Now the fellow who oversaw the disaster — Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana — is leaving the magazine, as the New York Times reported last night. “After 19 years at Rolling Stone, I have decided that it is time to move on.” He added: “It has been a great ride and I loved it even more than I imagined I would. I am as excited to see where the magazine goes next as I was in the summer of 1978 when I bought my first issue.”
Just what happened here? That’s not transparent. Dana isn’t leaving for another job and no successor has been named, as the Times reports. His last day is Aug. 7. And when asked whether the disastrous U-Va. rape story figured into the decision, a spokeswoman for the magazine told the Times, “many factors go into a decision like this.” Is that a confirmation?
Calls for strong personnel action at Rolling Stone over this terribly reported story date back to the weeks after it was published, including this appeal from the Erik Wemple Blog: “Anyone who touched this story — save newsstand personnel — should lose their job.”
And that was long before the Columbia Journalism School in early April published the results of a months-long investigation of Rolling Stone’s handling of the story. The extensive document from Columbia turned up failures at every level, from reporting to fact-checking to fundamental newsroom leadership. A mess of bad work coalesced on the magazine’s decision to defer endlessly to Jackie, bending the rules of journalism to accommodate her. For instance, a note that Rolling Stone attached to the story — which is no longer on the magazine’s website — says that it was “mistaken in honoring Jackie’s request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account.” Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the story’s author, didn’t even contact three friends of Jackie’s who saw her after the alleged gang rape. The reason for that omission? She was worried that she might drive Jackie “from the process,” according to the Columbia report.
In the face of such mis-journalism, Dana told Columbia, “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things. We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” Publisher Jann S. Wenner told The Times that the top editors would retain their positions, and Dana told the paper that the flawed article “was not the result of patterns in the work of these people” and that publication of the Columbia report was sufficient punishment.
When asked about whether Rolling Stone should have fired personnel over the story, Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll said, “We didn’t find evidence of the kind of dishonesty, invention of facts, lying to colleagues, (and) plagiarism that in our experience you would regard as grounds for automatic firing or severe sanctions.”
Consider Dana’s hazy departure the tailings of managerial misfeasance at Rolling Stone. Wenner had a chance in April to make a leadership change that would affirm the principles of journalism and accountability. He sat on his hands instead. Now he’s hiding behind a flak and canned statements, just like all the clowns his magazine likes to skewer.