Rolling Stone’s ‘A Rape on Campus.’ Notes and comment on Columbia J-school’s investigation.

The key decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative — indifference to campus rape — and then go off in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative.

6 Apr 2015 3:00 am 81 Comments

First, some essential links:

Here is the text itself: Rolling Stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report: An anatomy of a journalistic failure.

The author’s apology: Statement From Writer of Rolling Stone Rape Article, Sabrina Erdely.

CJR: Interview with Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel, lead authors of the Columbia report.

New York Times account: Rolling Stone Article on Rape at University of Virginia Failed All Basics, Report Says

Huffington Post’s summary. Rolling Stone’s UVA Rape Story Was A ‘Journalistic Failure’ That Could’ve Been Avoided, Columbia Finds

Listen to many of the players talk about this story in David Folkenflik’s report for NPR., The journalism community reacts to the review of ‘A Rape On Campus’

Second, a few disclaimers:

The authors, Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs, and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar at Columbia, took this on voluntarily. Rolling Stone did not pay them. They did it as a public service and a gift to the profession of journalism. They did it because they thought it was important. As a journalism professor, I am grateful to them for this work. Thank you!

I teach in a competing program at NYU. Factor that in as you evaluate what I have to say, some of which is critical.

Overall, I think the report is impressively reported and soundly reasoned. It’s a hugely valuable record from which journalists and students of journalism will draw lessons for years. I wish we had studies just like it for other big screw-ups, like this one.

My notes and commentary:

1. Asking “how could this happen?” is not the same as asking, “what could have prevented it?” The authors chose to focus their study on prevention — steps not taken that would have avoided disaster — rather than tracing those mistakes to their origins, which might include, for example, bad ideas or rotten assumptions. It’s a defensible decision, but it does have consequences. These ripple through the report.

2. This is an amazing passage:

Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,” Dana said. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, said, “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”

It’s amazing because it leaves Rolling Stone editors with a tautological explanation. How could we have screwed up so badly? Because this time we screwed up really badly. The way to prevent another mistake like this is to make sure we don’t make this mistake again. A remarkable conclusion, considering the stakes. To their credit, the authors of the report don’t buy this one bit.

3. “The editors invested Rolling Stone’s reputation in a single source,” say the authors of the report. I think they’re right. Will Dana, managing editor of Rolling Stone, says they’re wrong:

Mr. Dana said he had reached many of the same conclusions as the Columbia report in his own efforts to examine the article, but he disagreed with the report’s assertion that the magazine had staked its reputation on the word of one source. “I think if you take a step back, our reputation rests on a lot more than this one story,” he said.

The point is not that your reputation accumulated over time rests on one story, but that one story at the wrong time can ruin it. I’d want my managing editor to understand that. Wouldn’t you?

4. “In hindsight,” the report says, “the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped. That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine’s editors to change plans.” What the authors mean is not “most consequential decision.” They mean “easiest route to preventing disaster.” You were so close! Contact the friends and the story falls apart. That’s what they mean.

5. The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative. The key term is emblematic. The report has too little to say about that fateful decision, probably because it’s not a breach of procedure but standard procedure in magazine-style journalism. (Should it be?) This is my primary criticism of the Columbia report: it has too little to say about the “emblem of…” problem.

6. Not that it’s entirely missing. The basic facts are there:

Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.

Idea: Maybe “a single, emblematic college rape case” does not exist. Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start. Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.

7. This is from Paul Farhi’s Nov. 28 account in the Washington Post:

So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

None of those schools felt quite right. What kind of “feel” is this? It’s feeling for a fit between discovered story and a prior — given — narrative.

8. “Mr. Dana said the article stemmed from a feeling he and other senior editors had over summer that the issue of unpunished campus rapes would make a compelling and important story,” read Ravi Somaiya’s Dec. 7 report in the New York Times. There’s the prior narrative I mentioned. It didn’t start with Sabrina Rubin Erdely. She was sent on a search for where to set it.

9. This is from Erik Wemple’s Dec. 5 column for the Post:

Observe how Erdely responded to a question about the accused parties in Jackie’s alleged gang rape. In that Slate podcast, when asked who these people were, she responded, “I don’t want to say much about them as individuals but I’ll just say that this particular fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi — it’s really emblematic in a lot of ways of sort of like elitist fraternity culture. It’s considered to be a kind of top-tier fraternity at University of Virginia.”

I don’t want to say much about them as individuals. In fact, she didn’t know anything about them “as individuals” and never located them — a major criticism in the report. Asked about contacting these people, she answers with their fitness as an emblem.

10. It is therefore striking that Erdely’s public apology did not extend itself to Phi Kappa Psi. I think it should have.

11. The alternative to starting with a narrative and searching for a campus, a frat and a survivor’s story that can serve as your emblem was pointed out by Reason magazine’s Robby Soave: Start with a proven case: two former Vanderbilt University football players convicted of gang raping a female student during a night of drinking and drug use. Dig in on that. Then find another and dig in on that. It’s true that “you always try to contact the accused” is very, very basic to good journalism. But let your reporting drive the narrative, rather than the other way around— this is also very basic. Yet it doesn’t get framed that way (as a basic error) in the report.

12. Sometimes the Rolling Stone journalists quoted in the Columbia report appear to be saying this was “Jackie’s story.” It was told from Jackie’s point of view, they say. Because it was so powerful, because they found her credible. Then at other times they give the impression that it was not about Jackie at all. It’s about the culture of indifference that greets women who try to report rape on college campuses. They could have dropped Jackie and told many other stories, Will Dana says in the report. This is Erdely responding to the Post’s nagging questions in December:

“I could address many of [the questions] individually… but by dwelling on this, you’re getting sidetracked,” she wrote in an e-mail response to The Post’s inquiry. “As I’ve already told you, the gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie — a person whom I found to be credible — told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way — i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.”

This was Jackie’s story. No, it’s about the culture of indifference. How can both be true? If she’s the perfect emblem then both are true. This is the belief that overtook the Rolling Stone staff. But what made them vulnerable to that belief?

13. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” says deputy managing editor Sean Woods in the report. This is Rolling Stone’s Maginot Line. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”

Erdely added: “If this story was going to be about Jackie, I can’t think of many things that we would have been able to do differently… Maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate her but should have been about whether she would be in this story at all.” Erdely’s reporting led her to other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated her narrative, although none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie’s.

Indeed. None was.

14. Part of what made Rolling Stone editors vulnerable to the “emblem of…” problem was some seriously dated thinking about credibility, in which it’s said to be sort of like charisma. You have charisma or you don’t. You “have” credibility or you don’t. If a source is felt to be credible, the entire story can ride on that. Your colleagues are credible, so it doesn’t occur you to ask if they could all be missing something.

A dramatic high point for this kind of thinking comes during Hanna Rosin’s incredible podcast interview with Sabrina Erdely. Rosin asks near the end of it: If you were Jackie’s lawyer, how would you prove her case? (Go to 6:35 on this clip and listen.) The author’s reply: “I found her story to be very— I found her to be very credible.”

15. It’s almost like, if you have credibility you don’t need proof. That’s an absurd statement, of course, but here’s how they got there (without realizing it.) Instead of asking: what have we done in telling Jackie’s story to earn the skeptical user’s belief? you say: I’m a skeptical journalist, I found her story believable, so will the users. Voilà! Credibility. Will Dana is one of the best editors in New York. Who “has” more credibility than him? No one! He finds her story believable. Doesn’t that “give” it credibility too?

