Journalistic Blindspots Exposed at Rolling Stone and Beyond
April 13, 2015
Biased journalists view the world locked into paradigms dominated by their own preconceptions. Often, they and their editors select stories designed to confirm those narratives at the expense of the facts. This is pure punditry masked as reporting.
Take Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s “A Rape on Campus,” for example. The Rolling Stone magazine writer approached a former rape victim working at the University of Virginia “searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show ‘what it's like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there's this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,’” according to Erdely’s notes of her now-retracted story, which were obtained during an independent but solicited investigation by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
In other words, Erdely had decided that rape was occurring at these schools, that it was a pervasive cultural problem, and that it was her business to dramatize her preconceived narrative about this contentious subject. “As much casting director as journalist, she was looking for a single character with an emblematic story that would speak to—in her words—the ‘pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture’ on college campuses,” writes Jonathan Mahler of The New York Times.
“By the time Rolling Stone's editors assigned an article on campus sexual assault to Erdely in the spring of 2014, high-profilerape cases at Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Vanderbilt and Florida State had been in the headlines for months,” states the Columbia School report.
Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana appears to have come to the story with the same preconceptions.
“‘My original idea,’ Dana said, was ‘to look at one of these cases and have the story be more about the process of what happens when an assault is reported and the sort of issues it brings up,’” states the report.
The authors of that report called Erdely’s tactics what they were: “confirmation bias.” Mahler reports that Rolling Stone suffered from a “lack of skepticism.”
But those two phenomena are just symptoms of the underlying problem in journalism: the pursuit of a liberal political agenda. “Like ‘A Rape on Campus,’ [the Duke lacrosse rape allegations] was a story that seemed to conform to a lot of the public’s worst ideas about the behavior of privileged young men at elite colleges,” writes Mahler.
Even MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews questioned back in December whether this story would end up just like coverage of the Duke lacrosse players.
Erdely and the editors at Rolling Stone consistently ignored suspicious behavior by their source, such as her fantastic recall of details of the event itself, yet apparent unwillingness to corroborate key facts through additional people. Even her mother wouldn’t talk to them. “She also said that her mother would be willing to talk to Erdely, but the reporter said that when she called and left messages several times, the mother did not respond,” states the report. Jackie’s contact was sporadic, and she would stop responding for periods of time.
“Yet Rolling Stone's senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story's failure does not require them to change their editorial systems,” states the report. And yes, Erdely will continue with her work there. “Sabrina’s done great work for us over the years and we expect that to continue,” Dana told The Washington Post.
“Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience,”writes Erdely in her public apology. “I want to offer my deepest apologies: to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the U.V.A. community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.”
But, as Warner Todd Huston notes for Breitbart, members of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity which Erdely and Rolling Stone maligned, are not mentioned in her apology. Maybe they are just part of the “U.V.A. community” and don’t deserve special mention. To be fair, however, they are mentioned in Dana’s apology in the editor’s note that introduces the report.
Of course, the fraternity has also announced it will sue Rolling Stone because of this story, stating that it suffered “130 days of living under a cloud of suspicion as a result of reckless reporting by Rolling Stone Magazine,” according to The Washington Post.
Rolling Stone is a biased publication pursuing a political agenda, no doubt about it. Yet The New York Times itself is no stranger to similar problematic reporting.
AIM reported at length how the Times’ Matthew S. Schmidt based an entire news report covering Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi emails on anonymous administration sources who failed to provide him or the Times with the text of the emails for verification. Such reporting opens the Times to the possibility of the same type of errors as were made in covering Jackie’s story—the inability to corroborate basic facts and perform a paper’s journalistic duties to the public. All papers, not just Rolling Stone, should consider “A Rape on Campus” a much needed caution against this type of biased news.
This column was originally published at Accuracy in Media.