There’s an old saying in journalism, drummed into every cub reporter’s head: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.
Gay Talese and Sabrina Rubin Erdely seem to have overlooked this basic rule.
The two journalists are the authors of recent stories whose flaws have become stories themselves. In late 2014, Erdely wrote a Rolling Stone magazine article about a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity that was quickly challenged. Talese is the author of a forthcoming book, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” about a Colorado motel owner, Gerald Foos, who said he spied for decades on guests having sex in their rooms. The book includes some questionable assertions and outright mistakes, and overlooks the fact that Foos didn’t own the motel for eight years during the period Talese describes.
In each case, the reporters appear to have developed a close and trusting relationship with their principal subject and source. Erdely relied on “Jackie,” a young woman who told her a shocking tale about being assaulted at a party and the indifferent reaction of university officials to it. Talese’s book rests almost entirely on Foos and his journals of his alleged activities.
Reporters often seek to develop a bond with their sources; a friendly relationship helps elicit more information. Talese — one of the masters of New Journalism, a form that marries straightforward reporting with subjective literary techniques — once said that he likes to write about “people with whom I have a close emotional affiliation. We spent so much time together that we have a kind of affair,” he told author Robert S. Boynton.
But the peril in such a relationship is that it might place empathy for a source over the reporter’s obligation to vet him or her fully.
“In my opinion, the first job of journalism is to report the heck out of a subject. The writing comes second,” said Evelyn McDonnell, director of the journalism program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “We all have agendas as writers,” she added. “I agree with that central tenet of New Journalism. But we can’t bend, ignore or fail to check facts to serve our goals. That can backfire terribly, as it did for Rolling Stone, and may now be doing for Talese.”
She said both Talese and Rolling Stone “engaged in sensationalism in these accounts, falling for a good story, a sellable story, over a true story.”
Talese and Erdely did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Erdely, who is a party to several lawsuits filed against Rolling Stone in the wake of her article, has suggested she discounted some of the inconsistencies in Jackie’s story as it changed during her five months of reporting. In a statement by Erdely made in conjunction with one of the lawsuits, and released Friday by a court hearing the case, Erdely wrote:
“The fact that Jackie’s description of the assault itself had evolved from a ‘bad run in’ to forced oral sex to vaginal penetration did not concern me, nor did it cause me to doubt Jackie’s credibility. To the contrary, I found this to be entirely consistent with the behavior of a victim of sexual assault or other trauma. In my experience writing about trauma victims and sexual assault victims, I know that their stories can sometimes evolve over time as they come to terms with what happened to them and work through their own shame and self blame, and that this process can result in the victim revealing new or different details over time.”
Talese, too, seems to have missed the red flags Foos raised and that Talese himself turned up in his reporting. Foos, for example, wrote that his first observations of his guests began in 1966; Talese found that Foos didn’t buy the motel until 1969. But Talese never explains or appears to investigate this discrepancy.
In addition, a portion of the book excerpted in the New Yorker magazine in April builds to a dramatic event — the alleged murder of a young woman that Foos says he secretly witnessed from a catwalk and peephole above the room. But when Talese is unable to find any documentation of this crime, even the victim’s name, he blames local police officials for losing the paperwork. He never mentions the possibility that Foos made the whole thing up.
Talese also seems incurious about others who could have corroborated, expanded upon or cast doubt on Foos’s story. Foos’s second wife, Anita, is mentioned but never quoted at length. Talese wasn’t even aware of a longtime friend of Foos’s named Earl Ballard, who bought Foos’s motel in 1980 and acknowledged in an interview with The Washington Post that he spied on guests with Foos many times.
The danger of relying on only one source is that the person “may have an ax to grind, or their memories may be faulty, or what they’re telling you may be untrue,” said Jane Hall, an associate journalism professor at American University. For these reasons, news organizations typically seek additional sources to corroborate, impeach or add perspective to a source’s account, she noted.
Both McDonnell and Hall agreed that Erdely’s story may have been the more damaging of the two.
While Talese’s voyeur tale might have some effect on his reputation, Rolling Stone’s debunked story could foster greater public skepticism of people who say they are victims of sexual crimes, they said. If so, said Hall, “that would be really tragic.”