To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Saturday, January 24, 2015

As Per Yemen’s Houthi Rebels, Where Would We All Be Without The BBC?

Houthis rebels on the move in Yemen
Completely in the dark, at least on the role that this group of rebels is playing in Yemen’s current political chaos. This week saw the ouster of Yemen’s President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi after Houthi rebels swept down from the mountainous north of the country late last year and gained control of the capital city of Sanaa. The instability has created a worrying power vacuum in Yemen, where the US maintains a significant drone program and American special forces are training Yemeni counter-terrorism units. Most authorities regard the Houthis themselves as a relatively insignificant force in terms of the wider War on Terror, though there are some indications the Houthis have Iranian backing and their anti Israel, anti Semitic rhetoric, however stock, isn't heartening to hear.  But many fear that the turmoil could lead to gains for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). 

At any rate, Friday morning’s BBC Newshour carried an interview between presenter Owen Bennett Jones and Middle East expert Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute (also known as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.)  

Among other things, the segment examined Yemen’s complicated political and tribal dynamics, which are made even more tangled by crosscutting religious sectarianism. 

At one point (37 minutes, 20 seconds into the hour) Bennett-Jones asked Henderson what percentage of the population are Houthis.  It was a small fraction, Henderson answered in clipped King’s English, adding somewhat wryly: 

Houthais are Zaidis who are almost Shias... but not all Zaidis are Houthis.

Still groggy, just sipping my first cup, Henderson's almost self-parodying precision made me chuckle. Well then, right…. Glad we got that one cleared up… I had been so confused.  

Sectarian differences in that part of the world can get pretty fine-grained. But you could almost hear some of the more exasperated---and bloodyminded---soldiers in the War on Terror screaming: "Bomb 'em all and let God sort 'em out!" Americans in particular don't have a taste for the nuance and complexity that an accurate assessment of a situation like Yemen demands. Recall Bush 43 had to have someone explain the difference between Shia and Sunni. 

Owen Bennett-Jones of the BBC

Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Rolling Stone UVA ‘Rape’ Hoax, Did Time Magazine Get Suckered Too?

It’s hard to imagine how the Rolling Stone UVA rape debacle could involve any more journalistic malfeasance than what’s been demonstrated by the reporter who wrote the story, the editors who shepherded it and the fact checkers who vetted it.

Yet Saturday’s Washington Post suggests that Time magazine also may have been remiss in some of the attention it paid to Rolling Stone's dubious "campus rape" story, specifically to the angry backlash the Rolling Stone story has fueled. The Post's T. Rees Shapiro, who who has led the Post’s on-the-ground reporting effort in Charlottesville that has revealed so much about the case that Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely had not, conducted an interview with author and rape activist Liz Seccuro. Seccuro had been a key source for the Rolling Stone piece and had gone to to bat for it in Time after skeptics began to attack it in early December. According to the interview, Seccuro not yet read the Rolling Stone piece when she defended it. The revelation suggests, without saying so directly, that Time got bamboozled too.

Seccuro, who was gang raped in 1984 at the same UVA frat as the undergraduate in the Rolling Stone piece and served as one of Erdely's main informants, told Shapiro that she has since developed doubts about the Rolling Stone piece. Her turnabout was prompted by "evidence appearing in news reports” which highlighted “inconsistencies in the magazine’s account,” as Shapiro put it. The reversal made Seccuro “the latest among a growing group of sexual assault survivors, U-Va. students and fraternity members to raise concerns about the Rolling Stone account." According to Seccuro:

I think it’s important, for a gang-rape survivor at U-Va. who was portrayed in this story, to say what was a red flag to me. I became frustrated in that I felt like the work of so many other people in the article went down the toilet.

The Post explains that Seccuro gave lengthy interviews to Rubin Erdely about her 1984 assault and the woeful response to that assault at the time on the part of UVA deans, establishing a culture of institutional indifference on UVA’s part that stretched back thirty years. As Seccuro told it, she also served as one of Rubin Erdely’s shadow advisors, helping to hook up the writer with other experts on college sexual assault. Describing an almost sisterly bond, Seccuro said she was on the phone with the author on the eve of the story’s publication. Seccuro was excited, sure that the piece “was going to rock the world and shake it to its core.”

Shapiro notes that in the face of early challenges to the article by bloggers like Richard Blow and columnists like the LAT’s Jonah Goldberg, Seccuro did some serious damage control on Rubin Erdley’s behalf.  In a Time Magazine essay that she published on December 4th, Seccuro wrote that

Like many Americans, I read the gruesome account of a gang rape at the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, as told by reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely in a recent issue of Rolling Stone. Unlike most people who read the article, I was not shocked by it.

