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April 7, 2015

Rolling Stone Retracts but Refuses Change

An independent report finds “lapses at every level of the magazine.”

Pop music rag Rolling Stone had a story to tell, and the writer and editors weren’t going to let pesky facts get in the way. That’s the sum total of the magazine’s University of Virginia fraternity gang rape feature story back in November. Police investigated and found no evidence to support the tall tale recounted by “Jackie,” the pseudonymous “victim.” This week comes Rolling Stone’s official retraction after an independent report revealed the extent of the magazine’s false journalism.

At the request of Rolling Stone, the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism conducted a review, and the ensuing 12,000-word report concluded what we and many others expected: There were “lapses in standard journalistic procedure at every level of the magazine during the reporting and editing of the story.”

Actually, “lapses” is not quite the right word; it’s more like willful deception. It wasn’t an accident, or a breakdown in protocols. It was all a lie. But it sold, as it was “hip” to illustrate a campus “rape culture” so emotionally. Evidently, Jackie’s story was just far too good to worry about checking the facts.

Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana responded to the report, “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. We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.”

What exactly went wrong? When writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely pressed Jackie to give key details involving the perpetrators of the “rape,” Jackie repeatedly dodged questions. No red flag. Erdely informed Jackie that she needed names, but Jackie refused to give her any. At one point, Erdely attempted to call and text Jackie for two weeks but never got a response, so after leaving a voicemail stating that she could use pseudonyms instead of real names, Jackie quickly called her back. No red flags. Jackie also mentioned to Erdely that she had talked to one of the perpetrators named Ryan, but informed Erdely he would not talk to reporters for fear of tearing down the fraternity. Apparently, this was satisfying enough for Erdely, as neither she nor anyone else attempted to contact Ryan. It turns out Jackie made up the whole line about talking to Ryan, but, hey, no red flags for the Rolling Stone editors, so why bother to consult anyone other than Jackie?

In essence, they kept rolling right through every caution light. But after all that there is no need to change anything? Normally, someone would be fired for this level of failure in reporting. Yet Rolling Stone’s mantra seems to be that Erdely tried but Jackie lied so no one on staff will be punished.

Rolling Stone did eventually retract the story on April 5 and Erdely apologized. But the accuracy and accountability of the story was missing, and the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, that faced “physical and reputational damage” is more than likely going to sue Rolling Stone.

What about University of Virginia President Theresa Sullivan? According to University of Tennessee law professor Glynn Reynolds (known as blogger “Instapundit”), “She essentially found the fraternity guilty based on a story in a music tabloid.” Worse, Reynolds said, “She hastily imposed a group punishment on the entire Greek system, and pretty much stood by while angry crowds mobbed and vandalized the fraternity house.”

Sullivan is angry with Rolling Stone, and rightfully so, but shouldn’t she at a minimum issue an apology? She found the frat boys guilty until proven innocent and hung them out to dry. To put it mildly, that was very poor judgment.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that Jackie lied the entire time Erdely questioned her, Erik Wemple, a Washington Post “fact checker,” had the audacity to identify Jackie as the number one victim of the false Rolling Stone exposé. He might want to check his “facts” again, because it seems very evident that the whole rape story would have never been told in the first place if she hadn’t lied. Instead of Jackie being the number one victim, she should be crowned as the number one liar. That’s not to discount the horrendous “journalism,” but really, the entire blame can’t just go to Rolling Stone.

Perhaps the lesson here is that Rolling Stone should stick to being a music tabloid. With revelations of this story, and with no sign from the editor that they intend to change anything, it will be interesting to see how they will cover serious things like presidential candidates for the next year and a half or so. One thing’s for sure: Every “fact” they publish will need independent checking.

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