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.
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 party.is 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.