The similarities between my experience and Jackie’s story are astounding because the culture has remained almost identical in the three decades separating our rapes. 

Seccuro urged readers not to doubt a rape survivor’s story just because the details sounded "horrific." False reporting of rape was very rare, she wrote, adding:

Those who make false accusations are despicable, and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But we cannot choose to disbelieve an account simply because it’s too awful to fathom. I am living proof — verified by the Virginia courts — that the horror is all too real.

Seccuro also told Shapiro that she now thinks Jackie might have cribbed details of her alleged Phi Psi gang rape from the 2011 memoir Seccuro published about her ordeal, Crash Into Me. The Post said that Seccuro “was struck by how her own story was ‘similar in so many, many ways,’ to Jackie’s account in Rolling Stone.” While she said she didn’t know whether Jackie’s story was influenced by her book, the “horrifying thought” had been suggested to her. Seeming to want to have it both ways, Seccuro declared:

I don’t want the attention to be on me. But there’s only been one documented gang rape at Phi Kappa Psi, and it’s mine, so do the math.”

Seccuro’s suggestion that Jackie plagiarized the details of her attack from Seccuro’s memoir echoes charges made by some caustic bloggers who noted similarities between details and imagery used in Rolling Stone's depiction of the gang rape scene and "Gone Girl," Ben Affleck's recent Hollywood movie. But the real bombshell in the Post interview was the revelation that as excited as Seccuro was about the piece’s impending publication---and as ardent as she was in its defense afterwards---when the story actually went live, Seccuro said she couldn’t find the will to read it.

“I decided I was not strong enough to read the entire article” she confessed to Shapiro, adding that she “had no reason to read it because I knew what was going to be in there.”

Seccuro told Shapiro however that when she did finally sit down to read the magazine in early December, she immediately spotted red flags in the narrative and “decided to take it apart with a fresh eye.” As the Post put it: 

Armed with a highlighter and pen, Seccuro began to circle, underline and annotate in the margins.

She highlighted the detail that the room where Jackie alleged she was attacked was pitch-black. She underlined a section that described how Jackie crashed through a low glass table, causing shards to cut into her back as the men raped her. In another section, Seccuro wrote in the margins: “Not possible.”

Seccuro’s change of opinion on the Rolling Stone piece and her explanation for that change very definitely suggests that she hadn’t yet actually read the piece when she used a platform given to her by Time magazine to bash early critics of the Rolling Stone piece. Many of those critics sensed, as Seccuro eventually would, that almost all the forensics involved in the description of Jackie’s assault were “not possible.”

Shots In The Dark blogger Richard Bradley, who has been aces on the Rolling Stone story from the get-go, has a slightly more ambiguous take on the question of whether Seccuro read the piece or not before publishing in Time. But like me, he senses disingenuousness on Seccuro's part, as well as blatant opportunism, explaining that   

If I had to guess—and I do—when things were going well for the (Rolling Stone) article, she was trying to piggyback on the positive publicity it was getting, particularly among women. Now that the article has been thoroughly discredited, she wants to get back on the right side of history.

Neither the Post nor Richard Bradley make it explicit, but it is hard not to conclude from Seccuro's about-face, as well as her explanation for it, that when Time Magazine gave her the green light they were giving it to someone who wasn’t telling them the truth and in turn told a lie to their readers. Essentially, she spoke with authority about something she had not really read and impugned the integrity of skeptical journalists who had in fact read it quite closely.

I was curious: Did the editors at Time have the same takeaway I had from the confession Seccuro made in the Post?  If so, how had Time magazine gone about letting someone write about a piece she hadn’t really read. Who brought Seccuro in, who edited her piece, and who fact checked it? And now that Seccuro has admitted she hadn’t actually read the Rolling Stone piece she so ardently defended, was Time going to run a correction, or append an editor’s note to the text online? If so, it might be kinda tough to get the wording right. I mean, what do you say: “The author told us she read the piece that she stood up for here but in fact she later admitted she had not really read it. We regret the fact that her defense it was basically bogus”? 

Repeated calls and emails to Ryan Sager, the deputy editor I was told handles guest contributions like Seccuro’s, were unreturned. So were outreach efforts to Liz Seccuro herself and to the many representatives listed on her contact page: a literary agent, a film agent, a freelance magazine agent, a speaker's bureau agent. 