16. Bit by bit the readers get eclipsed from this view. Don’t take our word for it, see for yourself: that logic gets eclipsed too. (Don’t take her word for it, listen to Jackie’s friends talk about the attacks. Rolling Stone dispensed with that.) In fact, credibility isn’t like charisma, which you have or don’t. It’s a transaction between journalists and readers. Readers have to trust, yes, but journalists have to realize that they cannot put too great a strain on the reader’s trust. “A Rape on Campus” did that, repeatedly. But the journalists involved didn’t realize what they were doing. Why not?

I wish the Columbia report, as good as it is, told us more than it does about that. “How could this happen?” is harder to answer than “what would have prevented it?” This was our best chance to find out.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

A lot has been written about the Columbia report. (Naturally I hope you’ve read my post.) For those seeking further understanding, the five best things I found are:

Richard Bradley at his site: In the End, It’s All About Rape Culture—or the Lack Thereof. Bradley is a a former George magazine editor who was duped by Stephen Glass, a famous fabricator of stories at the New Republic. He was the first journalist to raise serious doubts about the Rolling Stone story. (See Is the Rolling Stone Story True?, Nov. 24, 2014.) He should be listened to on the report.

Leah Finnegan at Gawker. Jann Wenner Is a Big Dumb Idiot. “Here’s what happened at Rolling Stone: pathological conflict-avoidance. Every workaround deployed in this story, from not securing the alleged rapist’s name before publication to not interviewing the rape victim’s friends, was put in place in order to avoid a difficult, uncomfortable situation.”

Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View, Rolling Stone Can’t Even Apologize Right. “The same extraordinary features that made this story so potent also made it unlikely that anyone was going to be able to offer a convincing defense; you can claim that a one-on-one date rape was actually consensual, but that’s not a plausible explanation for a gang rape that took place on top of a bed of broken glass. So if you start by assuming the story is true, you also assume that you’re not going to get much worth printing from the perpetrators.”

Clay Shirky in the New Republic, Skeptical review isn’t a step in some journalistic production line: It’s the product. My NYU colleague Clay Shirky says the report could have been three sentences long: “We investigated the matter thoroughly. We found no extenuating circumstances. The writers, editors, and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone abdicated the skepticism required by their profession.” The rest could have gone into a appendix.

Rosin interviews Erdely. Anyone who wishes truly to understand this episode should, after absorbing Columbia report, go back and listen to the podcast interview Hanna Rosin of Slate did with Rolling Stone author Sabrina Erdely, Nov. 27, 2014. It’s all “in” there, if you listen closely enough. Rosin’s rising incredulity, Erdely’s lack of confidence in her own story are both palpable— and deeply telling.


Eric Etheridge says:

Here’s how I read #2.

RS has the system in place — fact-checking — that would likely have exposed the problems with the article (or sent up enough red flags), but the normal fact-checking procedures were not used.

The lesson is to use the system in place, not to go around it because a story is too sensitive or hard to re-report. Among many mistakes, this was the last fatal move.

Caveats: I worked as a story editor at RS in the ’90s and I have worked with Will (but not at RS).

R Thomas Berner says:

Well done, Jay. Here’s what I wrote, which looks at the situation from another angle:

The CJR report didn’t address the most damning elements of the story: subsequent reporting revealed that “Jackie’s” attacker was fictional. “Haven Monahan” does not exist. There was no party at Phi Kappa Psi that night. Every single detail of her story has been refuted by facts or testimony from her own friends.

That means, plain and simple, that it was a hoax. Why can’t we say that? Why can’t we strip “Jackie” of the protections of anonymity? She lied! She falsely accused a group of men of the most horrific crime, and Erdely handed her a megaphone to do it.

Now I know what ‘Rape Culture’ really is: it’s a political weapon used by the left to advance their own narrative.

kafkette says:

Everything you say is correct, other than two things:

1/ It is NOT the left. It’s baby culture, the world of adult tweens. Whatever we have now is intrinsically apolitical, based on marketing—whether or not it knows it—and primarily intent on nothing better than publicity, media control, media ownership. None of that’s the smallest sliver of anything political. If they designate themselves left or feminist it’s only for flash, it’s a self-titling designed to grab the most attention, upclicks, page hits, etc & ect. Our unrelentingly, academically sociopolitical world isn’t political, it’s solipsistic, bent on self-regeneration. We don’t know it now; if, a few decades from now, we have survived as a country, as a culture, the hope-against-hope is we’ll know it then.

2/ Finally admitting the truth, rather lack thereof, in THIS story is not enough. THEY ALL ARE LIKE THIS. ALL of our famous ‘rape culture’ ‘narratives’ fall down just as easily, from the Great Steubenville Fingering to the Notre Dame Suicide. To, in fact, most of the ‘slut shaming’ stories— y’know the ones that took bullying from the realm of the funny looking, oddly dressed, and parentally peculiar to the heartbreaking world of envious eleven year old girls, jealous of other eleven year old girls and their eleven year old boyfriends.

I remember very well that not long after a factory in Bangladesh collapsed on thousand of workers, Slate decided this—eleven year old boyfriend drama—was international news. You want left? Left would be concentrating on the factory. This? This is self-indulgence. Has nothing to do with left at all.

The scariest thing is that people who should LONG have known better have allowed all of it. For Mammon, clearly. Left—real Left—would be fighting that with everything it has.

“The CJR report didn’t address the most damning elements of the story: subsequent reporting revealed that ‘Jackie’s’ attacker was fictional. ‘Haven Monahan’ does not exist….”

From the report:

If Erdely had called Kathryn Hendley and Alex Stock – their true names – to check their sides of Jackie’s account of Sept. 28 and 29, they would have denied saying any of the words Jackie attributed to them (as Ryan would have as well). They would have described for Erdely a history of communications with Jackie that would have left the reporter with many new questions. For example, the friends said that Jackie told them that her date on Sept. 28 was not a lifeguard but a student in her chemistry class named Haven Monahan. (The Charlottesville police said in March they could not identify a UVA student or any other person named Haven Monahan.) All three friends would have spoken to Erdely, they said, if they had been contacted.

The episode reaffirms a truism of reporting: Checking derogatory information with subjects is a matter of fairness, but it can also produce surprising new facts.

Jay, thank you for this. It’s an important part of the record, and you’ve done an exceptional job of asking the right questions and deconstructing the active assumptions, both in the case and in the Columbia report. Congratulations. This is a watershed moment in the postmodern culture’s need to unring the bell of “professional” journalism’s often manipulative foolishness. It also reveals the inherent dangers of a “first draft of history” driven by such.

One thing I want to add: RS’s explanation that nothing needs to change in their system because this only happened because it was “rape victim story” seems problematic. Confirmation bias happens in reporting that is not about rape. The CBS George W. Bush National Guard report failed because of confirmation bias (if I recall correctly.) But the fallout from that story has not helped since it broke down into a political viewpoint fight as opposed to a confirmation bias problem in reporting. It’s being discussed in the edges, but only as if rape is the only story where RS would make this kind of failure.

Tim Schmoyer says:

From the report: “The problem of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science.”

Would you agree that confirmation bias was a significant common thread from start to finish? The decision on a narrative first and then the search for an emblem with editorial and fact-checking decisions that all fit the narrative and maintained the credibility of Jackie, Erdely, Dana, etc.?

Hello, good people of the comment boards. I’m in class until 3 pm, so cannot respond until then.

I keep thinking about other situations when journalists are presented with claims: 9/11 truthers or the claim that Sen. Bob Menendez was sleeping with underage Dominican prostitutes. Rape in a fraternity is more believable and more common than a wide conspiracy but…when the story fails to check out, the blame goes to the media outlet, not the group peddling the underage prostitute story, doesn’t it?

Trevor Wilson says:

It goes to both.

