The story featured a sympathetic protagonist, some powerful accused villains and allegations of the most unspeakable kind.
In September 2011, Rolling Stone magazine recounted the alleged sexual abuse of Billy, a young man who said that as a 10-year-old in 1998, he had been molested by two priests and a schoolteacher affiliated with the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Billy’s searing claims were presented in stark fashion, with detailed scenarios and graphic descriptions.
The story, which appeared just as the alleged molesters were standing trial, left little doubt about the accuser’s tale. But surely there was room for some. The story didn’t note, for example, that Billy, a drug addict, had a long arrest record and had told multiple, ever-changing versions of his story to a church official, investigators and a grand jury.
“There was no attempt to work the other side of the fence in that article,” said Ralph Cipriano, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who has followed the case of Billy Doe (a grand jury’s pseudonym for the former altar boy) for years on his blog. “Any defense lawyer in town would have told you there was a lot of reasonable doubt in this case.”
What’s more, the author of the story, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, never mentioned a personal fact: At the time she was reporting Billy’s story, her husband was winding down his career as a prosecutor in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, which was prosecuting the defendants in the case. (A Rolling Stone spokeswoman, Melissa Bruno, said Peter Erdely’s work in the DA’s office didn’t pose a conflict of interest because he wasn’t part of the unit trying the men.)
In hindsight, the Billy story might have been a warning of sorts. Three years later, another Erdely story about an alleged sexual-abuse victim has proved far more problematic. By the magazine’s own admission, Erdely’s Nov. 19 story about a gang rape of a woman named Jackie at a University of Virginia fraternity in 2012 was riddled with “discrepancies.” Multiple elements, including the identities of the alleged perpetrators and the account of events by Jackie’s friends, have been disputed.
Rolling Stone has offered little by way of explanation since the story, “A Rape on Campus,” unraveled. Jann S. Wenner, the magazine’s co-founder, publisher and editor, has made no public statements. Wenner has deferred to Managing Editor Will Dana, who wrote an editor’s note last week that initially blamed the misbegotten story on Jackie before posting a revision that stated, “These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.” Citing an ongoing “internal review,” Bruno said that the magazine would have no further comment. Erdely has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Despite the lack of transparency, it’s clear that the rape story has plunged Rolling Stone into its deepest crisis since Wenner started the magazine 47 years ago as a 20-year-old UC Berkeley dropout. Many critiques have blamed not just Rolling Stone’s editorial standards but also its left-of-center politics. MediaLife, an advertising industry publication, summed up the fallout thusly: “One effect of the story is to all but destroy Rolling Stone’s credibility as a source of serious journalism.”
Though that seems like a draconian judgment, even supporters of the magazine would like some more answers. “They need to fully disclose exactly how this entire fiasco happened in the next issue of the magazine,” said Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi’s journalism school. Husni, who holds a lifetime subscription to Rolling Stone, said the autopsy should come directly from Wenner. ”They need to say, ‘We messed up, and here’s what we’re doing to address it,’ ” he said. “They could start by firing the writer.”
From its start as a “counterculture” magazine focused on music and popular culture, Rolling Stone has featured daring and often remarkable works of reporting on serious issues, including politics, the economy and the military. This has largely set it apart from the many upstarts — Creem, Crawdaddy, Blender, Spin — that have sought to challenge it over the years.
It published Hunter S. Thompson’s subjective, drug-addled “gonzo” journalism about the 1972 presidential campaign and Tom Wolfe’s articles about the space program, which evolved into “The Right Stuff.” It turned an unconventional foreign correspondent named P.J. O’Rourke into a media star. More recently, it has featured the work of Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”), Evan Wright (whose war reporting became the basis for HBO’s “Generation Kill” miniseries), and the late Michael Hastings. Rant-artist Matt Taibbi’s ruminations about the economy, Wall Street and politics have found a wide following in its pages as well.
“Our journalistic chops and our integrity are strong, and our readers know that,” said Jeff Goodell, a contributing editor since 1992. “So, I think this will blow over. It’s not as big a deal as it’s being played right now. It doesn’t have legs beyond the next few weeks.”
Goodell, who has communicated with Wenner about the story (“He wants to know what happened”), said it seemed unlikely that Dana, the managing editor, or anyone else at the magazine would be fired for the U-Va. story.
Wright, who continues to write for the magazine, agreed: “I think Jann backs Will the way Will backs his journalists, which is all the way. I think he’ll be okay.”
Rolling Stone has survived, even thrived, through controversy before. Hastings’s 2010 profile of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, “The Runaway General,” was beset by questions about its accuracy and by claims that disparaging comments by members of McChrystal’s staff about White House officials were made off the record. (McChrystal, nevertheless, lost his job as commander of allied forces in Afghanistan after the story’s publication.)
The magazine also evoked widespread loathing last year when it ran an angelic-looking cover photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bomber. The issue was a bestseller on newsstands.
In fact, the most persistent complaint about Rolling Stone has been about its musical tastes rather than the quality of its investigative journalism. The usual gripe: that it continues to champion aging artists beloved by its baby-boomer readers — Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, etc. — over more cutting-edge acts. Even hard-core Springsteen loyalists were shocked that his middling “High Hopes” album ranked No. 2 on the magazine’s list of the top 50 albums of 2014, behind an even more anodyne top choice, U2’s “Songs of Innocence.”
As it has been from its founding, Rolling Stone is the heart of Wenner Media, a New York-based company that also owns Us Weekly and Men’s Journal. The privately held company doesn’t disclose its financial results, but like most in the print business, its flagship magazine has been losing advertisers for years in the transition to digital sources. Readers, however, have remained loyal; circulation for the printed magazine, published every two weeks, was 1.4 million as of June, about where it stood a decade ago.
The magazine’s Web operations — overseen by Wenner’s 23-year-old son and heir apparent, Gus — appear to be its future. Rollingstone.com attracted an average of 9.1 million unique visitors per month through October, an impressive jump compared with 5.6 million per month during the preceding year, according to comScore figures supplied by Rolling Stone.
People close to the magazine are at a loss to explain how Erdely’s U-Va. story could have gone so badly awry. They attest to their faith in Dana and to the magazine’s editing and fact-checking procedures. (Schlosser, the “Fast Food Nation” author, called the checking of his articles “superb.”)
But that only deepens the mystery of “A Rape on Campus.” How could the magazine have missed so many now-obvious stop signs?
In the magazine’s defense, Schlosser argued for a bit of context. “It’s not as though there’s a pattern here of sloppy, irresponsible reporting,” he said, pointing out that Rolling Stone has published hundreds of articles without major problems during Dana’s eight-year tenure. “That doesn’t excuse any mistakes that were made. But that should put any mistakes in a larger [frame]. Investigative reporting is risky and hard to do, which is why so few publications still do it.”
But Wright, who said that he doesn’t “automatically share” some of Rolling Stone’s politics, suggested that the topic was different this time.
“We’ve reached this kind of inflection point in our culture where reporters maybe question themselves if they apply normal standards of journalism to an alleged rape victim,” he said. “There’s something going on where [people feel] an alleged rape victim should not be questioned. We can be sensitive [to such allegations], but we can’t suspend journalism. . . . Journalists exist to ask the most uncomfortable, at times obnoxious, questions that can be asked in the middle of an explosive situation.”
To bolster its own credentials, Rolling Stone’s spokeswoman, Bruno, e-mailed a list of recent articles that have been recognized by the American Society of Magazine Editors. One of the stories near the top of the list is “School of Hate,” a 2012 investigation of the bullying of gay teens in a Minnesota town.
The story’s author: Sabrina Rubin Erdely.