Last Friday must have been a terrible day for everyone involved with Rolling Stone magazine. The venerable title – which I get delivered at home to this day – learned what it should have found out weeks earlier, that it’s most celebrated story in recent months was built on a lie, or, at the very least, a terrible memory.
The story concerned an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. A woman identified in the story only as Jackie said she went on a date but ended up in a frat house where seven men brutally raped her over the course of hours. It was a terrible and terrifying account.
It was also curious in a number of ways. The author of the piece made no attempt to contact the rapists, ostensibly because the victim said she worried about retaliation. It was unusual also in the level of brutality alleged and the reaction of the victim’s friends.
In retrospect, the story is built atop a mountain of red flags.
The Washington Post blasted a huge hole in the story last Friday when it reported that the frat referenced the story didn’t have a party the night the victim remembers a party, and that no one resembling her date that evening went to that frat. There were a number of other inconsistencies that together caused Rolling Stone to run a highly unusual retraction.
The story itself had an inordinately large impact. UVA’s president vowed changes to the school’s relations with frats. The frat mentioned in the story had been suspended. Lawmakers and colleges across the country called for a review of fraternities. …
And there is no question that there are excesses within the nation’s fraternity system. Sadly, one debunked story might very well hurt efforts for reform.
So what have we learned?
Ironically, it was the Washington Post that nabbed Rolling Stone. Readers with a long memory will remember Janet Cooke worked for the Post a generation ago. Her own fabricated story about an 8-year-old heroin addict brought years of infamy to the newspaper. Perhaps, the Post learned that lesson the hard way and that helped it uncover the truth in Virginia.
The mistake made at Rolling Stone is that the reporter trusted her main source because she had to. If she didn’t she had to find a different story. If you find yourself in that situation, it’s a recipe for trouble. Remember the adage, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out?” Sabrina Rubin Erdely did not check things out in her Rolling Stone piece and her career will never be the same. Fact-checkers, editors and lawyers who all vetted the story failed to make her find the accused and that is a big mistake.
Erdely did one thing right, or I should say she tried to do that one thing right. She tried to find a human story to illustrate a wider problem, and she attempted to use that tale as a lede in her story. That was the right approach. While she succeeded with the writing, she failed in the reporting. There is a lesson there for all of us.