Tim Schmoyer says:

Interesting question about distributing blame between the sources, (investigative) journalist, the media outlet, etc.

Thoughts on comparing Judith Miller/NYT and Sabrina Rubin Erdely/RS?

“A deeper critique of her own reporting, and through that example a critique of the entire enterprise of investigative reporting, would examine its inherently prosecutorial nature. Investigators — journalistic or otherwise — are constantly trying to build a case, to make things fit even when they don’t obviously do so. In the process, the rough edges of the world can be whittled away, nuance can become muddled in the reporter’s head, in the writing, or in the editing.”

I’m not sure at what level, and I could be wrong, but it feels staged.
I’m not sure which reality would be uglier.

(To go meta, another possibility is that the unfolding events I am responding to aren’t the ones you’re responding to; an “internet glitch” to put it charitably.)

Tim Schmoyer says:

This stood out for me: “A solution is to be transparent with readers about what is known or unknown at the time of publication.”

This “Trust me, I’m credible!” lack of transparency with the reader played a significant role in how this incident unfoled and its aftermath.

I would rewrite and emphasize this part of the report: “the most egregious failures of transparency in ‘A Rape on Campus’ … obfuscated important problems with the story’s reporting.”

Confirmation bias and lack of transparency with readers are two ubiquitous problems in journalism that have been working together resulting in loss of trust, credibility, and many recent scandals.

“Let your reporting drive the narrative” is excellent, and ethically sound, advice. But it runs head first into all sorts of countervailing economic and incentives. I thought the Columbia report’s biggest weakness is that it doesn’t address these business factors that are inevitably in play. To wit:

(1) If your reporting drives the narrative and it uncovers evidence that invalidates the whole story that you’ve already invested months of reporting, editing, and fact-checking time in…you’ve got one hell of a dry well. The longer this goes on, the more sunk costs you have, the greater the incentive to stick with the story even if you have doubts. This is the kind of consideration that experienced editors will desperately avoid articulating — even in confidential internal debate, because it sounds so crass. But it matters.

(2) Nine times out of ten, the more reporting you do, the more ambiguous any story will get. That’s the nature of reality. It’s why making stories up is so tempting for reporters, magazine reporters in particular, because magazine editors don’t want just any story, they want the perfect story, the knock-your-socks-off Steven Glass-story version of reality, which is only attainable by the fabulist. The incentive is built into the process: Every phone call you make moves the story further away from the black-and-white beauty of a Great Story and into a confusing swamp of uncertainty.

You can say “But journalism is about seeking the truth!” all you want, but if your process is full of incentives that pull the other way, your process is not going to lead to the truth. Which is why I find the Rolling Stone team’s conclusion that their process is in no need of revision so inadequate.

Scott Rosenberg:

You can say “But journalism is about seeking the truth!” all you want, but if your process is full of incentives that pull the other way, your process is not going to lead to the truth. Which is why I find the Rolling Stone team’s conclusion that their process is in no need of revision so inadequate.

They got the clicks/sales. You may draw from that what conclusions you want, but I think they’re pretty obvious.

Taken to its (to me) logical conclusion, this is a helluva condemnation of “journalism”. The phrase “if it bleeds, it leads” is well-known, and the profit motive that is implied by it is also well-understood.

If “clicks” is what the game is about, and if ad revenue / profit margin is the ultimate arbiter of a media outlet’s success, then there is really no impetus at all for journalists to be truthful. To borrow from Dingy Harry, “it worked, didn’t it?” is all that matters.

Disturbing thought.

I wonder if the lefties who infest MiniTru and are so enraged by the idea of corporations making money at the expense of Truth and Beauty bother to think about this sort of thing. My guess is… No, they don’t.

John Boyd says:

Well said. I remain troubled by the fact that no one really had to take the fall for the damage done. Not the reporter, not the editor, or the fact checker or even the RS….which will undoubtedly sell more magazines reporting on their own screw ups. All the print outlets, like RS, have is their credibility, and the time & space to write & print (& publish & sell) more than a blog. And they blew it. But plan to make no changes as to how they do business. This loss of credibility is priceless, but disciplining the “reporter” and others responsible would be a start.

Scott – your point (1) is definitely one of the things that concerns me most about investigative journalism as the media transitions to digital platforms. Yes, there have always been market pressures on media organizations to produce attention-grabbing scoops, going all the way back to the Spanish Civil War and beyond (ie Hearst’s famous declaration “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”).

The CJR piece notes that there has been a 25% reduction in staff at Rolling Stone, but then asserts that they had more than enough resources to check out the story. Which may be true on its face – but I think kinda misses the point – that being the one that you raise. “One hell of a dry well indeed.”

I think that everyone who works in journalism is all too aware that we’re all balanced upon a razor’s edge these days. Consider what happens to a news organization that pursues a story for months/years, only to conclude that there is no story there to report, or if there is, that it is bland and mushy.

Yes, in a perfect world, we pick up our marbles and leave the game. Chalk one up to experience. “It’s OK, you’ll get ’em next time, champ.” Insert motivational sports cliche here.

But I think you’ve put identified something important – that there exists this general feeling that when you go hunting for big game, you can’t afford to come back empty-handed. The magazine can’t afford it. There’s no margin for error.

So what effect is this going to have on the reporting of difficult stories? Are news organizations likely to green-light complex investigations based on that instinct good reporters have there “there’s a story here”, when the consquences for being wrong are either blank news pages/lost revenue/layoffs?

Or are they likely to pull in their horns and just go after the low-hanging fruit? Get an easy win.

You already know the answer to this. You see it on cable news every day.

It’s why there’s so much reporting on stories that are already being reported on, so much “piling on.” Because we know there’s something there – now we just have to chase down some new aspect of that story.

Bill Woods says:

‘Hearst’s famous declaration “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”’ … is another of those famous statements that’s probably too good to be true.

This is true of any journalistic endeavor, probably since the beginning of time but especially now. I write record reviews sometimes. My process: I listen to the record a few times and read up on its background, come up with my lede, my lines, my hooks, my angles, start writing the thing in my head, start writing it on the page. ALMOST WITHOUT EXCEPTION by the time I’ve written approximately half of the review I’ve already outlined for myself … I find that my opinion of the record has changed. Do I go back and re-start this process? I do not. I can’t afford to do so. I’ve already budgeted a certain amount of time and I’ve invested a certain amount of time, and the rates don’t fluctuate with my opinions. Worse still, I’m confident in saying that if I were to re-start my whole process, I’d invariably find the same phenomenon occurring on my second pass: My opinions would grow further nuanced still, once again rendering my hard work worthless. Crumple it up, start over? Can’t do it. I’m on deadline. I have other work to get to. I’ve justified this by telling myself that I’m writing about an opinion I had at one point — a legitimate opinion! — although it may not be the opinion I have when the review is finally published (or when it is filed).

Follow baseball writers on Twitter, and you’ll invariably see a wave of frustration crest when a game takes an abrupt and unexpected turn in the 9th inning; you’ll read something to the effect of, “That’s the sound of the entire press box heaving a collective sob as they press delete on 1,000 words they were just about to file.” Baseball writers can’t fudge it too much, though; everyone literally knows the score, so they’re stuck going back and doing the work again, sacrificing a few precious hours to rewrite the story they thought they’d already written.

Fortunately, record reviews and game summaries aren’t matters of life or death or policy or penalty. But while they’re low-stakes, they’re low-investment, too. Investigative is high-investment. I don’t do investigative anymore, largely because fewer places have the resources to make that investment. But in my experience: I’ve rarely been involved in or witness to a long investigative piece that did not bear SOME fruit — and that fruit often bore some resemblance to the picture on the side of the seed packet.

Thanks. Very interesting.

