That seems to be what they got: Yesterday, we suggested that the New York Times published a pair of soft-soap accounts of the Rolling Stone debacle.
We referred to a news report and a “news analysis” which discussed the Columbia School of Journalism’s report on the giant debacle. The Times used soft soap in each report, we flawlessly said.
To peruse that report, click here.
How odd! Yesterday afternoon, the Daily Beast reported that Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s owner, gave the Times early access to the CSJ report. Lloyd Grove mused about Wenner’s possible motive:
GROVE (4/6/15): Wenner, for his part, indicated to The New York Times—to which he provided an early copy of the Columbia report, days ahead of other media outlets, perhaps in the hope of more sympathetic coverage—that Erdely will continue as a contributing editor.Was Wenner seeking soft soap from the Times? We can’t say, but that seems to be what he got.
Other reports suggested that Wenner plans no disciplinary measures for Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana, who oversaw the article’s publication; Erdely’s direct editor, Sean Woods; and other staffers involved in the bogus story’s preparation.
As we noted yesterday, Ravi Somaiya’s front-page news report consistently underplayed the size of Rolling Stone’s journalistic debacle. Meanwhile, Jonathan Mahler’s “news analysis” played the fool on behalf of the Stone’s presumably noble motives.
Did Wenner seek soft soap from the Times? Below, you see what soft soap looks like. In this passage, Mahler is speculating about the motives of Sabrina Erdely, author of the Rolling Stone debacle:
MAHLER (4/6/15): On the most basic level, the writer of the Rolling Stone article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was seduced by an untrustworthy source. More specifically, as the report details, she was swept up by the preconceptions that she brought to the article. As much casting director as journalist, she was looking for a single character with an emblematic story that would speak to—in her words—the “pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture” on college campuses.Why did Erdely create such a gigantic fail? Because she had such noble motives!
Journalists are often driven to cover atrocities and personal traumas by the best intentions, chiefly the desire to right wrongs and shed light on injustice—in a word, empathy. It is a noble impulse that animates a lot of important and courageous reporting. But empathy can also be a source of vulnerability for journalists, lowering their defenses against bad information.
An analyst could create an alternate speculation full of the lousiest possible motives. Mahler didn’t do that, though. In that passage, he was putting the brightest possible face on the possible reason for a gigantic fail.
In his front-page news report, Somaiya kept understating the size of the fail. Yesterday, we examined the soft soap he employed in his opening paragraphs. A bit later, he began systematically understating the size of Rolling Stone's bungles:
SOMAIYA (4/6/15): The first misstep during the reporting process, the Columbia report said, was that Ms. Erdely did not seek to independently contact three of Jackie’s friends, who were quoted in the piece, using pseudonyms, expressing trepidation at the idea of Jackie telling the authorities that she had been assaulted. The quotes came from Jackie’s recollection of the conversation. Those friends later cast doubt on Jackie’s story in interviews with The Washington Post and denied saying the words Rolling Stone had attributed to them. The three told the report’s authors that they would have made the same denials to Rolling Stone if they had been contacted.The three friends “cast doubt” on Jackie’s story? In fact, they flatly contradicted her story in a series of ways.
They denied that they met Jackie in front of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, as she had told Rolling Stone, on the night of the alleged attack. (They said that they had met her in a different part of the campus.)
They denied that her dress was bloody that night or that she seemed to be injured. They said that she had described a different type of attack from the one described in Rolling Stone. And yes, they denied that they had given the noxious, self-serving advice attributed to them in Rolling Stone.
Beyond that, they provided documentary evidence which suggested that Jackie had invented an imaginary boy friend, “Haven Monahan,” in the weeks before the alleged attack, using him in a scheme to make one of the three friends jealous.
When Somaiya says the three friends “cast doubt on her story,” he massively understates the nature of what occurred. As he continues, so does that pattern:
SOMAIYA (continuing directly): Rolling Stone, the report said, also did not provide the fraternity with enough information to adequately respond to questions from the magazine. Later, when the article had been published, the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, said it did not host a function on the weekend Jackie had specified.The fraternity “said” there was no function that night? In fact, the fraternity has presented substantial evidence to that effect, as described in the official press release about the four-month police investigation.
And the magazine failed to identify Jackie’s attacker, the report said. It was content to give him a pseudonym, Drew, when Jackie resisted Ms. Erdely’s request to help find him. The fraternity, The Post and the police have been unable to find anyone who matches Jackie’s description of Drew.
The Post and the police “have been unable to find anyone who matches Jackie’s description of Drew?” In truth, the Post and the police “haven’t been able to find the lifeguard matching Jackie’s description” because it’s fairly clear that no such person exists.
Jackie said Drew was a Phi Kappa Psi member who worked with her at the UVA aquatic center. This is what the CSJ reported:
CSJ REPORT (4/5/15): There was, in fact, an aquatic center lifeguard who had worked at the pool at the same time as Jackie and had the first name she had used freely with Erdely. He was not a member of Phi Kappa Psi, however. The police interviewed him and examined his personal records. They found no evidence to link him to Jackie's assault.Somaiya kept understating the size of the debacle. Mahler imagined the noble intentions explaining Erdely’s fail.
According to Grove, Wenner gave the Times early access hoping for a bit of soft soap. Maybe it’s all a coincidence, but soft soap is what Wenner got.