Defending Rolling Stone

Editor’s Note: Dateline April 5, 2015, Rolling Stone retracted story “A Rape on Campus” when publishing a forensic analysis prepared by Columbia School of Journalism. Please see my follow-up post.

I subscribe to five magazines: Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair (print and digital) and Economist, New Yorker, and Rolling Stone (digital only). EW is cheap (as little as $10 a year), while the business weekly offers news analysis I mostly trust. New Yorker is for culture and the occasionally exceptional long-form feature. The other two deliver some of the best investigative journalism available anywhere. Today, I defend one of them, but also criticize its archaic news reporting methods.

Over the past few weeks, Washington Post leads blasting criticism against RS for story “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA“, which appears in issue 1223, Dec. 4, 2014. Online the dateline is November 19. The furor over the investigative report’s credibility is, ironically given the headline, a rape on Rolling Stone‘s credibility—and makes me just want to puke for the outrageous, holier-than-thou repudiation that should be pointed elsewhere. Mountains of irresponsibly-reported online news stories overshadow the amount of trustworthy content, yet the Post and other media outlets choose to gang-bang a magazine with standards for accuracy and accountability but also advocacy. The misdirected, and sometimes self-serving, attacks are shameful for their shamelessness.

Check the Facts
I plowed through the rape story—and it is monster length—around November 22 and found the reporting to be believable and credible.  As a journalist, and author of ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers, I read with a critical eye. Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s explanation for using pseudonyms and other reporting decisions meant to protect the victim from her assailants made sense in context of the toxic campus atmosphere she describes. Her storytelling is riveting, if not frightening.

There is cohesion to the narrative that feels fact-checked. As an editor, I can tell the difference between something scrutinized before publication and something not. Not is more the standard online, where too much news reporting is some story recapping and sourcing another without further investigation.

Matt Taibbi, a reporter whom I respect and who recently returned to Rolling Stone, shared in a short series of December 6 tweets:

The mistake here did not involve the fact-checking department…

I was so surprised because Coco McPherson’s fact-checking operation is so intense that it’s nearly caused me nervous breakdowns in the past…

It usually takes longer to fact-check a Rolling Stone feature than it does to write it. Each review is like an IRS audit. It’s miserable…

At RS, they don’t accept notes as backup. You must have everything on tape or video, or sources must speak directly with fact-checkers.

If there is fault here, by Rolling Stone, it is more mishandling the controversy than actions taken with the original story. Let that statement hang until further explanation coming in the fifth and sixth subheads.

About Those ‘Discrepancies’
My first exposure to the Post’s perspective came from December 1 story “Author of Rolling Stone article on alleged U-Va. rape didn’t talk to accused perpetrators“, followed, four days later by “Key elements of Rolling Stone’s U-Va. gang rape allegations in doubt“. Erik Wemple wrote the first and T. Rees Shapiro the second.

Rees’ report reveals “discrepancies” in Jackie’s account but interestingly attributes them to Rolling Stonesstatement on the matter. (e.g., the apology). However, RS doesn’t identify them from its own reporting: “In the face of new information reported by the Washington Post and other news outlets, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account”. So the discrepancies to which Rolling Stone refers lead back to the Washington Post, which cites RS.  That’s one hell of a feedback loop, which the magazine’s statement repeats further. Read it, and judge for yourself.

Interestingly, though, in the “Key elements” story, Rees writes: “Jackie, who spoke to the Washington Post several times during the past week, stood by her account, offering a similar version and details”. Rather than discrepancy, Jackie’s recollection is consistent, which should red flag further reporting as to why.

The answer is in some ways intertwined with reasons, whether or not justified, for not contacting the alleged perpetrators, who aren’t formally named in the RS story. Slate reporters Allison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin address the question in story “The Missing Men: Why didn’t a Rolling Stone writer talk to the alleged perpetrators of a gang rape at the University of Virginia?” Deference is the short answer, something RS also expresses in its statement. They write:

Erdely wanted to find out more about the alleged assailants. Sara Surface, a good friend of Jackie’s and a member of One Less, a victim advocacy group at UVA, had the impression that Jackie’s reaction was ‘extreme’ when Erdely pressed her—meaning that Jackie became so terrified that she reconsidered going public with her story, even anonymously. If that’s true, then Erdely was in a tough position. Push too hard and she might lose Jackie. But not pushing harder has created a whole new nightmare.