Thanks, Jay. I was just expanding on the point made by Scott Rosenberg: saying that EVERY journalistic investment (time/energy/money) is made with the expectation of a return, and in the case of investigative work, both the investment and the expected ROI are significantly higher for every party — writer, editor, publisher, etc.

I used those random (and vague) anecdotes from my own experiences to help illustrate that point, but I should follow that with two footnotes: 1. I stand by all the work I’ve done, from the record reviews to the big investigations, even as I recognize the fundamental compromises that were made. And 2. The investigative work in which I’ve been involved was old-school alt-weekly “true” investigative: We had a story based on evidence and testimony, and we followed that story where it led (admittedly with the expectation that it would lead to a place mapped out by original piece of evidence). In most cases, we were covering individual instances of corruption or malfeasance, initially brought to us by a whistleblower or discovered while parsing documents.

The Rolling Stone piece wasn’t “true” investigative (and I say this with no disrespect; I’m a huge admirer of Rolling Stone and I was once an intern at Rolling Stone). It was a trend piece with a pre-established narrative, structured around the testimony of a representative subject — in this case, an ostensible whistleblower. It was no different than when Vice sends a documentary crew to Thailand for a feature on sex tourism. That crew has to find and follow someone.

The remarkable thing (from an academic perspective) about what Woodward and Bernstein did was NOT the shocking revelations they uncovered but the process they used. That’s what they gave us as journalists. They did one (fairly benign) story on one day. That story led to another story the next day. And another and another. Eventually they had built a reputation as credible tellers of this particular story, and they got a call from Deep Throat. They weren’t trying to make a splash; they just slowly waded into deeper water until they were submerged.

Can you imagine Ben Bradlee pulling W&B into his office, saying, “We know politicians are shady and corrupt — you need to find an example of that so we can tell a bigger story”?

That’s the problem with the “emblematic-of” approach to journalism.

Having said that, journalistic outlets today are left with few alternatives. Today, Deep Throat is Edward Snowden; he doesn’t need the Washington Post when he has WikiLeaks. Whistleblowers have no shortage of social media through which to tell their stories, from Yelp to Twitter to comments sections. The 2015 version of Rolling Stone (and its ilk) can’t wade into the pool the way the Washington Post did in 1972. The models are too vastly different; the competition is too unrelenting. The 2015 version of Rolling Stone (and its ilk) has to dive from the highest platform and land in the deepest water.

And you do need to pull off a few spins on the way down! A single rape on a single college campus is tragic and reprehensible but, sadly, journalistically unremarkable. A bunch of statistics without a compelling narrative is uninteresting. A good trend piece uses the individual story to make the bigger story more vivid. But a good investigative piece needs to find an individual story that has not yet been told. However, the individual story is rarely emblematic of the trend, because certain details will always conflict with certain statistics.

Those challenges are exacerbated by the investments that must be made in order to pull off such an impressive leap (and they’re truly exacerbated by the subsequent expected ROI). Typically, in my experience, the number of hours dedicated to a story by a writer is directly commensurate with that writer’s commitment to seeing that story published. And the number of dollars dedicated to a story by a publisher is directly commensurate with that publisher’s interest in seeing that story generate a return (clicks/awards/etc.).

We’ve reached a point where the investment and the story are almost the same thing. Again, cut back to Watergate for a second: The initial investment there was MINIMAL. Back again to 2015: Can you imagine Vice sending a documentary crew to Thailand for a feature on sex tourism, only to have that crew come back to Brooklyn a week or two later saying, “We know sex tourism in Thailand exists, but we couldn’t find anyone to follow”?

Your comment brings to mind these lines in George Packer’s piece on these events, over the New Yorker.

“To live outside the law, you must be honest,” Bob Dylan sang—to raise journalism above the artless presentation of facts, you’d better be damned sure of those facts.

In “emblem of” journalism you have to ratchet the verification standard up even higher than classic investigative work, because you’re committed to using “holy shit” examples before you even have them.

This is from Erik Wemple at the Washington Post:

A Yale Law School student said in a panel discussion last month that Rolling Stone contributor Sabrina Rubin Erdely had contacted her as she narrowed her focus for what would be “A Rape on Campus,” the now-retracted expose on sexual assault at the University of Virginia. “She called me a couple months before and asked if I knew anyone at Yale,” said the student, Alexandra Brodsky, at a March 12 event presented by the American Constitution Society, the American Prospect and the Economic Policy Institute.

“And I put her in touch with a couple of students who had . . . normal rape stories, and none of them were good enough for her,” said Brodsky in the session.

Brodsky’s comment strengthens suspicions that Erdely was seeking an explosive and dramatic criminal act to anchor her story on this issue. As this blog has pointed out before, Erdely bypassed more prosaic exemplars of sexual assault on the U-Va. campus itself as she clung to the dramatic alleged gang rape of Jackie, the central alleged victim of “A Rape on Campus.”

As the demands for a “holy shit!” anchoring story spiral up, the logic undoes itself, for as you note, such stories are less likely to be illustrative of the “larger trend” they are supposed to be embelm-izing. Most campus rapes are not of the “gang” type. This was. Most involve alcohol. This didn’t. (Jackie says she had nothing to drink.)

It can’t work. That way of going about things: start with a trend that is kinda known, find a “holy shit!” story that no one’s heard yet to anchor it as “emblem of…” then invest and invest until sunk costs force you to run something— that should have come in for criticism in the Columbia report and should have been on the list of changes Rolling Stone plans to make. Didn’t happen. Instead we have Packer’s conclusion:

Although the report describes the scandal as “another shock to journalism’s credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry,” Rolling Stone’s failure doesn’t seem to me to be representative of any larger problem in journalism. It isn’t part of a growing pattern of collapsing institutional standards. It isn’t even a case of the reporter’s having fabricated or plagiarized, which are graver wrongs than credulousness, and far harder to fathom.

Right. It’s the demand for a “holy shit!” story that makes the model untenable.

You can find a “holy shit!” story via traditional investigative techniques, but you’re not guaranteed to find one, and it’s expensive to search blindly through a haystack for a needle that may not even be hiding in that particular haystack.

Or, you can follow the Woodward and Bernstein model: Just do your job and relentlessly pursue leads. I’m reminded of the Penn State scandal (this recap via Wiki):

The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was the first to report on the grand jury investigation, in March 2011. The story did not receive much attention outside of the immediate area, and many readers at the time assailed the newspaper for impugning Sandusky’s and Penn State’s reputations. After the charges against Sandusky were filed, the newspaper was vindicated and in April 2012 crime reporter Sara Ganim was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting for her coverage of the scandal.

Or you can do a trend piece, and let the trend itself be your “holy shit!” element (the Vice model).

OR — and this is the most unlikely case, but it’s not impossible — you can find a “holy shit!” story via whatever investigative-reportorial means, and during that process, recognize that your story is one of many similar stories occurring at the moment, and build a news piece into a trend piece, with the initial “holy shit!” story serving as your narrative thread.

But you cannot identify the trend and then look for the “holy shit!” story after the fact. It’s dangerous and disingenuous. The “holy shit!” story will by its nature not be emblematic of the trend. That’s WHY it is exceptional.

You can have one (1) of these things: the Penn State child sex-abuse scandal or the Catholic Church child sex-abuse scandal. Both are “holy shit!” stories. But you can’t have both.

You can’t start with Jerry Sandusky and write a story about how all college athletics programs are populated by predators, because Sandusky is not evidence of a trend; he’s a total anomaly.

You ALSO can’t seek out the most depraved cannibal-rapist priest and make him the face of the Catholic Church child sex-abuse scandal — because he’s not a fair representation of the story, if he even exists at all.

