The editors invested Rolling Stone’s reputation in a single source. [Rolling Stone]
READING THE Columbia School of Journalism Report on the UVA rape reporting debacle at Rolling Stone, I was gobsmacked at the end. Every single level, from the reporter to fact checking, from Jackie, who alleged the gang rape, to the managing editor Will Dana, at no point in the journalistic machine that Jan Werner founded was the job done that was required for a story this important to be done right.
As a writer who has been through the ringer with fact checkers on three books, I am mystified at how satisfied Sabrina Rubin Erdely obviously felt with her story, which she clearly knew hadn’t reached the basic standard for investigative journalism, especially when the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and an institution as reveared as UVA are about to get hit with one of the most explosive charges in modern times.
The gang rape of a student, while everyone stood by and, basically, yawned.
Nothing prepares you, however, for the wholesale abandonment of Rolling Stone’s editorial management and the responsibility they have to their readers first, protecting the one and only source instead of doing the most basic journalism, because of the sensitivity of what the rape victim experiences, as well as the American culture to prefer not to talk about anything sexual honestly.
That last part is really why this happened.
We still live in the United States of Juvenile America, where we are expected to tiptoe around the truth where sex is concerned.
Jackie refusing to give her attacker’s last name in order for Rolling Stone to verify the basic truth that he exists, the reporter taking it on faith instead, because Jackie was still afraid of him, takes way too much for granted. It’s amateur hour. Certainly, the magazine had reason to trust Sabrina Rubin Erdely, given her past work a stellar reputation, but she clearly blew it. Badly.
“In retrospect, I wish somebody had pushed me harder” about reaching out to the three for their versions, Erdely said. “I guess maybe I was surprised that nobody said, ‘Why haven’t you called them?’ But nobody did, and I wasn’t going to press that issue.” – Sabrina Rubin Erdely
Bluntly, nobody should have to “push” you to press a foundational tenet of a report on which the entire efficacy of what you’re alleging is based.
None of the damning revelations in the Columbia School of Journalism Report changes that rape on campus is a real issue. That fraternities and sororities remain a haven for binge drinking, hook-ups and insane risks taken by women at night. The White House has done a tremendous job in making it a national conversation that deserves space in the American dialogue. This is long overdue.
As Steve Coll’s report reminds readers, ever since the Yale students sued the Board of Education in 1977, sexual assault has been gaining space in the conversation of colleges across the country. In recent years, the botched investigations, sexual harassment and violence against women students campus have joined the headlines. What hasn’t changed is women’s inability to fearlessly call out their attacker(s) without fear of shame, knowing the culture, not just the law, is behind them.
Victims of sexual assault have to treat the violence done against them as if it was attempted murder of their very person. That’s what a rapist is attempting to do to a woman he is violating. Strip her of the power of her own identity, the power she has to be woman, to be in control of her own destiny. This is a murderous act upon a woman’s very being.
It is going to take Rolling Stone a long time to get their reputation back, but they also deserve the chance to earn it. They have wholly, thoroughly and completely disgraced themselves.
[…] This report was painful reading, to me personally and to all of us at Rolling Stone. It is also, in its own way, a fascinating document — a piece of journalism, as Coll describes it, about a failure of journalism. With its publication, we are officially retracting ‘A Rape on Campus.’
We are also committing ourselves to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report. We would like to apologize to our readers and to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students. Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.
Will Dana, Managing Editor