Even before the Rolling Stone piece unraveled Friday in the face of contrary facts unearthed by the Post and the fraternity’s lawyers—the frat didn’t even host a party on the date in question—so much was wrong with this approach that it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s try.
First, as I tell young reporters, if your byline is on that story it’s your story, not your source’s. Second, you don’t use a hunch to assess a source’s credibility; you check out their story. Third, libel law aside, it’s not old-fashioned to ask a person you’ve accused of a serious felony for their side of the story; it’s an essential exercise in ascertaining the truth.
Erdely did find time to interview Wendy Murphy, whom she introduced to readers as an attorney who has filed Title IX lawsuits. She’d have been better identified as the activist who made incendiary and spurious public statements in the Duke lacrosse hoax. It’s disturbing how these same people — and the same news outlets — keep arising in stories. Al Sharpton, Tawana Brawley’s champion and Crown Heights riots provocateur, is now organizing protests over the police shooting in Ferguson. The New York Times, cheerleader of the fake Duke lacrosse claims, led the witch hunt against Steven Hatfill.
That case was reported properly by diligent Los Angeles Times investigative journalist David Willman. It was not Hatfill who terrorized the East Coast with anthrax, it was government scientist Bruce Ivins, who killed himself when the FBI finally closed in. Willman, who won an earlier Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on the Food and Drug Administration, would have made Joseph Pulitzer proud. Rolling Stone magazine—not so much.