The reason the Vice model works is because they’re not aiming to do anything but shock you, and the resources they invest are commensurate with their actual ROI: That crew WILL come back from Thailand with enough footage to build a feature on sex tourism. The reason the W&B/WaPo/Patriot-News model works is because they’re not aiming to do anything but report the story. They’ve invested exactly what they’d invest on a non-“holy shit!” story, so their anticipated ROI is considerably lower.

But RS wanted both things. And you can’t have both.

Part of what made Rolling Stone editors vulnerable to the “emblem of…” problem was some seriously dated thinking about credibility, in which it’s said to be sort of like charisma. You have charisma or you don’t. You “have” credibility or you don’t.

I understand where this is coming from and agree with it, except that “dated” assumes the editor’s view has anything to do with credibility as the outside world understands it. Comes first, will this sell issues/garner clicks? Moreover, will it confirm the biases of our most loyal audience? Rolling Stone has confirmed themselves as willing to cater to these false narratives, as has Jezebel or lesser light Feministing. This is why Erdely was not fired: she can be relied on to advance the same data-free hypothesis (college campuses are a hotbed of male savagery and female sexual assault) regardless of the facts. It is, in its own way, a sign of theological orthodoxy.

Jim Beard says:

Fantasy, Illusion, and Delusion. Somehow, the basics seem quite familiar.

Verdict first. Then find a victim to present charges, and cite anything from elsewhere or from imagination as evidence to justify it all.

“Post-modern” journalism at its finest.

Richard Aubrey says:


I presume you aren’t thinking RS went into this in order to take one for the team. But, in addition to clicks, they now have that to keep them warm while thinking of various lawsuits coming their way.

Erdely has been accused of faking at least two other stories, one about rape in the Navy and another about pedophile priests, naming names in the second case, iirc.

Presuming there is any faint smoke around that putative fire, RS was aiming for what it thought it had and got the hired gun best suited to get it.

I would be asking about Erdely, and possibly the others, whether it was confirmation bias or a decision that this story, legless as it is, can stand because they could sell Jackie’s credibility to the readers, in part because of the sacralized status of supposed victims. In other words, did they do what Erdely said they did; tell a story and get whatever support they thought would work?

Erdely’s quote about UVa is not complete. Full of tanned, buff, blond, rich soutnern families….and Greeks. IOW, the enemy we’ve all been told we need to hate.
Hannah Graham (aka “who?”) was unavailable for comment.

Jay, you ask how this happened. In the CJR interview, Steve Coll addresses this conundrum. “A problem in our cognition,” he says. “Your brain selects facts that confirm your beliefs.” “You actually have to do something unpleasant to take yourself off the path.”

My question to Coll: but isn’t “taking yourself off the path” the central discipline for a journalist? Isn’t confirmation bias an Achilles heel that any competent professional examines himself or herself for, every day? What has happened to skepticism and insatiable curiosity?
Larger question: what are we afraid of as a society that we produce journalists with a herd mentality? Again and again?

Final observation: good journalism begins with the discovery–often a slow process–of the story. As you say. In the case of “Jackie,” what is the real story here? Certainly it is not “Jackie’s College Experience.” Here: the ways in which, for a long time now, at least since the abolition of parietals, colleges have responded to allegations of campus rape. Why those ways? Where? Do the differences college to college tell us anything?

Another story: why our national hysteria–now–over campus rape? What is this particular cultural moment about? How does it fit into the larger picture of who we are? Or does it? What is the context? Or contexts?

Richard Aubrey says:

It appears the fraternity is suing RS. Good? Bad? Chilling?

A pod of pundits are pointing out just now what I heard a gaggle of litigators agree last night: Rolling Stone is taking counsel’s instruction. Do not fire anybody before the lawsuits are over. Such an action is an admission of wrongdoing.

Richard Aubrey says:

I see the problem with investigative journalism. I recall, back in the day, that Isikoff had managed half a dozen which were so good that Newsweek spiked them. The one about Lewinski got loose somehow.

So it isn’t necessarily a matter solely of resources.

However, the idea that you’ve sunk a ton of money into a pot of pottage and either write it off, so to speak, or try anyway to make something of it, must be mightily annoying. Maybe a bit of sympathy for big pharma and their R&D. Ditto DoD.
However, this story in particular looked bad from the beginning. Erdely was looking for the perfect storm and any editor should have known she was going to find it. See Mary Mapes. Erdely has a history which RS seemed to think either recommended her for this task, or was irrelevant for this task. That’s nuts. Unless you want the person to get the perfect story.

The likelihood of coming up with smoke and fog after an investigation is reduced if you’re not trying to find a story to support what you already know. If you already know it, then there must be enough evidence lying around that you don’t have to pull an Erdely to support what you already know, because there must have been some reason you already knew it.

The confirmation bias started with the idea that there was a perfect story out there and all Erdely had to do was go write it down.

You know how you deal with confirmation bias? You hire people from an ideologically varied background, so that you always have someone looking at a story for whom the story violates their beliefs.

But the one “fix” we won’t hear proposed is that journalism should be hiring more conservatives in order to avoid epistemic closure.

Richard Aubrey says:

Greg O.

From experience, I can tell you this is not the place to say that.

Actually, I suspect Jay would be open to the idea that RS should hire some conservatives if it wants to take on issues that are near and dear to liberals. There’s an intellectual honesty to this approach.

One of the best analyses on the topic. Will be sharing with faculty and students at Iowa State. Best thing about this post is its conciseness and effectiveness. Thanks, Jay.

John Casteel says:

Erdely’s failure to apologize specifically to the fraternity leads me to infer that she still so wants to believe that she can’t see her real victims as anything but deserving of what they get. Despite everything, I think there’s a good chance she will do something similar again, given the chance.

Richard Aubrey says:

John Casteel,

Couple of issues: Apologies might be grist for a libel plaintiff. So, whatever you think, button it until it won’t bite you.

IMO, she doesn’t “believe”. She wanted to get some golden Greeks in real trouble, but she missed. She never “believed.” And you’re right. She knows who her targets are.

There’s a bizarre implication in some of these comments that there are people called ‘conservatives’ that are naturally pro-rape, or anti-believing-women (or something), and that their influence would have made people into responsible journalists.

If this story had been about someone being forced to have an abortion, would we be begging for a pro-death, pro-believing-women ‘leftist’ to do basic fact-checking?

As far as I can tell, they verified that ‘Jackie’ did attend the university, did work at a pool there, and had reported that a sexual assault had happened to her during the month in question to UVA authorities. That is all. That is not even vaguely enough.

What they seem to have forgotten is that journalism is a process of discovering and communicating facts, and putting them in a context in order to aid understanding. The context, in this case, became the entire story. There were no other facts other than those three – but the first two were not notable, and the third (ideally) just that the same story that they were getting from Jackie then was a story that someone had gotten from Jackie before. In actuality, they didn’t even check that the stories told to them and to UVA were the same. They were simply not interested in any of the facts.

question: What is the obsession in the critiques with the three friends that she communicated with after the fact? It’s still just Jackie’s story. Whether there were discrepancies between what she told them and what she told RS has no bearing on whether she was telling the truth about the rape. The problem is that out of 400 pages of correspondence, they didn’t manage to verify anything other than the school she attended and that she worked at a pool. As mentioned, it should have been trivial to find out if a member of Phi Kappa Psi worked at the pool where she worked at the same time she worked there or if a party had been thrown at Phi Kappa Psi on the day in question. That would have given RS an independent path to support the story they were trying to tell, you know, if they had been interested in that.

Which comments in this thread suggested that people called ‘conservatives’ are naturally pro-rape? I would like to have a look at them. Thanks.

