that phrase pretty quickly.’ Early that evening, he changed course in a series of tweets. ‘That failure is on us—not on her,’ he wrote. A revised editor’s note, using similar language, appeared the next day.”
Plenty of people are still wondering how Wenner can justify not firing anyone over this, especially given his track record:
The move came Monday, after the weekly New York Observer ran a story saying that Rolling Stone founder-editor Jann Wenner had killed DeRogatis’ negative review of the new Hootie & the Blowfish album and replaced it with a more positive one. The Observer story included quotes from DeRogatis implying that Wenner routinely pulls copy that he disagrees with and suggesting that Wenner’s motive for the Hootie change was not to alienate the massively popular band.
“As far as why they fired me, you have to ask them,” DeRogatis told Pop Eye. “What they told me is that I’m a bad apple and don’t know anything about music.”
That’s okay. Clearly, Rolling Stone doesn’t know anything about journalism.