So the Columbia Journalism review released their report on Rolling Stone’s sensational and false story of a gang rape at UVa. It’s very damning, showing that RS basically ignored red flags and any journalistic standards to get the story. They’re not going to fire anyone over it. But they insist that they feel really really bad for having slagged the reputation of a few dozen men, a fraternity and an entire university (one I am an alumnus of and retain an affection for).
So … yeah. No responsibility at all.
There are numerous good takes on this story, including Megan McArdle, Doug Mataconis and Conor Friedersdorf. But I want to spin out one little thread.
In politics, I often harp on about the process. I demand that the President go to Congress before going to war. I’m big on checks and balances. I’m vocal in my support for the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eight amendments. I support these things because I think that a good process will, more often that not, lead to a good result. If the President has to get the permission of Congress to go to war, he’s going to make sure he can make a case for it. We’ll still mess up (see Iraq) but it will minimize the mistakes.
By the same token, our civil liberties, in part, protect us from government error. Requiring that cops and prosecutors gather evidence and have a trial before a jury is not a guarantee of a just outcome. But it makes it a lot less likely that injustice will be done, that errors will be made.
Our system of civil liberties and checks and balances is not designed to produce “good government” (often defined as “big government”). It’s not designed to be efficient. An “efficient” government would jail people without trial and engage in whatever endeavors it thought necessary. No, the system is designed to keep mistakes to a minimum. As much as our government messes up, think how much more often they’d mess up without the Bill of Right and the Balance of Powers. The Constitutional process is about minimizing mistakes, even if that means results that are slower and less dramatic than some of us would like.
Almost all endeavors in life have their own set of checks and balances designed to minimized mistakes. Mine has the scientific method and peer review. Journalists minimize mistakes by confirming what details can be confirmed. They talk to as many sources as possible. They check the honesty of all sources. They apply common sense. It’s not perfect … but it does minimize the mistakes.
The CJR report make it clear that Rolling Stone ignored those checks and balances. They didn’t talk to Jackie’s friends. They made only a pro forma inquiry with the fraternity. They didn’t research her background. They did these things because they wanted the story to be true. They got so focused on the result — a sensational horrifying story about a culture of gang rape at a prestigious Southern university — that they said, “to hell with the process”.
Erdely’s statement focuses on her fear of retraumatizing Jackie, something that also comes up in the CJR report. But something less salutary also appears: the fear of losing a really good story. These things seem to have sort of gotten blended together, so that when problems emerged with the reporting, everyone involved at Rolling Stone was able to convince themselves to go forward anyway on the grounds that Jackie is a trauma victim and it’s dangerous to retraumatize her. Yet they don’t seem to have been worried about retraumatizing her by running her story in a national magazine.
Because most of my readers are not journalists, it seems worth noting that if this story had not fallen apart, it likely would have walked away with a National Magazine Award. It checks all the boxes: important social issue, beautiful writing, a vivid and gruesome event at its core, a heart-rending miscarriage of justice. When Jackie threatened to slip away, she was threatening to torpedo Rolling Stone’s major coup. There were certainly other stories that Erdely could have used instead, but less sensational stories that are more typical of campus rapes would not get the kind of readership or professional recognition that the magazine would earn for uncovering a clear-cut and horrific crime that the university had inexplicably failed to pursue.
That is the lesson here: RS became so focused on the goal and so fearful of not reaching that goal that they ignored the steps needed to get there. They pushed the process aside because the story (and the issue) were too important to be bothered with such mundane details as talking to the accused. They might have gotten it right anyway, by sheer luck. But bypassing the fact-checking process left open the possibility that they would be proved dramatically and disastrously wrong, as indeed they were.
This is something to keep in mind as we go forward on campus sexual violence. The Obama Administration has been pushing universities toward looser and looser standards of justice on campus sexual assault: requiring a “preponderance of evidence” standard, for example. There are numerous campuses where, had Jackie made this accusation to the University, the fraternity would have been disbanded and some members expelled. Indeed, there are at least two dozen men suing universities claiming they were railroaded.
The Rolling Stone debacle reminds us of just how badly wrong you can go when you focus on the goal of stopping campus sexual violence instead of the process of ferreting out the truth. Let’s not make the mistakes Rolling Stone made and seems indifferent to. Let’s look at their rush to judgement as something we shouldn’t do.