The Columbia School of Journalism has rendered its verdict on Rolling Stone’s now utterly debunked “Rape on Campus” article that ran last November and they have concluded that the piece failed to meet the most basic standards of journalism.
The good news, for those who work at the increasingly irrelevant popular music and culture magazine, is that no one will actually lose their job; not the editor, not the fact-checkers, not even the writer of the disgraced piece, Sabrina Rubin Erdely.
The staff of Rolling Stone refuses to concede any fault beyond minor lapses in judgement. “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process,” said managing editor Will Dana in response to the Columbia report, “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.”
So it’s back to business as usual.
Allow me to offer some unsolicited advice to Rolling Stone and the journalistic community at large. Granted, I don’t have a degree from an Ivy League J-School but I think I know what ails their profession. The recurring pattern of journalistic embarrassments arises from—and it a pains me to use this term—a lack of diversity on staff; by which I mean, of course, ideological diversity. This abominable piece might never have been published if Rolling Stone had made some room on their staff for a conservative voice.
The problem with Erdely’s article is that it appealed to her confirmation bias. “Jackie,” the anonymous “victim” of a fraternity house gang rape that never happened, told Erdely a story which Erdely was inclined to believe because it reinforced her notions about typical rape scenarios. Erdely admitted that she had gone in search of a campus rape story, asking around for anyone who had been victimized and would consent to being the subject of an article. It was Erdely’s intention, in her own words, to demonstrate the “pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture” on college campuses. Lo and behold, she found what she was looking for.
Unfortunately for the brothers of Phi Kappa Psi, a story about a rape on campus was not, in and of itself, enough to satisfy Erdely’s hunger. According to Alex Pinkleton, a friend of “Jackie’s” and a victim advocate at the University of Virginia (UVA), “I just didn’t like that it seems like she [Erdely] was looking for a story that had to be in a fraternity.”
Had to be in a fraternity? Why? Would it have been any less horrific if it had happened, say, at a conference of College Democrats? No, but Rolling Stone would not have covered it if it had.
It should be noted here that Erdely had done at least two rape stories prior to “Jackie’s”—one concerning the US Navy and the other a Catholic parish in Philadelphia. No one at Rolling Stone apparently found it curious that Erdely stumbled upon festering rape scandals at the three institutions that together comprise the trifecta of left-wing hate objects—organized religion, the US military, and that bastion of male privilege, fraternities.
In “The Rape of Petty Officer Blumer,” Erdely’s modus operandi was essentially the same—she acted as a stenographer for a female sailor who claimed to have been raped. No corroboration needed or desired, thank you very much. Naval investigators say that Petty Officer Blumer’s account diverges from certain established facts in substantive ways. An investigator closed her case after having decided that she had “dreamed up” the rape. Blumer nonetheless insists that she was victimized by soldiers who gave her a “roofie” and had their way with her, which seems unlikely for several reasons, not least of which is that the toxicology report did not reveal any known date rape drug in her system. Whether or not she was raped, the fact remains that Sabrina Rubin Erdely made no inquiries with anyone involved with the investigation and accepted some of the alleged victim’s more dubious explanations at face value.
Her other questionable rape story concerned a certain “Billy Doe,” an adult man who claimed to have been raped at the age of eleven by two Catholic priests, then later by a Catholic school teacher. “Doe’s” story kept changing and one of his less believable versions involved being tied to the church altar and anally raped for five hours. “Doe” is, by the way, a convicted heroin transporter who has admitted that he was high on heroin and in a “semi-comatose state” when he made some of his claims to a diocesan social worker. The defendants in the “Doe” case are still appealing their convictions but many observers are calling it a “miscarriage of justice.”
The pattern set by the Blumer and “Doe” stories continued with “Jackie.” Healthy skepticism was put on hold. Erdely had so much faith in “Jackie’s” story that she even agreed not to contact the accused for their side of the story. She apparently didn’t think anything was fishy about a source who demanded anonymity and didn’t want anyone to take the most basic measures to corroborate her story. Erdely then submitted a gut-wrenching article to her editor who didn’t ask too many probing questions.
Neither did the fact-checking department, for Pete’s sake. The negligent party here is Coco McPherson, Rolling Stone’s chief fact-checker. From Columbia’s report: “McPherson read the final draft. This was a provocative, complex story heavily reliant on a single source. She said later that she had faith in everyone involved and didn’t see the need to raise any issues with the editors.”
She had faith in everyone involved. That’s code for “the story felt right.” It felt right because McPherson shared Erdely’s prejudices that fraternities are hives of sexual violence and Women Don’t Lie™.
Couldn’t they have gotten someone else to fact-check the piece? Someone who might, I don’t know, have checked some of the facts? I think a conservative might have done a better job of it, though not because conservatives don’t also suffer from confirmation bias. Everyone does. That being said, it doesn’t require a person with no blind spots at all to point out the holes in this story; it merely requires someone who doesn’t share the author’s.
Yet no one fitting that description could be found at Rolling Stone or most other publications for that matter—the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the New York Times, etc. And that’s the way they like it. The people who run big name media outlets, with few exceptions, have the same ideological bent. Holding all the most fashionable opinions is the price of admission to this hermetically sealed world. It actively resists change to the extent that even the embarrassing “Rape on Campus” debacle won’t precipitate a shakeup at Rolling Stone or even a reevaluation of policies and practices.