Among the first to perceive cracks in the facade of Rolling Stone’s piece on campus gang rape was editor Richard Bradley. On Nov. 24, days before The Washington Post reported problems with the piece and Rolling Stone confessed its failings, Bradley said he smelled something fishy. “I’m not convinced that this gang rape actually happened,” he wrote. “Something about this story doesn’t feel right.”
He should know. He once edited Stephen Glass, the notorious fabulist who authored a series of made-up stories for the New Republic and other publications. While Bradley was an editor at George magazine, Glass had turned in a piece on Bill Clinton pal Vernon Jordan, the famous Washington lawyer. Bradley assigned Glass to “dig up some dirt on Jordan,” as he told it in Salon. And boy, did he ever. It purportedly exposed Jordan as a creep — but in the end was “proved to be fake, filled with fabrications.”
Journalists pride themselves on their skepticism. But this one on Jordan, Bradley said, appeared to pass his smell-test because it exploited pre-existing biases. It took what he already believed to be true about Jordan and appeared to substantiate it. “Stephen wrote what he knew I was inclined to believe,” Bradley wrote on his blog. “And because I was inclined to believe it, I abandoned my critical judgement. I lowered my guard.”
Lots of things can make otherwise skeptical reporters and editors lower their guard. The story is so good. The writing is so good. It’s such an important issue. The resulting journalism scandals run the spectrum of the industry’s cardinal sins. They include the worst: Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize-winning forgery in The Post on a phantom 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. They include less severe sins: those of omission, and when sources get things wrong. And those somewhere in the middle: ideological-driven journalism. Like one of Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every such piece is defective in its own way.
And to be sure, Rolling Stone’s was too. Only some of the details are known: On Nov. 19, the respected magazine published a blockbuster of an article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely that told the story of “Jackie.” The 18-year-old college freshman claimed seven frat brothers had gang-raped her in a three-hour episode. The piece generated a lot of what journalists like to call “impact.” The university suspended all frats. A criminal investigation was initiated. A national debate on campus gang-rape flared. But now, thanks in large part to the reporting of the Post’s T. Rees Shapiro, the piece was found to be flawed: Erdely didn’t speak to numerous key sources, and Jackie’s recitation of what transpired that night appears suspect.
The biggest question to emerge from the whole history of flawed — or worse — journalism is how such stories get published in the first place. How do reporters and editors at reputable publications allow these things to happen? What mechanisms fail?
A look at modern journalism problems shows some broad similarities. Many flawed stories had anonymous sources whose information couldn’t be corroborated. In other cases, a reporter was reluctant to press a source believed to be a victim. And in nearly all of them, as Bradley warned, the pieces appeared to mold pre-existing views into narratives that neatly reflected them.
In the history of big retractions, there are few, if any, that stemmed from stories that went against prevailing sentiment.
“One must be most critical about stories that play into existing biases,” he wrote. “And this story nourishes a lot of them: biases against fraternities, against men, against the South; biases about the naivete of young women, especially Southern women; pre-existing beliefs about the prevalence — indeed, the existence — of rape culture; extant suspicions about the hostility of university bureaucracies to sexual assault complaints that can produce unflattering publicity.”
The same thing happened, but in very different conditions, with Janet Cooke and her tale of Jimmy in the early 1980s. At the time, the nation’s capital was in the throes of a heroin epidemic, and “stories of heroin use in the city were running regularly,” Post ombudsman Bill Green wrote in a lengthy dissection of the story. “… The stories reported on an increase in the crime rate, a drug dealer receiving a 40-year sentence, vast new drug traffic via Turkey, an indictment of a Northeast man on a drug count, hearings on heroin use by patients dying of cancer, a life sentence for a drug-related killing and 19 arrests in two major local drug rings.”
The tale of an anonymous 8-year-old boy addicted to heroin — a victim of circumstance who deserved sympathy, not scrutiny — seemed an intuitive progression in the narrative. And that’s what made it so dangerous.
A similar theme emerged in 2005. In May of that year, Newsweek alleged American interrogators at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet. News filtered to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where protests erupted, killing several and injuring dozens. The story, based on an anonymous source, turned out to be untrue — but many at first believed it. “It is important to remember that the public had already heard claims of prison abuse at Guantanamo Bay, and therefore the story, if unable to be proven, still seemed plausible,” wrote Michelle Bova of Carnegie Mellon University.
And then there’s Jackie. So much of it made sense. Creepy frat guys. Rape. Feckless university response. Many outlets have published accounts of campus rape — so Rolling Stone went looking for its own. As Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple wrote: “There’s ample evidence of poisonous biases that landed Rolling Stone in what should be an existential crisis. It starts with this business about choosing just the ‘right’ school for the story.”
A lot of publications do the same. Most don’t end up like this.
“The lesson I learned,” wrote the editor Bradley, is that “One must be most critical, in the best sense of that word, about what one is already inclined to believe.”