I did get an auto reply from Seccuro’s literary agent that among other things explained that if I wanted to book “Liz” as a speaker for my institution or firm, I should get in touch with her speaker’s bureau guy. The email also noted that “Liz is not empowered to give legal or financial advice regarding individual cases.” Like the Time magazine piece she authored, this caveat seems to need a bit of amending too. To the list of things Liz Seccuro might not be “empowered” to give, add "journalistic criticism" as well as "second guessing." 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Being There: How Rolling Stone's UVA 'Rape Culture' Fiasco Makes The Case For Shoe Leather Reporting

As Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Rolling Stone campus rape story began its collapse in early December, critics and commentators sought to place blame for what could go down as one of American magazine journalism’s greatest train wrecks. 

Citing the “leading questions” that a UVA rape “survivor’ had described being asked by the Rolling Stone reporter, Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple said that Erdely had pursued her story with an “agenda.” Her bias was also communicated through a “proclivity to stereotype,” in this case, about what Rubin Erdely labelled “elitist fraternity culture.”

Likewise the blame assigned to “confirmation bias,” by former TNR science editor Judith Shulevtiz who described it in CJR, referencing the philosopher Karl Popper, who originated the term. 

“Confirmation bias,” Shulevitz explained, was the result of “our innate urge to see only evidence that confirms beliefs we hold to be self-evident, and dismiss facts that challenge those convictions.” Noting an early December Slate podcast interview conducted by Hannah Rosin that became critical to the story’s unraveling, Shulevitz continued:

Erdely told Rosin she’d gone all around the country looking for rape survivors and was delighted when she stumbled on Jackie. She was obviously traumatized, and her story illustrated everything Erdely knew to be true—that frat boys rape girls and universities are indifferent to rape survivors.

(She) based her story solely on Jackie’s version because she found her “credible.” Erdely’s editors found her “credible” too, so much so that they let Erdely waive the usual journalistic protocols, such as getting more than one source on a story about a horrible crime. And readers found Jackie credible because everyone knows that there’s an epidemic of rape on campuses around the country and women hardly ever level false rape charges, because why would they put themselves through that? 

As someone who has written quite extensively about media bias (two books, out of three) I’m quite open to these arguments, having documented the way that an overdetermined deference to the pieties of organized feminism has encouraged miscoverage of what turn out to be bogus allegations of sexual assault. Some of the examples I wrote about have a lot in common with the Rolling Stone campus rape disaster, such as the Duke lacrosse team rape case of 2006 as well as “The Women’s War," a 2007 Times Magazine report on sexual assault in the post 9-11 military. In that latter case, one of the alleged victims, a Navy seabee, claimed to have been raped while serving in Iraq when in fact she never even deployed there.

Still, as much as media bias is part of what brought the Rolling Stone piece low, the fundamental trouble with Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s reporting actually starts a bit closer to the ground. In fact, it stems to a large degree from the minimal amount of time she spent in Charlottesville itself conducting good-old fashioned, beat-the-bricks, knock-on-doors, face-to-face, shoe leather reporting. Legwork we used to call it.

Although it took months for her to establish UVA as her focus, Rubin Erdley spent exactly one weekend there---maybe as few as two nights in total---to put together a major investigative piece immersing us in UVA’s “culture of rape,” meeting her centerpiece source, Jackie, for the first and for the only time on that single weekend visit. Instead, Rubin Erdely relied on internet searches, telephone interviews, Skype, text, instant messaging, chat rooms, social media and other forms of “remote,” even “virtual” reporting with which we are all now so digitally smitten, especially those attracted to “Big Data” reporting, as Rubin Erdley admitted at a Temple University media studies event. 
No doubt these tools are essential for a magazine reporter, especially in a time of meager travel budgets. You certainly want to use them to maximum advantage, improving journalistic reach, access and penetration. But on overreliance on these reporting tools can open the door more readily to “confirmation bias” in a way that they wouldn’t if they had been balanced by face-to-face interaction. They also can make a reporter vulnerable to exaggeration and manipulation on the part of sources, and might encourage on-the ground efforts to become perfunctory or decorative.

Stories like this one---a complicated story where the human factor is so important, where trust and credibility between reporter and source plays such a critical role and is best established face-to-face, and where “place” has the power to shape a journalistic understanding of cultural context and to reveal human truths that you just can’t get electronically, cry out for "being there.” It's just too easy to get snowed, lied to or spun at a distance--- too easy for the "story line" to take over from the facts and for someone’s BS detector, even a “finely tuned” BS detector, as Rubin Erdely claims to have, to malfunction.

