Well, Rolling Stone magazine has really made a mess of it, hasn’t it?
A report from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, commissioned by the magazine, has concluded that the mag failed to do even basic due diligence in a cover story on a gang rape at the University of Virginia that it was forced to retract.
The author of the article – Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who will keep her job as will her bosses – failed to identify the attacker of the young woman, Jackie, or interview her friends. Apparently, her editors had a remarkable lack of curiosity about such details as well.
“Rolling Stone’s fundamental mistake, (managing editor Will) Dana said, was in suspending any skepticism about Jackie’s account because of the sensitivity of the issue,” The New York Times’ Ravi Somaiya wrote.
I think the fundamental mistake was a continuing one in journalism – seeing the story you want to write rather than writing the story you see. It’s fine to have a theme but as you explore your subject, sometimes circumstances are different than you assumed. Yet journalism is still so caught up in Woodstein-itis – the big scoop in the manner of Watergate’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – that it can neglect to see that sometimes the big story is no story at all.
Something happened to this young woman, Jackie. But whatever it was, it wasn’t the story Jackie told or that Erdely, who acknowledged that she set out to write about the pandemic of rape on campus, wanted to write. She believed Jackie, because she wanted to believe Jackie.
And because rape is difficult to prove, a case of he said/she said. You want to believe the victim, because you don’t want to think someone’s lying or that you’re being lied to and because the act and accusation of rape is so horrific.
The ambivalence of rape – which underscores its horror – figures into the upcoming “The Penalty for Holding,” the second novel in my series “The Games Men Play.” Only there it’s a case of he said/he said – two teenage boys, high school football rivals, then friends and lovers, then drunken betrayal and a night on the Jersey Shore gone terribly wrong.
Erdely may have thought she was helping rape victims but all she and Rolling Stone have done is to set them back.
She’s done journalists no favors either.