Victoria says:

The obsession with the three friends is because the story has three villains. 1) The awful rapist fraternity 2) The awful campus culture where Jackie’s closest friends tell her not to report the rape because it will affect their social standing and hurt their own Greek community, and 3) The awful UVA administration who cared more about their reputation than the safety of the students.

If Erdely had contacted the friends, who saw her the same night Jackie claimed the rape happened, the whole ballgame falls apart. The friends would have said that Jackie’s story had changed over time and that they had not been the monsters she was saying they were. It would/should have stopped Jackie’s unquestioned credibility in its tracks, and might have caused Erdely to question Jackie’s characterizations of the other villains as well.

doesky2 says:

Rolling Stones invested their “reputation”……LOL….when something is worth nothing there’s not much of a risk in loss of it.

Johnny C. says:

Let’s be even more brutally honest about some of what clearly went into the creation of this story. Too many (not all, but too many) so-called “long-form magazine journalists” are awards-hunters and trying to impress fellow writers than actually doing a public service. It’s a function of ego, they want to craft the “must-read” story of the week/month/year and at any cost, so that they can attain book deals, bigger-money assignments and most importantly, the adoration of their peers. So it went with Caleb Hannan, so it went with Sabrina Erdely. Old-fashioned journalism procedure and ethics often goes out the window with these attention-seekers; the writing and the “story” becomes more important than the reporting. Look, many (most) journalists want to do good in this world with their chosen profession, get the “big” story, have their peers respect their work, maybe win an award, have their hard and often difficult and unglamorous work validated. But in some cases, like this one, that egotistical desire for greatness gets in the way. I think if we saw more humble journalists that just work hard and follow the facts to their conclusion, even if it’s not a sensationalistic “must-read,” rather than come up with these grand notions of what’s going on in the world and try to clumsily fit things into their preconceived narrative, you wouldn’t see this sort of thing happen as much.

simon kenton says:

Sean Woods: “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim…” How can this not stand out? “our rape victim?” How could anyone in a journalistic capacity feel that they owned a particular story character? More to the point, after all the drivel about glass tables and glass on the floor, the bloody dress and the casually indifferent friends, thrown beer bottles that left no facial bruising, who could believe there even was a rape victim, and who could believe it this late in the game, believe it so strongly he still thinks of her as their rape victim? Is it possible that this whole passel of reporters and editors and fact checkers and publishers has never heard of von Munchausen? Not one of them?

Richard Aubrey says:

I would suggest that a conservative, reading Erdely’s draft and seeing references to “tan” “blond” “buff” would see the red flags indicating a prejudice. Those are ordinarily meaningless descriptors and add to an atmosphere. In the SJW business, they’re indicators of evil. The other non-facts everybody involved in the story pretended to believe–and might have believed–would only have been retailed by those who stupidly believed, or hoped to get others to believe. A conservative, not having swallowed the war on women, one in five and so forth, would neither have been motivated to believe, nor to sell despite not believing. “Have you ever SEEN a beer bottle broken, Mr. Editor?” Of course he has, and this might have brought him back, grudgingly, from the promised land. Apparently nobody working there asked…. That, I don’t really get.

“How could this happen?”

It’s happening the same way that decades of outrageous claims about domestic violence against women have appeared in newspapers, congressional documents, law reviews, etc. For analysis with data:

This colossal media failure is directly related to the rise of mass incarceration in the U.S. For analysis with data:


I visited that website with interest, but was concerned that there were no named authors. The “coordinators” of the collective behind the website use pseudonyms. I have no idea of the credentials (or lack thereof) and backgrounds of those behind the website. As well, the design choice of punctuating scholarly-seeming articles with mugshots of identified persons was strange and off-putting.

Mike Buckland says:

My take is slightly different. I think that RS knew there could be problems with the story. But you’re looking at it as a journalism piece. They saw the work as an act of advocacy. And advocacy can be much freer with the facts than journalism.

When do people check the details of a company saying their product is “30% faster than the competition”? Or who gives detail scrutiny to “My opponent voted to cut social security 3 times”? Two Pinocchio’s awarded in a few weeks just isn’t much of a deterrent.

Sure the advocacy in question dealt with some flakey chick in Charlottesville, a bunch of white frat boys, and a few self righteous administrators harrumphing on cue. But they were just details; barely human foils that gave the frame of reference to tell a story.

Advocacy is rarely believed completely by the public. The RS story was designed to blur the line in such a way that the advocacy would get less detailed checking than journalism but be more believable than most advocacy. Fail on both counts.

Prof Rosen,

I do not often agree with you, but for what it is worth, well done and off to fight another day.

Brief disclaimer, I wish the journalistic community could find this much zeal in examining … I don’t know … how the housing bubble blew up in our faces with doubling real estate values and flat wages but that’s neither here nor there.

Jay, you are dead-solid perfect pointing out that the story’s original sin was editor’s a prior conclusions in search of reporting. As a journalist, I always ran into trouble when the conclusion started with the assignment and was not reached through reporting. Throw in the over-reliance on anecdotal ledes and and it becomes a clusterdoodle in a hurry. The crucial element becomes the anecdote rather than the reporting (in daily newspapers, it’s typically for anchoring art).Do we really need an anecdotal lede on a rape story? I don’t think so. It’s hardly an abstract concept. Dramatic? Yes. Abstract, No.

Also The Stone’s initial retraction earned Will Dana a hot place in one of Dante’s higher-numbered circles. A pretty important fact gets lost in all this recrimination: We still don’t know if Jackie was raped. All we know is that as journalists we would not have used her as an anecdote because we don’t ahve the resources or subpoena power to further investigate the facts of this case. The Stone tried to break the other way when they realized Jackie’s story had problems and threw her under the steam roller of public opinion. If she were gang raped once the Stone decided to let it happen again worldwide, 24/7. And they did it to save their own back sides.

“We were wrong to trust Jackie,” is such a pissant way out. You are declaring war on a one of the country’s top 15 universities, with a GDP-sized endowment, an army of lawyers, a powerful alumni and the ghost of Thomas Jefferson. You don’t trust your mother wishing you a happy birthday with this piece. It has the ME’s undivided attention for hours before it runs. Any first-day reporter at the Podunk Planet knows a story changes with the next source. Dana doesn’t get the “Golly-Beave” defense. He showed a galactic degree of gall suggesting his bad judgment was Jackie’s fault. Excuse the caps but JACKIE ISN’T THE EDITOR! YOU ARE, WILL DANA!
Thank you and have a nice day.

Tony Guerra says:

Rolling Stone, at heart a music tabloid, was way out of its element here — at least with the editorial and reportorial staff cited in the Columbia J-School report. For me, three words come immediately to mind in describing this mess entirely of the magazine’s own making: “yellow journalism” and “muckraking.”

Sure, we can pretty this up with phrases such as “narrative journalism” and “the profession of journalism” (I’ve always thought it more a craft than a profession, quite honestly) but what we saw in this debacle was classic muckraking yellow journalism, pure and simple.

What’s that old saying about ducks? Oh, yes: “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it must be a duck.”

Jann Wenner, RS publisher? Drake. Will Dana? Ditto. Sabrina Rubin Erdely? Mallard. Coco McPherson — charged with heading up the fact-checking activities surrounding the Erdely piece? Mallard, and a compliant, obsequious one at that. Sean Woods, Erdely’s primary editor and the filter who should have immediately caught all this dreck and dross Erdely was pushing? Big Drake. Hey, maybe he should go into rap music, what with that appellation hanging around his neck like a millstone. He’s certainly not proving himself capable when it comes to the whole editing thing.