The Slate writers identify something that could have protected Rolling Stone from some of the worst scrutiny, much of it condemning an explosive story for being one-sided:

If you fail to reach the person, you write a sentence explaining that you tried—and explaining how you tried—as a way to assure your readers that you gave the person a chance to defend themselves. We’re not sure why Rolling Stone didn’t think that was necessary.

Nor am I. That said, Rolling Stone detractors obsess over the few sources who aren’t there, while largely ignoring the many others that are. Read the 9,000-word opus and judge for yourself, based on the storytelling. In reporting anything, you make choices about whom to contact based on many factors, such as who’s available and what’s your deadline. You work with whom you can reasonably reach and compensate for those you don’t with other sources. “A Rape on Campus” is a well-sourced story, despite criticism that claims otherwise. I am a harsh critic about sound sourcing but detected no serious omissions when first reading the story. My reaction might be different had the writer identified alleged assailants by real name rather than first-name pseudonym.

More broadly, the “discrepancies” are more about what other people remember or say in their defense, such as Jackie’s friends. In the fifth subhead, I will put their relevance in important context.

News Media Gang Rape
The Washington Post‘s RS story coverage borders on belligerence. This morning I searched the newspaper’s website for stories attacking Rolling Stone‘s credibility, since December 1st. I stopped counting at 20 headlines, but the number is greater when adding those more specifically about University of Virginia campus and administration response or sexual assaults in general. The headlines are provocative (excellent!) but almost advocacy rather than impartial. Such as:

The gang rape here is the Washington Post and other news organizations piling on Rolling Stone with charged commentary and ripping reports that are irresponsible by their derisive language. Examples:

  • NPR: “Discredited gang rape story” on webpage description but “flawed” story in the audio, which is more appropriate. “Discredited” by whom? If you actually read the entire story, much of the reporting remains intact, such as an ongoing Federal investigation, despite “discrepancies”.
  • Real Clear Politics: “Debunked Rolling Stone rape story” and “retracted by the magazine”.  “Retracted” by whom? Rolling Stone did issue a long statement about the story, conceding “misplaced trust” in protagonist Jackie. But “A Rape on Campus” remains on the magazine’s website, and no formal retraction has been issued. An apology from a publication with stout standards for accuracy and accountability is to be expected reaction; funny how RS’s accusers ignore something so obvious. Retraction is altogether something else.
  • The Week: “Story turns out to be significantly fabricated”. Says Whom? “Fabricated” by whom? Jackie the alleged rapist? Writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely? Discrepancies in memory because of trauma is far different from fabrication. I’ll deal with the author, and her agenda, in the fifth subhead. But for now, there is The Week writer Freddie deBoer claiming fabrication, without saying whom, by what means, or with corroborating proof.

There is an obnoxious feedback loop, an echo chamber, of accusations spread by other media organizations largely based on the Washington Post‘s reporting and, additionally, mainstream news broadcasters. Using language like “discredited”, “debunked”, or “fabricated”, without independent corroboration is ironically the kind of irresponsible reporting for which critics accuse Rolling Stone.

The Post published another sword-in-the-gut commentary, “Rolling Stone magazine has often thrived on controversy. Is this time different?“, on Friday. Reporter Paul Farhi asks: “How could the magazine have missed so many now-obvious stop signs?” My question for Paul, and the other RS reputation rapists: How could you ignore the obvious signs of piss-poor journalism across the vast landscape of online news, instead coming back again and again to pillage one of the few remaining bastions of responsible journalism (and I include the Post among them)? Why should one Rolling Stone story receive almost daily treatment across Post sections—Business, Education, Opinion, and Style, for example?

The Real Victims
That question’s answer is intertwined with the forensic reporting conducted by the Post and other news organizations after the fact, seemingly more to criticize Rolling Stone rather than to illuminate the facts. Otherwise, why repeatedly bang, day after day, in an exhaustive news cycle of accusation? Read the Post headline list again and the deks. What else are they but recriminations rather than investigations?

Writing for Fortune, Caroline Fairchild explains “Why the media obsession with Rolling Stone’s UVA rape story is all wrong“, noting that:

Now, media outlets from across the aisle like the Washington Post and Fox News are focusing more on how Rolling Stone messed up and less on the culture that led this story to be told in the first place. Overall, I’m left with the impression that rape on college campuses, and rape at University of Virginia in particular, is not something that I need to worry about after all. That’s a big problem, and quite frankly, may be just as big of a failure on the part of the media as Rolling Stone’s initial report.

The focus on Rolling Stone‘s reporting, rather than actually reporting, shifts the blame to the alleged victim.

In her RS 1223 story, Sabrina Rubin Erdely lays out an alleged campus culture where sexual assault is tolerated and victims fear to speak up. “Jackie, now a third-year, is worried about what might happen to her once this article comes out”, she writes. “Jackie fears the backlash could be big—a ‘shitshow’ predicted by her now-former friend Randall, who, citing his loyalty to his own frat, declined to be interviewed”. If the alleged victim had only known what would happen beforehand, maybe there would be no story. Who will dare speak again, given the amount of media scrutiny pointed to her?

Caroline Fairchild checks off several examples suggesting such culture of sexual assault tolerance exists at UVA, adding: “A student was gang raped on campus 30 years ago at the same fraternity. It is in the realm of possibility that it could happen again. What all these reactions show is that Jackie’s story aside, the University of Virginia suffers from a culture that makes rape not only believable, but socially acceptable”.

The point: Despite those so-called “discrepancies” in Jackie’s account, or Sabrina’s storytelling, set in context of Rolling Stone apologizing “to anyone who was affected by the story” rather than apologizing for inaccuracies or issuing a formal retraction, and the content of other news reports,  the larger campus cultural problems identified by “A Rape on Campus” are not disputed. If you see where they are disputed, other than by UVA Greeks, show me. I see the media attack on Rolling Stone as distracting from the fundamental point Sabrina’s story makes.

As such, Jackie is the first victim here, twice over thanks to the scrutiny spearheaded by the Washington Post. Rolling Stone is the second, when the story about its story should have been one or two news cycles not a dozen-plus; all undermining the credibility of a magazine that reports, rather than regurgitates, news. The collective group of other campus sexual assault victims is the third. Fear will silence many who might otherwise have spoken.

By focusing so much for so long on Rolling Stone, the Washington Post fails its responsibility to act in the public interest. Every news organization following the Post’s lead, particularly those relying on the newspaper’s reporting rather than independently investigating, is as culpable and, by my ethical standards, even more. The public isn’t served by molesting Rolling Stone‘s credibility day after day, but by uncovering whether there is caustic campus culture at UVA and other universities that enables sexual assault; if so, what to do about it.

The Post doesn’t ignore larger issues, as these stories demonstrate: “The attention you get as a rape victim is not fun, it’s awful“; “Q&A: Why campus rape victims usually don’t report“; “Few campus sex assaults reported to police“; and “Why did it take a U-Va. gang-rape allegation to make us care about campus sex assault?“, among others. But their numbers are paltry, while those raking Rolling Stone reporting are voluminous. Meanwhile, the few stories about campus rape generally are broad in scope rather than specific to UVA. The public best served by a local newspaper is its regional audience.

Who Benefits?
Now we return to those “discrepancies” in other parties’ accounts that appear in news reporting conducted after Rolling Stone let the cat, Jackie, out of the bag (in process gingerly handling her to ensure she wouldn’t just hide away, thus collapsing the story).

First, some relevant, personal context: On December 5, Brian Fagioli tweeted: “I would love to see @joewilcox take on this situation. I turn to him for responsible journalism”. Thanks for that. My reply: “I read the RS story weeks ago, and reads well-reported to me. Frat denials fit story’s claims”. He then asked: “So is @RollingStone premature in backing away from story? Was it wrong not to contact accused?” My several tweet response: “Looks like the editor bows to public pressure and house counsel advice. Until there is correction or retraction, the RS story stands on the reporting. Apply Q ‘Who benefits?’ to assess reporter’s, accuser’s or accused’s credibility”.

As I have repeatedly expressed, the first question any news gatherer should ask about anything is “Who benefits?” The question is supremely important putting context around the “A Rape on Campus” aftermath. Let’s start with the accuser’s accuser: How does the Washington Post benefit by spending so many reporting hours ripping Rolling Stone? Isn’t that odd? Granted, UVA is in the newspaper’s coverage area, which makes reporting naturally legitimate.

But step back and look differently. What an embarrassment if sexual assaults are tolerated by corrupt campus culture on a university in the Post’s reporting area. There is huge benefit shifting the focus to Rolling Stone‘s alleged mistakes that obscure the newspaper’s failure to investigate sooner.  There may be other connections that I couldn’t identify today, in terms of the newspaper’s relationship to the university. They could range from financial to employees who are alumni.

Something else: Rolling Stone practices what I identify in my book as advocacy journalism, which often presents a point of view and may even have an agenda (in the tech sector I often see this among Mac blogs and news sites). From my outsider’s perspective, Washington Post‘s relentless assault also represents newsroom cultural and ethical differences about what is responsible reporting. As book book explains, advocacy journalism isn’t irresponsible if the writer reports what he or she knows to be true based on independent and original sourcing.

Some stories published this month where the Post reveals its newsroom cultural biases: “Rolling Stone managing editor in 2006: ‘We’ll write what we believe‘”; “What Rolling Stone can learn from Grantland about explaining a story gone wrong“, “‘The Newsroom’ is the worst prestige show on television“, and the aforementioned “Media Bias” story. By the measure of these stories, and others, advocacy is not part of the Post’s newsroom ethic. How strange, though, that the deks to the list of Post stories in the second subhead quite strongly advocate points of view.  Or do I misread: “How many mind-blowing lapses can a single story contain?” and “Just what reporting did the magazine do to corroborate a ghastly gang rape? Any at all?”

Here’s the bigger problem with the rape-story obsession: Whether or not Washington Post editors agree, their handling of the University of Virginia allegations makes the newspaper part of the story rather than objective observer. That’s the result of exhausting so much storytelling energy on Rolling Stone‘s mistakes and in process so exposing its editor, the reporter, the accuser, her friends, the alleged assailants, the university administration, and the entire UVA community to so much media scrutiny.

What’s lost in many reports about different parties’ responses to the story is context: Now versus the time before the Rolling Stone story’s publication.  Once the media spotlight shone, some participants in the narrative froze like deer in the road, while others scattered like cockroaches. Applying the “Who benefits?” question in context of that spotlight, is it surprising that there would be refutations or “discrepancies” in participants’ accounts?

The fraternity’s response is to be expected, and Sam Biddle, writing for Gawker, gives perspective in opinion “That UVA Frat Letter Denying Rape Is Bullshit and Here’s Why“. No recap is good enough. Just read it. “Who benefits?” is obvious.

More disturbing: The alleged victim’s confidents. The RS story reflects poorly on the friends Jackie contacted following the alleged rapes. In an ABC News interview, the three tell a somewhat different story, that portrays them more favorably and Jackie more negatively. The differences aren’t surprising, although sensationalized by ABC News. C`mon, does the number of assailants—five versus seven—discredit the Rolling Stone story? Seriously? The point: The friends corroborate that Jackie was allegedly sexually assaulted.

However, they dispute discouraging her from going to the police, asserting she insisted not reporting the rape. I don’t mean to underplay such discrepancy; just the opposite. This interchange is crucial to one of the RS 1223 narrative’s key points: A campus culture bent on protecting reputations—victims and the university—before anything else.

That said, as an experienced interviewer, I see the differences in accounts making them more believable. Coordinated stories stink of deception. Given the traumatic event, and the added trauma introduced by the media spotlight, inconsistencies are to be expected. It’s the consistency of the overall fabric that matters to the story’s legitimacy.

Good reporting should always be this: Write what you know to be true in the moment, but assume that it will change. Assuming Sabrina doesn’t embellish or fabricate, she reports the story based on the news gathering in hand, which Rolling Stone fact-checkers verified. Similarly, ABC News reports what it knows to be true, based on the friends video interview. Each presents one side of the account, and together they provide rounder perspective, with differences that are to be expected.

That brings the “Who benefits?” question to Jackie the victim and Sabrina the reporter. Presumably, Jackie’s recollection is colored by emotions. Trauma. Anger. Resentment. Guilt. That makes every part of her story suspect and subject to scrutiny by the reporter and fact-checkers. Based on publicly-available interviews from the reporter and RS editors, Jackie’s version of events frames the narrative. Sabrina and Rolling Stone benefitted by making compromises to keep the protagonist’s cooperation. Such framing would have been acceptable enough, if not for what Rolling Stone‘s real reporting failure, which the next subhead explains.

Having not spoken to Sabrina, I don’t wish to impugn her credibility. But applying the “Who benefits?” question, I have to wonder about her motivations, given her reporting history for RS. Take a look at her list of stories, where gender issues predominate. One could argue agenda to sensationalize. However, I must defer her conduct to the past performance record and belief that Rolling Stone properly vetted her reporting and sourcing. Only an autopsy by RS editors can rightly determine whether or not she put personal benefits, such as prestige or promoting gender issues agendas, before her role to report responsibly and accurately.

Rolling Stone‘s Real Mistakes
Now it’s the magazine’s turn for criticism, but culpability is largely different than identified by the Post and other news pundits.

For starters, editors poorly prepared for a story sure to generate outrage for victims and criticism by other parties. Rolling Stone‘s response, or lack of it, as the Post and its imitators portrayed an unraveling story shows the extent of unpreparedness.

Secondly, and related, Rolling Stone editors were wrong to issue an apology based on reporting conducted by the Washington Post. The magazine should have independently followed up and issued the statement, if any, based solely on in-house reporting. By ceding the post-script reporting to the newspaper, RS lost control of the narrative and opportunity to brightly illuminate a sexual assault problem relevant to a presumably meaningful chunk of its audience. Millennials, perhaps?

That mistake relates to another that is endemic. Rolling Stone‘s reporting method is archaic. Page and paper no longer define editorial content. During the print era,  a thoroughly researched, reported, and fact-checked story stood alone. “A Rape on Campus” should have been the beginning of the reporting not its ending, and opportunity to extend the storytelling. Rolling Stone should have practiced process journalism.

The concept is simple: You write what you know to be true, based on the news gathering. You use the resulting story to stimulate leads that further the reporting, which is a process. The online venue, and all its social media trappings, provides the platform for advancing the story beyond printed pages. Jeff Jarvis’ June 9, 2009, post “Product v. process journalism: The myth of perfection v. beta culture” is superb primer for online news gatherers.

Process journalism is air that newspapers like the Washington Post breathe. Just look to Rolling Stone‘s bullet-ridden corpse, pierced by nearly two weeks of relentless accusing stories, for proof. Newspaper and broadcast journalisms have long been processes, but the former more so in the era of online, contextual content consumption. RS can’t compete with a lead time of days, weeks, or months when competitors, and in this instance assailants, respond in minutes.

The best process journalism starts where a well-researched, fact-checked story like “A Rape on Campus” ends. There is more to the story, to which reader responses could have led a crack team of RS reporters to uncover—like those alleged assailants Sabrina failed to reach, additional victims at UVA and other campuses, or more responsive interaction from the university administration

A story so expansive and provocative should never stand alone, and the further-investigative process could have started during fact-checking, when Jackie’s active participation had ended and more aggressive reporting could begin without alienating her. Post-publication, every comment, every response, was a potential lead extending the original story and improving the core reporting. Rolling Stone buried the leads by ignoring them. Washington Post, which in this instance is a competitor because of UVA’s location, did not.

Until Rolling Stone takes control of the narrative, or some big story closes the news cycle, “A Rape on Campus” will be used by competitors to rape the magazine’s credibility. The story isn’t going away, not if a December full of critical rebuttals and commentaries mean anything.

In publishing, like business, perception is everything. Negative perceptions about this story can undermine reader trust, and that scenario would be a disaster for any news organization. Trust tarnished, credibility co-opted are not easily restored. Rolling Stone editors must restore positive perceptions by, if nothing else, returning the narrative to the story’s main point: The problem of unreported sexual assaults on American college campuses.

By contrast, the Washington Post‘s editorial approach to “A Rape on Campus” largely protects the status quo, by, as previously stated, scrutinizing reporting about the alleged victim rather than investigating her alleged assailants or broader UVA culture.

For RS, regaining control of the narrative also means re-reporting Jackie’s story, and in the event of serious errors, acknowledging them. Don’t fire editors or contributors and don’t demand or accept resignations. Not unless someone intentionally acted in bad faith. Embellishment and fabrication are examples of bad-faith behavior. Reporting honestly, and writing what you know to be true in the moment, shouldn’t be penalized.

In October, following former editor Ben Bradlee’s death, the Washington Post posted “In his own words: Ben Bradlee on liars“. Excerpt:

Newspapers don’t tell the truth under many different, and occasionally innocent, scenarios. Mostly when they don’t know the truth. Or when they quote someone who does not know the truth.

And more and more, when they quote someone who is spinning the truth, shaping it to some preconceived version of a story that is supposed to be somehow better than the truth, omitting details that could be embarrassing.

And finally, when they quote someone who is flat-out lying. There is a lot of spinning and a lot of lying in our times—in politics, in government, in sports and everywhere. It’s gotten to a point where, if you are like me, you no longer believe the first version of anything. It wasn’t always that way.

Do read the entire thing, which is long and offers some context for understanding the Post’s truth-seeking culture, presuming that’s part of the impetuous for splitting Rolling Stone‘s gut. But be careful, yea editors and reporters, lest you cut off your own heads with the sword of truth, or one day it drives through your back when competitors question the accuracy of your news reporting.