With an odd sense of fanfare, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism last night produced a 13,000-word report on Rolling Stone's profoundly flawed account of a gang rape at the University of Virginia, "A Rape on Campus," that was published last November. Their conclusion? Rolling Stone fucked up a lot.
Missing from Columbia's intense vivisection of the article, however, was a sense of responsibility: Whose fault was this crime against journalism, exactly? According to Rolling Stone Publisher Jann Wenner, no one's, really. No one at the magazine, a baby-boomer favorite, will be dismissed for journalistic malpractice, even though Wenner loves to fire people for seemingly innocuous transgressions. Will Dana and Sean Woods, who edited the story, tried to resign in December, but were refused. Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who wrote the article, will continue to write for the magazine. Wenner, quoted in the New York Times today, is blaming the victim.
The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. When asked to clarify, he said that he was not trying to blame Jackie, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”
This is an incredible statement coming from a magazine publisher with 40-odd years of experience and three titles under his belt (Us Weekly produces some great journalism) who is known for his mercurial temper and preference for workplace fastidiousness (apparently he values clean desks over clean journalism). Sure, there have been instances of publications getting hosed by young, manipulative employees (Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass), but blaming a source because you did not investigate her thoroughly enough is astonishingly idiotic.
Here's what happened at Rolling Stone: pathological conflict-avoidance. Every workaround deployed in this story, from not securing the alleged rapist's name before publication to not interviewing the rape victim's friends, was put in place in order to avoid a difficult, uncomfortable situation. Underlying it all is sense of grand interpersonal failures. I'm not going to delve into writing Rolling Stone editorial fanfic, but it's fairly clear that something was awry between the personalities at play here. Whether it was regular workaday pressures—"Ahh, who has time to scrap the main gang-rape anecdote before deadline and get another?"—or something more insidious, whatever culture that bred this story is poisonous. And for Wenner, a rich, powerful 69-year-old man, to place culpability for his magazine's lapse on a twentysomething pseudonymous woman, well, that tells you everything you need to know, doesn't it?
Later in the same Times article, Wenner goes from blaming the article's source to blaming the article's author. A step in the right direction, maybe, but notice here how Wenner paints Erdely as a reckless woman on a mission to bring down the story's editor with her:
Ms. Erdely, Mr. Wenner said, “was willing to go too far in her effort to try and protect a victim of apparently a horrible crime. She dropped her journalistic training, scruples and rules and convinced Sean to do the same. There is this series of falling dominoes.”
"Convinced" is an interesting word choice here. Who was in charge of this story? Certainly not Erdely. Was Woods's editorial judgment neutered by her passion for rape victims, as Wenner indicates? Considering Erdely's side of the story, as depicted in Columbia's report, Woods was neither a careful, rigorous, thoughtful nor attentive editor. The domino fall should have stopped with him, but it did not, because of his failings—whether he did not stand up to Erdely, did not push her enough, or was inexperienced with the subject matter. Instead, he chose to work around the problem at hand, defusing a potential conflict with Erdely and severely damaging the credibility of her story.
Woods's lack of sensitivity and journalistic finesse is apparent in his boneheaded "apology:" "Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting," Woods said in the Columbia report. "We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice." Maybe!
In another article in the Times today (today is honorary Rolling Stone Fucked Up day in medialand), Jonathan Mahler, a media reporter, hints that gender might have had something to do with the nuclear fallout of the article.
So what happened with “A Rape on Campus”? It is hard not to wonder if gender was a contributing factor. The magazine’s publisher and managing editor, and the editor of the article, were all men. Did that make them wary, consciously or not, of pushing back against a female writer’s account of a young woman’s rape?
I'll go one step further than Mahler. Yes! Gender definitely had to do with how fucked up this article was. Consider Rolling Stone. A fine magazine, if you're into the Black Crowes, war, and Matt Taibbi. Will Dana and Sean Woods have edited some wonderful dispatches from Baghdad. But as the Columbia report starkly shows, they were clearly entirely out of their wheelhouse when it came to Erdely's report, and instead of, maybe, I don't know, consulting with women, asking women for help, or trying to understand what was at stake, they just barreled on forward like they were still on General McChrystal's plane (it's worth noting that both the head of fact-checking at Rolling Stone and the fact-checker on the story were women, but any higher-level editorial decisions did not fall to them). It brings to mind Grantland's Dr. V disaster—this is what happens when people who think they know everything get too swept up in a story and lose sight of reality. It's very bad.
Rolling Stone's claim that it doesn't need to change anything institutionally is hilariously self-defeating. The ultimate fault of "A Rape on Campus" does not lie with a bad source, a bad journalist or a couple of bad editors. It falls on the empire's leader, Wenner, who should take full responsibility for the article, fire everyone involved, and then fire himself for being a dumb, sexist idiot.
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