In an interview last week with the New York Times, Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana professed to have entertained some doubts about an early version of the now-discredited story titled “A Rape on Campus.” “I thought, ‘Are you sure?'” Dana told the Times about his reaction upon reading Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s draft.
Editors should never let go of their first-impression skepticism — it’s often dead-on. But Dana and others decided to move forward with the story and its allegation that a University of Virginia freshman named Jackie was gang-raped in September 2012 at the prestigious Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. The piece has collapsed under a debunking from the Washington Post’s local staff and Rolling Stone has apologized for the many unsupported claims that it peddles.
How did this happen? Well, Dana told the Times that the magazine was retracing its steps in an effort to find out. Its “note to our readers,” too, pledges further investigation.
Whatever Rolling Stone finds, “A Rape on Campus” clearly aligns with Dana’s vision for high-impact magazine journalism. In a 2006 appearance at Middlebury College, Dana gave a speech titled, “The Myth of Fair and Balanced: A Defense of Biased Reporting.” According to a writeup in the Middlebury Campus, Dana put forth a common and compelling critique of contemporary standards under which journalists “worship the grail of objectivity” and “play twister to hide their bias,” said Dana, a 1985 graduate of Middlebury.
“I want to do stuff that’s biased.” He merely meant journalism driven by a worldview, as with Eric Schlosser’s 1998 Rolling Stone expose, “Fast-Food Nation” — a series that upended thinking on the world’s McDonald’s and the like. “We can become the seed pod for great things,” said Dana of such work.
Though the editor said his publication would endeavor to give both sides of a story, he said, “we’ll write what we believe,” according to the Middlebury Campus.
There are other examples of Rolling Stone’s glory on this front. Worldview famously spun out of the opening paragraph of Matt Taibbi’s 2009 takedown of Goldman Sachs: “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Nor was the late Michael Hastings shy about his feelings on American military might in his much-discussed 2010 profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal: “The president finds himself stuck in something even more insane than a quagmire: a quagmire he knowingly walked into, even though it’s precisely the kind of gigantic, mind-numbing, multigenerational nation-building project he explicitly said he didn’t want.”
Here’s the thing about all these projects, as explained by the reporter, Aylie Baker, who covered Dana’s 2006 talk at Middlebury:
“[B]ias,” maintains Dana, “does not mean unbalanced.” If anything. it sets the bar higher for Rolling Stones’ writers. They have to exercise extreme depth of analysis and reporting in writing their stories. In fact, confided Dana, his all-time favorite stories are those which deliberately framed extremely controversial issues in a manner which was both emotive and unabashedly honest.
Bold text denotes a standard recklessly abandoned in “A Rape on Campus.”