The Rolling Stone Retraction

Yesterday Rolling Stone formally retracted its now-notorious story about a gang rape that supposedly happened at a University of Virginia fraternity.  The retraction followed the release of a report by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism that concluded that the publication of the story in the first place was the product of a devastating series of failures by Rolling Stone, its reporter, and its editorial staff.

It’s to Rolling Stone‘s credit that it commissioned the CSJ report in the first place, but the report itself, and Rolling Stone‘s response to it, make me wonder whether I will ever fully credit one of its stories again.  The report documents a breakdown in basic journalism — relying primarily on one source, accepting stories at face value without sufficient fact-checking, failing to confirm quotes and facts with multiple sources, and allowing sensitivity for the alleged victim to trump the skepticism that should be an essential part of every reporter’s tool kit. It is a damning indictment of Rolling Stone‘s entire editorial process.

In response to the report, Rolling Stone‘s long-time publisher, Jann Wenner, said that the reporter who wrote the piece would continue to write for the magazine and that the managing editor of the magazine and the editor of the story itself would keep their jobs.  It’s a show of loyalty on Rolling Stone‘s part, I suppose, but it’s astonishing that people who utterly failed in the basics of reporting are not being fired for their role in a piece that ruined the magazine’s reputation for credible journalism — and, of course, maligned the University of Virginia, its fraternity system, and its students as well.

One other thing about Rolling Stone‘s response, as reported by the New York Times, seems a bit too pat:  the explanations for their failures, from the reporter to the editors, all come back to the notion that they wanted to be sensitive to the claimed rape victim.  I suspect that back story is a bit of a dodge.  I expect that someone along the line concluded that Rolling Stone had a sensational and sordid story in hand, and the basics of reporting were sacrificed in the rush to make a big splash.  It would have been nice if someone at Rolling Stone had admitted that sensationalism, too, played a role.

Black Eye For Reporting

When I was a student at the Ohio State University School of Journalism back in the ’70s, I bought a book called The Rolling Stone Guide To Journalism — or something similar.  It was a great collection of pieces authored by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and other terrific reporters in the ’60s and ’70s, when Rolling Stone was forging new frontiers in journalism.  I loved it, and I still have it.

How the mighty have fallen!  The apparent failure of the Rolling Stone piece about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia frat a devastating blow for journalism that hurts just about everyone involved — the University, the fraternity, other victims of sexual assault who want to tell their stories, and the credibility of the reporter and Rolling Stone itself.

Anyone who has ever been involved in the process of publishing a significant story — and a claim that frat pledges committed a heinous criminal act certainly qualifies — expects that such stories have been carefully vetted, scrutinized by lawyers, fact-checked to the smallest detail, and read, re-read, and considered top to bottom before going to press.  When the publisher itself says it has doubts about a story, as Rolling Stone did today, it gives journalism a black eye and hurts the cause of everyone who hopes to us the press to focus attention on injustice or wrongdoing.

I think Rolling Stone owes it to reporters and readers alike to explain how this article saw print, what fact-checking processes were followed, and where the systems failed. How in the world did this happen?  There’s a real story there.

The Steubenville Rape Case

If you Google “Steubenville” today, you’ll get hits on countless stories from around the world about Steubenville, Ohio.  Unfortunately for Steubenville — a depressed town in eastern Ohio — they aren’t positive stories.

The stories are about the verdicts in an awful rape case.  Two players on the Steubenville high school football team, the “Big Red,” were found guilty of raping an inebriated 16-year-old girl after an underage drinking party and then taking pictures of the victim.  The two players were sentenced to at least one year in juvenile prison, and one received another year for taking photos of the victim.

The Steubenville rape incident touched a lot of hot buttons.  Are prosecutors taking rape cases seriously and pursuing rapists as aggressively as they should?  Are high school sports stars in small town America treated like they are above the law?  How much underage drinking is going on in high schools?  How could young people be so desensitized that they would not only commit or witness a crime, but then post photos and tweet about it?   And the hot buttons continue to be pushed.  When a CNN journalist reported on the verdict yesterday and noted the emotional reaction of the defendants and the impact the verdict will have on their lives, she was castigated by some for being a “rape apologist.”

This is an ugly story all around, one that makes you sick to your stomach.  It’s a story that makes you think we need to restate, and return to, basic principles.  Rape is a crime, and rapists must be apprehended and punished.  Children need to learn concepts of basic human decency.  Star athletes must be held to the same standards of behavior of the rest of us.  Parents need to monitor their children’s activities.  And no one should be above the law.

Because It’s All About Him

Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s bizarre comments about rape a few days ago showed him to be ignorant.  His refusal to withdraw from the race despite being urged to do so by virtually every fellow Republican, from presidential candidate Mitt Romney on down, shows him to be an egotistical fool — in short, a hack politician.

Akin not only isn’t withdrawing, his campaign website seeks to raise $24,000 in 24 hours to “help Todd fight back against the party bosses.”   Huh?  This guy thinks he’s being unfairly railroaded by GOP leaders, as opposed to being asked to do the honorable thing and quit, so that the Missouri Senate campaign, or even the national campaign, won’t be sidetracked by continuing discussion of his idiotic comments?  (And who would possibly make a contribution in response to such an absurd appeal?)

Akin’s antics just reaffirm why so many of us instinctively despise and distrust career politicians.  We know that they will say and do just about anything to get elected, and the normal human reactions that spur many of our actions — reactions like shame, and embarrassment, for making absurd statements — don’t seem to affect them.  Like so many other politicians of both parties, Akin professes to stand for certain positions on the issues and depicts himself as a selfless public servant who just wanted to represent the people — but when those politicians say (or do) something so stupid that the only decent response is to withdraw or resign, the facade of public service is ripped away and the ugly, overwhelming narcissism and selfishness is exposed for all to see.

Todd Akin obviously could care less about his party, his positions on the issues, or his ability to be an effective legislator.  Instead, he cares only about himself.  If he doesn’t recognize reality and quit, I hope Missouri voters give him an historic drubbing come November.

Todd Akin, The Media, And The Weeding Out Process

Recently Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican Congressman who is the GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate seat in Missouri, sat down for an interview with a TV journalist.  During the course of questioning about his views on abortion, Akin — an ardent “pro-life” politician — made some creepy, disturbing comments about “legitimate” rape and his apparent belief that the female body can somehow “shut down” pregnancies that would otherwise result from such a rape.

Akin’s weird, benighted comments provoked a firestorm of criticism from people across the political spectrum.  It was heartening to see that both presidential candidates harshly criticized Akin’s statements, as did countless Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, and liberals.  And now there is, quite appropriately, enormous pressure on Akin to immediately withdraw from the race.

I mention this strange incident not to add my voice to the chorus of people condemning Akin’s views — although I’m happy to do so — but rather to make a broader point:  Akin’s situation demonstrates, yet again, why we should insist that our political candidates regularly sit down and answer questions from the press.  I’m sure Akin’s campaign ads, and carefully planned appearances, and speeches all depict him as a thoughtful, reasonable person well-suited to serving in the Senate.  It was only when he sat down for an interview, and had to give an honest response to an unscripted question, that his real views were exposed.  As a result, the media performed a real public service in weeding out someone who virtually everyone agrees is not fit for public office.

When politicians control the message, we don’t really learn much about who they are or what they believe.  I’m proud that the news media played a key role in giving us a more accurate picture of Todd Akin, and I wish that it had more of an opportunity to regularly play that role with everyone, from presidential candidates on down, who runs for public office.  And when candidates dodge the press, as so many of them do, we voters should hold them accountable for doing so.