Kurtz: Rolling Stone scandal "one of the worst journalistic catastrophes"

“They still don’t get it,” Fox News critic Howard Kurtz told Megyn Kelly last night when asked about the decision by Rolling Stone not to fire anyone involved in what Kurtz calls “one of the worst journalistic scandals in the last half-century.” In one sense, that may overstate the issue, as other scandals have involved deliberate fabulism on the part of the reporter rather than the source — Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke are all examples, the last of whom won a Pulitzer for her false reporting. However, as Kelly points out in this segment, the Rolling Stone debacle not only involved fabulism, it put lives at risk at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville and caused massive and unwarranted disruptions in the lives of those smeared by the pursuit of the narrative above all other considerations by Sabrina Rubin Erdely and the magazine:

In this case, the source was the fabulist, a point around which Columbia Journalism School and Rolling Stone danced in their presentations yesterday. Megan McArdle says it’s time to quit giving “Jackie” the benefit of the doubt, but the responsibility still lies with Rolling Stone, its reporter, and all the editors who became co-conspirators in the fabulism (via Instapundit):

I think at this point we can stop dancing around the fact that “Jackie” is a fabulist. The Rolling Stone report adds some detail to this, including the suggestion that the two additional alleged victims of gang rapes at Phi Kappa Psi were also creations of Jackie’s imagination. But dealing with fabulists isn’t some kind of rare hazard that journalists can’t be expected to anticipate. People lie to journalists all the time, for fun and profit. They tell self-serving lies designed to get them out of trouble, or self-aggrandizing lies designed to puff themselves up. They tell lies of kindness to shield others from shame or worse, and lies designed to hurt people they hate. They also tell bizarre lies about things that bring them no benefit at all, for reasons that a psychologist might be able to explain but I cannot. And unfortunately, reporters get taken.

But while it is not wrong, it is also not enough. …

What I see when I read through the CJR report is the story of journalists who had an incredible story, one that would get them readers and professional acclaim, and, perhaps most important, give them the opportunity to right a great wrong. Their excitement about the story, their determination to tell it, blinded them to the problems, so that the old joke about a story being “too good to check” actually came true, with terrible consequences. And that should be a lesson to every journalist out there: The better your story, the harder you need to work to disconfirm it. Because the odds are, your brain is sending you all the wrong signals.

Of course, it’s not exactly news that our emotions can mislead us. That’s why we have professional rules, such as “always contact the other side for comment,” in the first place. Rolling Stone got taken by a fabulist. But it was not the victim of fraud; it was a co-conspirator in self-deception.

What I see in this report is a reporter and a magazine more interested in promoting narratives than truth. Rolling Stone and Erdely didn’t decide to do this story after discovering Jackie; they had this story primed and ready to roll, and sought out a Jackie who could make it go viral. And as I write in my column today for The Week, it raises the question as to how many other narratives got waivers from the policies that supposedly establish Rolling Stone’s credibility, and whether other reporters will demand an answer from Jann Wenner et al:

The story began last summer, Columbia’s scathing post-mortem notes, when Erdely and Rolling Stone decided to do a feature story on the subject of rape on college campuses. This topic has provoked much public debate for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that activists have pushed a moral panic to create pressure for public action. This was enabled by the White House, which has pushed the widely debunked statistic that one in five women in America has been the victim of rape or attempted rape, as well as one in five women during their college years. In fact, the Department of Justice reported in December that the incidence of rape for women attending college between 1995 and 2013 was 6.1 per 1,000 people, and that it’s actually a lower rate than in the general population, 7.6 per 1,000 people. On a percentage basis, the rate for rape among female college students is 0.61 percent, not 20 percent. Obviously, any rapes is too many. But the numbers matter.

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. …

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.

We’re waiting, national media.

Update: UVA is in Charlottesville, not Arlington; I’ve corrected it above.

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John Sexton 10:00 PM on June 02, 2023