Bottom line? If you go off in search of “facts” to support your preconceived notions, all to explicate the “narrative” you fervently wish to push — as is evident with the cabal that foisted this story on the Rolling Stone readership — you’re no better than Lincoln Steffens or Ida Tarbell or other famous muckraking journalists from that sensationalist (some would say, fabulist) era.

Richard Aubrey says:


Back in the day, I was taught that Steffens and Tarbell got it right. If so, that would be a difference. I am not sure anybody was in a position to “catch” this dreck.

It looks very much like the sent Erdely out to get a pile of dreck. Wherever she had to go. IOW, they knew it was dreck from the get-go, but it fit the narrative.

That was the important thing.

MJ Anderson says:

Thanks for making one of the few sensible comments on this scandal that I have seen. Somehow, the emphasis has not been what it should be: the utter desertion by Rolling Stone from any semblance of sound journalistic practice. I cannot criticize the Columbia report for not doing what it did not set out to do. But how Rolling Stone can weasel, and, worst yet, hold no one responsible by dismissing everyone involved — well, God save American journalism.

From point #6:

Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.

Idea: Maybe “a single, emblematic college rape case” does not exist. Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start. Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.

Fair enough as far as it goes, Jackie turns out not to have been emblematic. Nevertheless the underlying questions persist about whether such conditions actually exist to be emblematized in the first place:

— Is it true that college rape is prevalent?
— Is it true that there is a pervasive culture of sexual harassment on campus?
— Is it true that rapes more likely to take place on Fraternity Row than elsewhere on campus?
— Is there actually more rape now? Or do women now feel more empowered to complain about the same behavior that they used to feel ashamed into keeping quiet about? Or is behavior that used to be disapproved of as merely crass or caddish now being reclassified as criminally coercive and violent?

In this thread, Mayhill Fowler has noted a “national hysteria” over campus rape; J picks up on an innuendo that if a conservative disagrees with feminist politics he is “naturally pro-rape” or “anti-believing-women”; Richard Aubrey uses the pejorative “SJW” (Social Justice Warrior) to refer to prejudice against buff, blond, white Greeks

Aubrey seems to imply that any criticism of fraternity culture is groundless: it does not amount to a political analysis of bad behavior; rather political animus against acceptable behavior.

Presumably, if it is a reclassification of sexual behavior has taken place — rather than an increase in its violence — and an accompanying liberation from the stigma of complaining about it, such a change occurred because of political pressure from feminists. If so, does that reclassification legitimately help to protect women from abuse? Or is there any legitimacy to criticizing it as mere Bluestockingism — a punitive attempt to criminalize behavior that is nothing more than boorish?

I will post this here from my post on CommonDreams because it agrees with and covers similar ground as Andrew.

= copy (with a couple of changes) ::

For shortness I will limit this to point #6 because I believe that is where your criticism of the story and understanding of the climate is most off track. And I am trying to keep this within comment size.

From Erdely’s notes – pulling apart a number of items in the quote showing assumptions:
1 searching for a single, emblematic college rape case
2 what it’s like to be on campus now
3 where not only is rape so prevalent
4 pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture

This by itself is so wrong it takes several articles covering crime statistics and the history and context of those various statistics. The rape numbers go from one in three women, to one in four, to one in five, to one in 19 to the large study released in December from the government which puts this offense in the less than one percent of the population (0.61% I think),

Items which need to be dealt with to establish foundation:
* Changing crime definitions and categories
* inconsistent police reporting (Uniform Crime Reporting)
* Separating on-campus, college-age, off-campus, community-wide versus whatever categories
* violent crime (all types of violent crime including rape) in the population is less than the supposed figures for rapes over all which should be a large flag
* be aware of rapes as a category anywhere, not just on campus

The very charged and highly contentious framing of a “rape culture” and of merging harassment with rape as if there were any sort of “culture” either in the general population or on campus or in frats is a problem from the start.

Basically the author and her editors assumed that there is a massive and unchecked epidemic of rapes and related offenses, in particular on college campuses. Then they went looking for it. And, Jay Rosen (otherwise always very excellent) would seem also to have bought into this categorization, at the very least, by not calling out the entire foundation for writing such stories, rather than merely examining the way a particular story was handled. The otherwise excellent investigative story into the story also makes this error of not questioning the entire foundation for the story.

The real epidemic, if it can be called that, is the epidemic of false stories. There are real real victims but this framing avoids the larger share of people, mostly women, who are true victims and directs almost all resources and attention to colleges.

Just to touch on the point of having good procedures in place. Yes and No. They had the standard procedures in place but seem not to have truly followed them. Even so, the regular journalistic practices of information from sources leaves the writer vulnerable to the wrong information. As we’ve said for decades in the IT biz, GIGO (garbage in garbage out) and the numbers as well as various “study” methodologies don’t pass muster.

In other words you need to have a solid understanding from your own level of expertise before writing a word and that mean you really need to understand where the numbers are coming from and how to evaluate them. Most journalists seem to be avoiding the hard STEM courses or experience in quantitative evaluation. If so, over the last couple of decades we would not be seeing this kind of fiasco.

Seems you have missed a more basic question,
can the press/journalism/civic journalism be trusted to honestly facilitate this discussion.

my take is no.

Stephen Green says:

Charles Dudley Warner said this of lies: “People always overdo the matter when they attempt deception”. Jackie longed for a boy (Ryan, real name) whose love went unrequited; Jackie dreamed up a scheme of convoluted pity; gave her nemesis a great name, “Haven Monahan” (you hear this, Nicholas Sparks! She stole your thunder); Sabina latched onto the feverish maelstrom like a shark’s teeth to a baby seal; and Rolling Stone in all of its liberal fury regurgitated it in pursuit of self-satisfying smug profit. ’nuff said.

Richard Aubrey says:


You missed my point. It was in the context of what a conservative could have brought to the process. A conservative, seeing the descriptors “blond”, “buff”, “tan” would have known it was SJW code for “you should already hate these guys, facts, if any, to follow.”
That would, presumably, alert somebody to be more cautious about the rest of the story. But only a conservative would, 1, notice it, or, 2, not think it was a dandy idea.

The answer to your last question is a qualified “yes”. In addition to criminalizing boorish behavior, it intends to criminalize normal not-boorish behavior. Microaggressions come to mind. Given the current no-process process for so-called “rape” accusations (regret is rape, said a feminist dean), is there any obstacle to running a man accused of microagressions through the marsupial mess?

@Aubrey —

I do think it would have been prudent of you to add the following proviso:

This does not mean to say that being “blond, buff, tan, and Greek” is, by itself, a definitive defense against allegations of wrongdoing.

What possible reason did RS have for asking for such a report? Most news and opinion outlets faced with issues of this kind investigate them internally and, presumably, report only those investigations that meet internal standards for being published.

I am inclined to applaud RS’s seeking an outside investigation.

I am just cynical enough to believe that the apparent lack of journalistic focus on RS’s seeking an outside evaluation comes from the hope that such a procedure not set a precedent for other news and opinion organizations. Am I wrong?

The argument that economics governed the decision to publish is difficult to fathom. The lawsuits likely to result from this, each raising the issue of RS’s failures no matter what their outcomes, strike me as likely to make this a very un-economic publishing decision.

The precedent already has been set. RS is far from the first to seek outside review. Just recently, The New Republic had an outside reviewer look at its long-term handling of the topic of race, for example. Farther back, CBS had outside reviewers in the Rathergate case.

Richard Aubrey says:


It is possible that RS, being in part its own cocoon and being in a cocoon of individuals and institutions like itself, actually thought they could get away with it. It never occurred to them that anybody, anybody with any clout, would be the wiser and so they did not have to fear, among other things, costly lawsuits.

