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.

Few people want to go back to the days when a woman had to think long and hard before making even a bona fide accusation of rape because she was immediately suspect, her previous sex life fair game, and her identity made public with resultant shame. But the pendulum now seems to have swung so far in the opposite direction -- towards always believing an accuser -- that Erdely and her editors showed almost no critical discernment in writing this story.

Erdely and Rolling Stone set out to find a particular type of narrative and they got a sensational one. They then were willing to suspend the journalistic standards they profess to hold dear in order to protect it from too many questions. That's not journalism, it's activism. For reporters, the greater their initial bias in one direction or other, the more care must be taken to overcome it with more due diligence, not less -- a fact of which Rolling Stone had to have been aware.

The mistakes involved in the Erdely article were so numerous, obvious, and serious that one would think that several people should have been fired or at least encouraged to quit the magazine as a result. But it turns out that no one at Rolling Stone is going anywhere, and nothing much is changing. Now that the culprits have endured Columbia's scrutiny and said their mea culpas, such as they are, their verbal penance seems to be enough for them. However, the Phi Kappa Psi chapter at UVA and its lawyers apparently think that a penance less wordy and more pecuniary might be in order, because it was announced  that the fraternity plans to sue the magazine for the damage done to its reputation by Rolling Stone's "reckless" reporting.

But perhaps the most telling line in the entire Columbia report is this one [emphasis mine]:

[Editor] Woods and Erdely knew Jackie had spoken about her assault with other activists on campus, with at least one suitemate and to UVA. They could not imagine that Jackie would invent such a story.

Just think about that level of credulity: they could not even imagine her telling such a falsehood. Whatever happened to hard-boiled, cynical reporters, raised to be skeptics in the school of hard knocks? Gone with the winds of time and the proliferation of journalists who want to "make a difference" rather than follow the truth wherever it leads them.