Too Good to Fact Check

The Columbia School of Journalism has finally issued its much-anticipated report on what went wrong with the Rolling Stone UVA gang rape story. Even though it's been known for months that the story was fabricated by a student at the university (the pseudonymous "Jackie"), and that journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her editors at RS failed to follow basic journalistic practices in writing about it, the details in the Columbia report reveal a failure even more profound than previously imagined.

What Columbia discovered is that Erdely and RS relied almost entirely on Jackie's own descriptions of the event and omitted the most elementary fact checking, and yet never revealed their lapses to the reader even though they were aware of them. Columbia calls the magazine's failure "avoidable" and doesn't accept Rolling Stone's explanation for it, which is that it had "deferred" to the supposed victim out of compassion and concern. As the report states, this "cannot adequately account for what went wrong."

The report asserts that it is "mainly a story about [a failure in] reporting and editing." It suggests implementing specific remedies such as a reduction in the use of pseudonyms, more fact checking of derogatory information, the sharing of that information with subjects, and more corroboration of the facts of victims' stories in general. But these practices are basic rather than new or unusual, and Rolling Stone had to have been familiar with them already when the piece was originally written and edited. Erdeley and the editors appear to have jettisoned those time-honored procedures for reasons that were most likely both ideological and self-serving: the story was a perfect fit for their pre-existing biases about campus rape and its perpetrators, and the tale was so sensational that it could practically guarantee them a record number of readers.

In other words, it was far too good to fact check. The author and editors lost sight not only of the need to do so, but of how obvious the story's deficiencies would be.

The UVA rape story had first appeared on November 19, 2014, and already by November 24 veteran journalist Richard Bradley was voicing grave doubts about its veracity. Not only was he an experienced editor and writer, but during the '90s he had what he called "the unfortunate experience" of working with reporter-fabulist Stephen Glass. The soul-searching engendered by that episode gave him the ability to almost immediately smell a rat in the Erdely article. He even knew what species of rat it probably was, because Bradley had already concluded that Glass had been able to fool him because Glass' stories "corroborated my pre-existing biases." That's exactly what appears to have happened with Erdely, except for one thing: Glass had devised an elaborate system of fake fact checking that at least made it appear to his editors that he'd exercised due diligence, whereas Erdely and her editors knew that she had not followed the usual rules but they edited the story to better hide that failing from the reader.

Erdely has issued an apology, and it contains a clue as to what went wrong and why. In it, she focuses on her worry that actual victims of rape might be frightened into silence by the fallout from the UVA story (she mentions this concern twice). Although that's a valid worry, it's noteworthy that with Erdely it takes precedence over any concern for the very real victims of Jackie's false accusations and her story about them: the fraternity members, who are conspicuously absent from her apology.