The alternative is, imo, scarier if you think you’re dealing with competent adults; they actually believed that stuff.

Because I watch how media is reacting to this story, I transcribed every question asked of Steve Coll & Sheila Coronel during their press conference to discuss the report. Certain themes are repeated, such as asking about blame or asking them to comment on who should be fired. I thought Coll & Coronel handled the questions very well.

Steve Ross says:

One thing seems to be missing from the report and this fine commentary: What about the hundreds, even thousands of newspapers and broadcast outlets that repeated the Rolling Stone story uncritically? I’m an RS fan and an Erdely fan, and I worried plenty about my three daughters when they were in college, but within hours after reading the story, I was responding to friends by saying a one-source (anonymous!), 9000-word story just isn’t credible. The earliest detailed blog comments started coming out about a week after the story appeared — Richard Bradley (who had been fooled by Glass) was particularly memorable. Was the Washington Post the first “main stream” newspaper to undertake an investigation? WP started reporting a few days after Bradley’s essay, and published Dec 5.

Tim Schmoyer says:

Excellent point! And … how many of those uncritical stories are, unlike at Rolling Stone, still live on the web? Do they have a correction or some other notice updating the status of the story? Just “news” articles or Opinion/Analysis as well?

A lot of them don’t even have the staff necessary to edit their own stories adequately, let alone those they get from an external source.

Richard Aubrey says:

Steve Ross.

Good point. Will those other outlets correct/apologize/explain? Will they not think it necessary? Want to avoid the subject? Figure that RS’ comedown serves to fix things? Take RS off their rolodex?

Richard Aubrey says:

As my brother used to say when somebody was getting too prolix about something or other, “all that you say is true, except in the south”
That was fun.

Now I’m going to do something of the sort:

“In the larger sense….”

Is RS RS, or is RS a journalistic outlet? Is RS sui generis or is it related to the world of journalism?

And if your answer is that RS is sui generis, what proportion of the news-consuming culture think the same? Keep in mind that we’re not talking, here, about the RS story about pop music or drugs, or whatever their market pays for. We’re talking about practically every news consumer in the US, whether they’ve ever cracked a page of RS or not. In other words, does this, in the minds of many news consumers, bleed over to other outlets?

You’re not going to be allowed to dominate this thread and post a huge percentage of the comments on it, as you regularly try to do. I will start killing your posts. I am letting you know now.

“15. It’s almost like, if you have credibility you don’t need proof.”

There is nothing whatever absurd about this statement. The entire feminist system which pervades the current media culture is based on the idea that feminists have no need of proof when they opine about sexual violence, or patriarchy or anything else. They have “Credibility” based simply and solely on their feminist credentials (i.e., female and leftist). Those who disagree with their narrative will be marginalized if not destroyed outright for any failure to acknowledge and accept the feminist narrative. The article from R.S. was never designed to be anything more than an illustration of the feminist narrative of “men are bad, male institutions are worse and women are perpetual victims”. Look at the authors own words, she wanted to show that women on collage campuses are nothing more than grist for the “Rape Culture” mill and once they are victimized by the rapists they will be victimized again by the Collages and the Patriarchal system it is a part of. Imagine if the University and the Fraternity had been unable to so easily disprove the details of the “Victim’s” story? What greater level of damage might this story have done?

The collapse of this story might do us all a service by shedding new light on the lies and obfuscations which so pervade the feminist agenda in this country. Women who have suffered real sexual violence need help and understanding and our society need real information. The lies and propaganda of those who view the accumulation of political power by feminist organizations and individuals as worthy of any measures do a disservice to both society and to women

Yet there is no doubt that it is feminist activism that can take the credit for removing the shame and the stigma that had previously prevented those “women who have suffered real sexual violence” from forthrightly reporting rapes.

In as much as those women receive more “help and understanding” now than they used to, for that we must give the credit to feminists.

There is nothing wrong with the accumulation of political power by feminist organizations if it enables them, as a consequence, to redress the wrongs of sexism — one of which is rape.

Tim Schmoyer says:

Worth a listen?

Sexual Assault At UVA
Sabrina Rubin Erdely Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone
“put [Jackie’s] story through the wringer best as I could.”
“I checked every aspect that I could.”
“I can tell you that her — the story that she told from that night on to all of her friends has been very consistent.”

Tim Schmoyer says:

The Grave Mishandling of Campus Rape
The Brian Lehrer Show
Sabrina Rubin Erdely
Starts at 1:28

B. Douglas says:

Jay Rosen:

Your excellent commentary probes the bigger picture that the Columbia J-School investigation never examined.

May I add that proper attention to the little picture — i.e., the fine details — could also have red-flagged Rolling Stone’s bogus rape story before it ever saw print.

Like a pinhole in a racing tire, the smallest flaw can undermine the biggest initiative. For instance, Dan Rather’s investigative report on George W’s National Guard service was debunked by a blogger who recognized that 1970s typewriters seldom produced superscript.

Likewise, the Rolling Stone rape story could have been sidetracked by a copy editor with a logical mind and a functioning BS-ometer.

What shouldn’t have passed the smell test are lines like “sending them both crashing through a low glass table” and “sharp shards digging into her back.”

Say WHAT?? Has no one at Rolling Stone ever stepped on broken glass? One tiny piece in the foot can produce agonizing results; several shards in the back could produce serious injury, perhaps even leading to death. (At the very least they would produce scars — but did Erdely ever ask to see Jackie’s back?)

Moreover, how many frat boys, sex-charged or not, would voluntarily thrust their own naked bodies atop broken glass, even with a compromised female in between?

In short, while it’s perfectly appropriate to ponder big questions like “How could this happen?” and “What could have been prevented it,” let’s not forget that a single dubious detail could have tipped off an eagle-eyed editor.

The shattered glass table has always seemed to me like such a bizarre detail. If they could somehow suppress doubts about that, they could somehow suppress doubts about anything.

David Boardman, Dean of Temple University’s school of media and communication, previously, Executive Editor and Senior Vice President of The Seattle Times:

“The lack of internal accountability at Rolling Stone for this story is stunning. And one of the key elements that explains that is at the very beginning of the Columbia report when Sabrina Erdely contacts Emily Renda at the University of Virginia. It’s very clear that Erdely and the editors at Rolling Stone had a narrative already framed, and they were looking for characters to fill that narrative.

Even though they had several cases, many of which were documented and verifiable, they were married to the case of Jackie because it fit their predetermined narrative best.”

Richard Bradley has a good breakdown at his blog as well.

“…It can’t work. That way of going about things: start with a trend that is kinda known, find a ‘holy shit!’ story that no one’s heard yet to anchor it as ’emblem of…’ then invest and invest until sunk costs force you to run something…”

Jay — I think you have hit the nail on the head here. Consider the difference between emblematic and symptomatic: a Holy Shit headline grabber must, by definition, be atypical, and therefore not illustrate the underlying trend. By definition, it must be misleading (even if it happens to be true). So, the lack of truth, in this instance, turns out to be beside the point.

Tim Schmoyer says:

Thank you MPN and Jat for the above exchange. Very thoughtful and helpful explanation of the issues with “emblematic” and ROI in journalism.

I am curious where the Steffens model fits and relates to the Erdely/RS approach? If the goal was to “destroy the facts” about sexual assault on college campuses by fact-shaming sexual assault on campus into the dustbin of history, how would you have explained to Erdely what her assignment was and how you expected her to approach it?

May I offer another lesson investigative reporters might take away from this debacle? This is to avoid the danger, amounting almost to a fallacy, in treating a source’s mere consistency in retelling a story as a sign of credibility.

I’ve written in more detail about this at: