Rolling Stone: When we think a story's too good to check ... we don't

Last night, Rolling Stone published a damning report from the Columbia School of Journalism about Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s debunked claims about a gang rape at the University of Virginia. The post-mortem doesn’t actually provide any surprises on the reporting itself. Most of that came out after the Washington Post’s T. Rees Shapiro and others had to reverse engineer Erdely’s actions, once they blew apart Erdely’s claims and that of her single source “Jackie” in the original story. The new report does show, though, just how arrogant Rolling Stone’s editors and executives acted in this episode — and how arrogant they are still acting.


Erdey’s bogus article, the Columbia report notes, got reviewed at the highest levels of the magazine:

Sean Woods, Erdely’s primary editor, might have prevented the effective retraction of Jackie’s account by pressing his writer to close the gaps in her reporting. He started his career in music journalism but had been editing complex reported features at Rolling Stone for years. Investigative reporters working on difficult, emotive or contentious stories often have blind spots. It is up to their editors to insist on more phone calls, more travel, more time, until the reporting is complete. Woods did not do enough.

Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner said he typically reads about half of the stories in each issue before publication. He read a draft of Erdely’s narrative and found Jackie’s case “extremely strong, powerful, provocative. … I thought we had something really good there.” But Wenner leaves the detailed editorial supervision to managing editor Will Dana, who has been at the magazine for almost two decades. Dana might have looked more deeply into the story drafts he read, spotted the reporting gaps and insisted that they be fixed. He did not. “It’s on me,” Dana said. “I’m responsible.”

In hindsight, the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped. That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine’s editors to change plans.


The fact-checking department completely failed to uncover over weeks what Shapiro and other discovered within days — that Jackie had lied about any number of details, especially about her friends. Why? In part because higher-ups backed Erdely’s decision not to ask the three friends to verify the account before publication, and in part because the head of the fact-checking department just decided to trust Erdely:

In this case, the fact-checker assigned to “A Rape on Campus” had been checking stories as a freelancer for about three years, and had been on staff for one and a half years. She relied heavily on Jackie, as Erdely had done. She said she was “also aware of the fact that UVA believed this story to be true.” That was a misunderstanding. What Rolling Stone knew at the time of publication was that Jackie had given a version of her account to UVA and other student activists. A university employee, Renda, had made reference to that account in congressional testimony. UVA had placed Phi Kappa Psi under scrutiny. None of this meant that the university had reached a conclusion about Jackie’s narrative. The checker did not provide the school with the details of Jackie’s account to Erdely of her assault at Phi Kappa Psi.

The checker did try to improve the story’s reporting and attribution of quotations concerning the three friends. She marked on a draft that Ryan – “Randall” under pseudonym – had not been interviewed, and that his “shit show” quote had originated with Jackie. “Put this on Jackie?” the checker wrote. “Any way we can confirm with him?” She said she talked about this problem of clarity with Woods and Erdely. “I pushed. … They came to the conclusion that they were comfortable” with not making it clear to readers that they had never contacted Ryan.

She did not raise her concerns with her boss, Coco McPherson, who heads the checking department. “I have instructed members of my staff to come to me when they have problems or are concerned or feel that they need some muscle,” McPherson said. “That did not happen.” Asked if there was anything she should have been notified about, McPherson answered: “The obvious answers are the three friends. These decisions not to reach out to these people were made by editors above my pay grade.”

McPherson read the final draft. This was a provocative, complex story heavily reliant on a single source. She said later that she had faith in everyone involved and didn’t see the need to raise any issues with the editors. She was the department head ultimately responsible for fact-checking.


Small wonder that the review calls this a “systematic failing.” So what will Rolling Stone change in the wake of this fiasco? Nothing. Literally. Nothing.

Mr. Wenner said that Ms. Erdely would continue to write for Rolling Stone, and that Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, and the editor of the article, Sean Woods, would keep their jobs.

Nor will they be changing their policies, Wenner made clear. That’s because, as McPherson told the review panel, Rolling Stone liked the story so much they didn’t bother to use them, emphasis mine:

Yet Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,” Dana said. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, said, “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”

Aha! We often joke about “too good to check,” but the joke works because it happens. That’s exactly what this admission makes clear about Erdely and Jackie’s hoax. They wanted a story about rape culture on campus, and when Erdely obliged, Rolling Stone chose not to apply their policies and scrutinize it too closely.  That “too good to check” decision, the Columbia review makes clear, went all the way to the very top at Rolling Stone.


Needless to say, the response from Rolling Stone to this review has many puzzled, including Erik Wemple, the Washington Post’s media critic:

Coco McPherson, who runs the magazine’s fact-checking operation, had similar thoughts: “I one-hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”

Well, news organizations have but two things to protect their journalism from lapsing into disaster: Their policies and their personnel. Since Rolling Stone’s leaders think so highly of their policies, the only possible conclusion is that the magazine’s personnel that failed miserably. And the Columbia report, written by professors and media veterans Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz, provides plenty more damning evidence on this front. “Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in ‘A Rape on Campus’ is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable,” notes the report, in an almost comical piece of understatement.

In other words, Rolling Stone wants to keep its options open in case they need to boost The Narrative again. Erdely gets to go out and do this all over again, and Jann Wenner’s ready for her next “scoop.” Wenner and his executives care less about the truth than they do about confirming their own biases through shoddy reporting and lack of integrity.

And that’s about the future, but what about the past? Which other stories went “around those” policies at Rolling Stone? Articles on economics, perhaps? Stories about Republicans? Exposés about the American military in places like Afghanistan, for example? Will Rolling Stone release a list of articles that went “around those” policies, even just in the last 10 years?


Update: I mistakenly spelled Mr. Wenner’s first name as “Jan” in one instance; it’s Jann. I’ve fixed it, and my apologies for the error.

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