A Journalistic Failure

Rolling Stone Russia. Moscow, October 2012.

Rolling Stone may very well lose some of the honor it’s earned over the decades. From Annie Leibovitz’s photography to Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism to Michael Hastings’s story that brought down a top US general in Afghanistan, the publication has commanded a presence not just in the world of magazines, but in Americana at large. Its early history of cutting edge music coverage, mixed with political seriousness, made for a venue any writer would have killed to gain entry to.

As of late, Rolling Stone’s light had been fading. Music and culture coverage is all over the Internet. It briefly lost one of its most prominent political voices, Matt Taibbi, to First Look Media, who then returned to Rolling Stone under a shroud of unease. The special blend of political aggression and the chronicle of rock n’ roll is now more associated with Vice Media’s various ventures than with the pages of Rolling Stone.

But the magazine got a needed bolt of lightning: A shocking story about a woman, Jackie, who claimed she was gang raped at the University of Virginia at a fraternity, a blistering tale of how the university failed to protect a student. As a result, UVA administrators were scrambling to manage the media fallout. The university halted fraternity activity. The writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was on the radio and in public doing interviews. A protest movement against rape grew more militant and vocal. Rolling Stone was back in the game.

Then the magazine dropped a bombshell. Managing editor Will Dana said in a note to readers, “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.”

How could a magazine, renowned for its fact checking and due diligence, get something so wrong in an incendiary cover piece, where the onus is the reporter and publication to have everything spotlessly factual? To take a phrase from Ronald Reagan, when it comes to sources, journalists should trust, but also verify. The latter didn’t happen, but why? The key rests in this line from Dana: “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”

The glory days.
The glory days.

There it is: An anonymous source making heavy accusations that deliberately aren’t brought to other potential sources of information, a weak case for a cover story in a national magazine. The victims of her sloppy work are many. The university administration suffered unneeded headaches when their energies could have been used for other student needs. The fraternity structure might be a cesspool of patriarchal elitism, but no one should be wrongly accused of a crime, especially a serious one like gang rape. Erdely will surely drift out of the limelight she was just basking in. Rolling Stone’s eroding stature has crumbled further.

And now the public will look away with skepticism at any story or discussion about rape, on campus or otherwise, as result.

We’ve seen many frauds on the journalistic scene, from Stephen Glass to Jayson Blair to a fictionalized though believable fibber in the final season of The Wire. The motivations seem obvious. Inventing quotes, embellishing anecdotes and running with outrageous but unverified information comes from the drive for more commissions, promotions, book deals, media interviews and so forth. The editors blind themselves to the problems when their writers’ hard hitting stories get airtime on the news, fueling their lust for Pulitzer and Polk awards. But something else is afoot here, it seems.

Rolling Stone’s decision not to reach out to those Jackie accused out of “sensitivity” is a serious gamble and a break with the fact-checking procedure. Magazines and newspapers cover other sensitive issues that involve violence and retribution, like war, murder, torture and abuse. The editors haven’t been known to scrap protocol in, say, its coverage of America’s War on Terror. Rape is different.

Jann Wenner's President.
The anti-Bush. October 2008.

In the United States, officially, one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped, but some activists believe this is too conservative because it only accounts for those reported. Because many sexual assaults happen behind closed doors and without physical evidence, many rapists escape conviction. Other times, victims are too afraid or ashamed to report the incident. Our society, deeply rooted in gender inequality, is quick to blame a woman for her situation from every lame excuse to wearing sexy clothes to some iteration of “boys will be boys.” When people like director Roman Polanski are supported by Hollywood lions and lionesses, saying the rape accusations against him should be buried because of his contributions to cinema sends a clear message that a man’s professional accomplishments outweigh the safety and welfare of women. And Republican politicians add on with constant statements delegitimizing rape.

We know we have failed women in this regard, and instead of making substantive change or creating more education, we’ve opted for over-compensation as a solution. Surely we have to give Jackie the benefit of the doubt, because we know we’ve been implicated in silencing real victims in the past. We don’t need to try the accused, regardless of whether they did it: Our sureness in their guilt cleans our own conscious. Those on whom we pin the scarlet letter will carry the burden for the rapists who have, and will, inevitably, get away with it.

This pops up in other ways. Otherwise liberal voices who cherish the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” convert to right-wing crusaders perversely in the name of feminism, denouncing invocation of this American right as a hostile dismissal of the accuser’s claim. This is all the more disturbing given that this contributes to the over-criminalization of communities of color, especially when white women are the alleged victims. An example of this recently came up with a settlement in the Central Park Five case.

But sometimes those racial boundaries are transgressed, too. The overzealous prosecution of white Duke University lacrosse players on false accusations by an African-American woman famously led to the disbarment of the area’s chief prosecutor. Many men encounter a sharp rebuke when they tell their female peers to take precautions at night, with the usual line being that women shouldn’t have to, the onus is on men to behave themselves, even though the two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

Rolling Stone’s rush to throw all journalistic caution to the wind embodies this general need to shame the accused in a manner that smells not of a quest for genuine justice but to shield our own transgressions–after all, the magazine’s bread and butter comes from music coverage and advertising that is very often accused of promoting sexism, and even rape culture. The irony is that this seemingly corrective endeavor serves only ourselves and not the victims, or potential victims, of real crime. And it comes at the expense of people suffering questionable claims against their name, something they will live with forever even if they are ultimately vindicated. And in the case of Rolling Stone, it also comes at the expense of good journalism.


Photographs courtesy of Chelsea Marie Hicks, John Dyer, and C.C. Chapman. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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