When I was new to the newspaper business – a “cub reporter,” in the parlance of that distant time – my mentors preached two timeless admonitions:
1. If you shoot, you can’t miss. Which meant that if you were reporting a sensitive story, you had to get it right the first time.
2. If your own mother says she loves you, verify it. Which basically meant that you should assume nothing, that you should never take a source’s word as gospel.
Rolling Stone magazine had long practiced those principles (at least as far as we know), and yet its November “expose” of a gang rape at the University of Virginia turns out to be a master class in journalistic malpractice – an inexplicable sin, given the magazine’s heritage of great reporting by the likes of Richard Ben Cramer, Tom Wolfe, Matt Taibbi, and Michael Hastings. Here was a 9,000-word story chronicling a heinous crime – and yet, last Friday, the magazine’s managing editor, Will Dana, felt compelled to say, “I have serious questions about what happened.”
Questions that clearly should’ve been asked before those 9,000 words were shared with the world.
If you haven’t been following this fiasco, which imploded on Friday when the magazine renounced its own story (first, with a non-apology apology; later in the day, with mea culpa tweets), here are the highlights:
Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a respected freelance writer who made her bones at Philadelphia magazine back in the ’90s, basically hinged the story on the word of “Jackie,” the UVa student who said she was gang-raped by seven men at the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi during the weekend of Sept. 28, 2012. “Jackie” said she was brought to a darkened room by her date, a frat member who worked as a lifeguard at the university’s Aquatic and Fitness Center. Jackie said that when she left the grisly encounter – with a “bloody dress” – three friends arrived to help her, but that the friends advised her not to report the incident. One friend, identitifed only as “Cindy,” supposedly said, “She’s gonna be the girl who cried ‘rape,’ and we’ll never be allowed into any frat party again.”
But here’s where things start to unravel (in a series of stories, The Washington Post has done the most thorough deconstruction work). The Rolling Stone story said that the seven men were “rushing” the frat that autumn; turns out, there were no rush activities at the frat that autumn, and the frat had no social events on the calendar that particular weekend. The story said that Jackie’s date was a frat member who worked as a lifeguard; turns out, there’s no evidence that the guy she described was actually a frat member, and the frat, having checked its records, says that no member was working at the aquatic center in the fall of 2012.
As for the three friends who arrived to help her and supposedly advised her not to report the incident, it turns out that Erdely, the Rolling Stone reporter, never contacted them to determine whether their recollections jibed with Jackie’s. But “Cindy” has since told The Washington Post that Erdely’s version of events was “completely false,” that they never discussed how their social status might be affected by a decision to seek help. Another friend from that night, identified in the original story as “Andy,” has since told The Post that Jackie did not appear to be physically injured, nor was she wearing a bloody dress. And this friend refuses to vouch for Jackie: “Is there a possibility nothing happened? Sure.”
Nor does Erdely seem confident about her own story. Talking the other day on Slate’s DoubleX podcast, she said that “something happened to (Jackie) that night. What exactly happened – I don’t know. I wasn’t in that room. I don’t know.” But according to the dictates of Journalism 101, you don’t post or publish a sensitive story of this magnitude until you’ve at least exhausted every effort to know. And when there’s no police report or hospital report or campus security report, the querying of every possible witness is imperative.
But Erdley didn’t do that. Her editors didn’t insist on that. Inexplicably, they decided it was OK for Rolling Stone to tell only one side of the story. The magazine’s “Note to Readers,” which ran on Friday, said: “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her, nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”
That was an inexcusable call. Yeah, you want to be “sensitive” – but a journalist’s ultimate responsibility is to find out what happened, to the greatest degree of certainty. You can’t just blanket-slime a fraternity without giving its members a chance to respond. The old adage, that there are two sides to every story, was summarily ignored – although Rolling Stone is acknowledging that, now that the damage has been done.
Dana, the managing editor, tweeted late Friday: “We should have either not made this agreement with Jackie…or worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story….That failure is on us – not on her.” He says, “We will continue to investigate the events of that evening.”
I wish they wouldn’t. They shot and missed. They’re already done enough to foul the discourse about rape. Alex Pinkleton, a UVa student and a rape survivor, reportedly says, “One of my biggest fears with these (Rolling Stone) inconsistencies emerging is that people will be unwilling to believe survivors in the future.” She and other actitivists probably don’t need to worry; the issue is too serious – case in point, Bill Cosby – to be killed by one major journalistic misfire.
It would be wrong, however, to absolve Rolling Stone by suggesting that it has nevertheless raised social awareness. That kind of thinking, that the ends justify the means, is equally inexcusable. As biographer-journalist David Maranniss rightly remarked this weekend on Facebook, “A larger truth does not excuse the smaller lie. In our profession, it never does.”
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.