The guild supporting the guild: At 8 PM on Easter Sunday, under cover of darkness and Opening Day, Rolling Stone released the official report on its journalistic debacle concerning UVA.
The 13,000-word report was prepared by three well-known figures at the Columbia School of Journalism, a major insider entity. For better or worse, this official report was composed deep within the guild.
In some ways, we think the CSJ report is soft on Rolling Stone. But good God! Consider the way the New York Times reported this topic in this morning’s editions.
Ravi Somaiya wrote the 1400-word, front-page report. Unless we’re hallucinating a tad, he seemed intent on keeping readers from grasping the size of this journalistic debacle.
Let’s start with a quick bit of background:
You don’t understand the size of Rolling Stone’s journalistic debacle unless you understand a key point. Hanna Rosen comes close to stating this basic point in her own report at Slate:
“In late March, the Charlottesville, Virginia, police, after a four-month investigation, concluded there was no basis to support Jackie’s account as told in Rolling Stone. It’s pretty clear at this point that Jackie made it up.”
“It’s pretty clear at this point that Jackie made it up!” Speaking more clearly, it’s pretty clear that no attack of the type she described actually happened that night.
Over time, Jackie made a wide array of statements which turned out to be false. Over time, she also made a wide array of contradictory claims.
As a journalistic matter, there’s no obvious reason to believe that Jackie was attacked that night at all. But it seems quite clear that she wasn’t attacked in anything dimly resembling the way described in Rolling Stone.
In truth, there’s no reason to believe any of the claims which appeared in Rolling Stone! There’s no reason to believe that any misconduct occurred on the night in question in the fraternity house which was named in the piece.
There’s no way of knowing why Jackie said the various things she has said in the past several years. But there’s no reason to believe that any of the specific claims in Rolling Stone were actually true—and it seems abundantly clear that many of the claims in the piece were flatly false.
“It’s pretty clear at this point that Jackie made it up.” Three of her friends—real-time eyewitnesses—denied a wide array of Jackie’s statements and claims. During that four-month investigation, local police debunked other claims she had advanced.
Nothing she said was shown to be true. A great deal she said was shown to be false. If you read today’s New York Times, we don’t think you were told that.
This is just one puzzling event, of course. It tells us nothing about the rate of sexual assault on the nation’s campuses.
But you don’t understand the size of Rolling Stone’s journalistic debacle until you understand that key fact. It’s pretty clear that Jackie invented the key events in the story Rolling Stone told.
“It’s pretty clear at this point that Jackie made it up.” It’s also clear that Rolling Stone simply ran with Jackie’s story, failing to perform the most basic fact-checking procedures.
The journalistic malfeasance here rises to the level of crazy. Unless you read the front page of today’s New York Times, where Somaiya starts his report like this:
SOMAIYA (4/6/15): Rolling Stone magazine retracted its article about a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, after the release of a report on Sunday that concluded the widely discredited piece was the result of failures at every stage of the process.That’s the text which appears on the Times’ front page, before the report jumps to page B4. Let’s try to understand what a reader might take from that description.
The report, published by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and commissioned by Rolling Stone, said the magazine failed to engage in ''basic, even routine journalistic practice'' to verify details of the ordeal that the magazine's source, identified only as Jackie, described to the article's author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely.
On Sunday, Ms. Erdely, in her first extensive comments since the article was cast into doubt, apologized to Rolling Stone's readers, her colleagues and ''any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.''
In an interview discussing Columbia's findings, Jann S. Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, acknowledged the piece's flaws but said that it represented an isolated and unusual episode and that Ms. Erdely would continue to write for the magazine. The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as ''a really expert fabulist storyteller"...
From that account, a reader might get the impression that “a brutal gang rape” really did occur at the fraternity in question that night.
In reality, there’s no reason to believe any such thing. The evidence seems to show that no event occurred at the fraternity that night at all.
From that account, a reader might get the impression that “the magazine’s source” really did undergo an “ordeal” that night, with Rolling Stone merely “failing to verify details of the ordeal.”
A reader might get the further impression that Erdely’s piece has only been “cast into doubt.”
She failed to verify details! A reader might think that the failure to verify details constitutes the “flaws” in the piece which Wenner has now acknowledged. Under this interpretation, Rolling Stone and the CSJ are high-mindedly applying the highest possible journalistic standards to a report which only got “details” wrong.
That would be a crazily inaccurate understanding of this journalistic debacle. But at least one reader came away from Somaiya’s report with that understanding.
He posted this comment last night in response to other commenters who were condemning Jackie and Rolling Stone. His understanding makes perfect sense, given Somaiya’s account:
COMMENTER FROM WESTCHESTER (4/5/15): I'm sorry, but what I read here is that neither the police or Rolling Stone or Columbia were able to conclusively prove that a rape happened, I'm not sure the conclusion that no rape occurred flows from that finding. Rolling Stone and Ms. Erdely were journalistically irresponsible and unethical, and the police could not deliver a triable case to the D.A. But I'm not as willing to say that something very bad didn't happen to Jackie, despite the inconsistencies in her story of an extremely traumatic physical and psychological brutalization.“The police could not deliver a triable case to the DA?” They “weren’t able to conclusively prove that a rape happened?”
This reader has a seriously flawed understanding of the facts of this case, in which the police showed that Jackie had made a wide array of statements which were demonstrably false. But then, all through his report, Somaiya seems to go out of his way to keep readers from grasping the depth of the flaws with Jackie’s claims, and the corresponding size of Rolling Stone’s journalistic misfeasance.
We’d have to say that Jonathan Mahler works along similar lines in his “news analysis” of the CSJ report in this morning’s Times. Beyond that, we’d have to say that CSJ also uses some rather soft soap in certain parts of its report.
At one point after another, Somaiya seems to disguise the extent to which the Rolling Stone story broke down. Beyond that, he weirdly edits Erdely’s statement of apology, in a way which seems rather hard to explain.
(More on that tomorrow.)
To our eye, Somaiya and Mahler were working with some very soft soap in their pieces today. Then too, we have the rather strange decision by the Times to lead yesterday’s Sunday Review with yet another first-person account of a rape at UVA, this time from 1997.
As if to keep the pogrom going, the Times chips in with another undocumented account which paints UVA as a villain. On the whole, this seems like rather strange journalistic conduct.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at more of Somaiya’s work as he glosses the facts of the case. Before we’re done, we’ll consider the ways Mahler, and the CSJ report itself, were overly kind to the Stone.
For now, we’ll simply pose a question: Is this the guild helping the guild?
If we didn’t know better, we’d think that’s what we were seeing! We’d think we were seeing a lot of soft soap being applied to a huge journalistic mess.
We’d think we were seeing some major insiders looking on the sunniest possible side. We’d think we were seeing the guild mopping up for the guild, putting thumbs on the scale on behalf of embattled colleagues.
We’d also think the Times was using another unverified, unreported story to keep a preferred narrative alive.
Isn’t that the way Rolling Stone created this astonishing mess in the first place? Why would the Times, on this day of all days, head down that same tricky road?
Tomorrow: “Keep on the sunny side!” For the Carter Family version, you should just click here.