Rolling Stone magazine failed an array of journalistic tests in publishing its November 2014 story “A Rape on Campus,” according to a new report from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. It failed to reach out to all kinds of sources who could have steered them away from the account of Jackie, the alleged victim of a gang rape at the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in September 2012. “The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” says the report. “The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all.”
Which is to say that mistakes and mismanagement run up and down the Rolling Stone masthead, from the fact-checking department all the way up to the office of Managing Editor Will Dana.
Rolling Stone Publisher Jann Wenner, however, apparently found some other takeaways. In an interview with the New York Times, Wenner reportedly said that the story’s problems began with Jackie, a University of Virginia student unknown to the world until reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely chose to fixate on her wobbly story as the crowning anecdote of “A Rape on Campus.” From the Times piece:
The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. When asked to clarify, he said that he was not trying to blame Jackie, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”
Sorry, you can’t refrain from blaming someone while at the same time laying “something” at their doorstep.
Then there’s Erdely, the reporter who found Jackie credible enough to hang a gang rape, plus other alleged instances of sexual assault, on her word alone. In Wenner’s worldview, however, Erdely had special powers. Again, the Times:
Ms. Erdely, Mr. Wenner said, “was willing to go too far in her effort to try and protect a victim of apparently a horrible crime. She dropped her journalistic training, scruples and rules and convinced Sean to do the same. There is this series of falling dominoes.”
Here, “Sean” is Sean Woods, whom the Columbia report identifies as the principal editor behind “A Rape on Campus.” He presided over the awful decision not to seek out Jackie’s alleged assaulters nor the three friends who could have debunked the central, false allegations of the story.
Think about what Wenner is saying here, however: The story’s author was so corrupt as to steamroll her editor with bogus reporting, and the editor was too weak to resist. And yet Woods is keeping his job; Erdely will continue writing for the magazine as well.
Deep in the Columbia report, there’s some detail about how Erdely and Woods interacted as they pursued Jackie’s story. The two have differing memories of how they approached confirmation of the events of Sept. 28, 2012, the night that Jackie was allegedly gang-raped. After the trauma, Jackie told Erdely, she encountered three friends who essentially steered her from contacting the police. Yet Erdely never interviewed those friends, who are identified in the story via pseudonyms. In a statement to Columbia, Erdely professed that she wished someone would have “pushed me harder” to interview them. Woods counters that he did press this particular case. “I did repeatedly ask, ‘Can we reach these people? Can we?’ And I was told no.” Woods eventually dropped the matter because “I felt we had enough,” says the report.
Managing Editor Will Dana told Columbia he didn’t remember talking with Woods or Erdely about this key reportorial deficit. Yet again, Dana’s job is secure. Rolling Stone is a publication sinking in institutional denial.