If Rubin Erdely was hamstrung by an overbearing deadline or a tight travel allowance, then Rolling Stone needs to think about being more generous, at least if it wants to stay in the business of serious investigative reporting. Stories like this need a real presence on the ground to get right.  


The timeline Rubin Erdely describes in the Rolling Stone piece itself, cross referenced with her Twitter feed (inactive since November 30 when controversy broke out) as well as the emails UVA released through Freedom of Information requests and some interviewing I did show that she flew from Philadelphia to Charlottesville on Thursday September 11. Among other things she met with some of her student sources at a popular Charlottesville coffee shop, went to a monthly meeting of the Board of Visitors that Friday, took a tour of frat row with a group of sexual assault “survivors,” later that Friday night. She also met in person with Jackie and another UVA rape survivor at a restaurant on the Corner, just outside off the university grounds, although it’s unclear whether that restaurant meeting was before or after the frat row tour.

According to Emily Renda, a young UVA administrator and rape "survivor" who introduced Rubin Erdely to Jackie and served as a fixer of sorts for the overall article, Renda met Erdely at a parking facility after she landed in Charlottesville and gave her directions to the coffee house. Renda told me Rubin Erdely stayed no longer than Sunday, and perhaps even left as early as Saturday. Renda also said that Rubin Erdely had not yet met her primary source for the piece, Jackie, until that point.

In the emails UVA released, Rubin Erdely seems to have planned another reporting trip but had to cancel it, informing the UVA PR rep on Monday September 15 that she would be “unable to return to campus this week” and would therefore have to conduct an interview with UVA president Theresa Sullivan by phone. The last scene in the piece references events occurring in “the third week of September,” in such a way as to suggest that Rubin Erdely was there for them herself. But at least one of those events---a report of the disappearance of the UVA student Hannah Graham who was later found slain---did not occur in that time frame but on the Saturday of the writer’s weekend visit  (September 11th-13th or September 14th). This suggests that she either wanted to create the impression of being in Charlottesville longer than she actually was or that her magazine made a fact-checking error. Given the overall slipshod way it checked the story’s other supposed “facts,” the latter is more likely. 

What this means is that for a major 9000 word investigative piece about UVA’s “culture of rape,” Rubin Erdely spent no more than 72 hours on the ground, maybe even as little as 48, during which she met her main source for the very first time, at least in the usual, pre-digital sense of “meeting” someone. Not exactly cultural immersion, whether it’s a “culture of rape” or any other subcultural phenomenon.  

It actually seems to be a magazine writers’ version of the old New York Times “toe-touch,” which was banned in the wake of Jayson Blair’s abuse of it. In the “toe touch,” a harried national correspondent would do all his or her reporting from a newsroom or a bureau desk then fly off to wherever he or she needed to be to be able to slap a “dateline” on the story. This gave the impression of “being there” in the place where news was happening when in reality the correspondent had spent only as much time on the ground that it took to get a return flight home, often never even leaving the airport. Rubin Erdley’s remote reporting methods stand in contrast to the legwork conducted by the team that Washington Post sent into the field. Among other acts of basic, elementary journalism, the Post, led by reporter Taylor Shapiro (T. Rees)  actually interviewed the three student “friends of Jackie’s” who allegedly saw her right after Jackie’s 2012 rape but who Rubin Erdley never actually located or spoke with.


In an interview she did with the Washington Post, Rubin Erdely has said she first “met” Jackie over the phone. Jackie, she said 

Was absolutely bursting to [her] story. I could not believe how it poured out of her in one long narrative. She spoke so fast, I hardly had a chance to ask her a question. She was dying to share it. 

Rubin Erdely says she then spent a long time putting Jackie’s story through the ringer, presumably by phone and by email, with Jackie and with other knowledgeable sources. According to Rubin Erdley, the story checked out. Since she only met Jackie for the first time on her one and only visit to Charlottesville, it’s safe to deduce that shortly after speaking with Jackie on the phone that first time, she did not hop a plane or drive to follow up in the flesh, as a more careful reporter might. 

Judging the veracity of rape victim testimony is more than scrutinizing the facts of "the story;” it’s body language, narrative progression, pacing, consistency, and a host of other subtle, subliminal cues that combine into what we call instinct or intuition. This is one reason why sex-crimes detectives don’t take reports from rape victims over the phone, beyond basic courtesy and sensitivity. As neuroscience has it, the face transmits far more data than the human voice; you are more certain to make a dependable decision on someone’s credibility if you can see and hear them instead of just the latter.

As many commentators and critics have noted, the forensic details of Jackie’s three-hour ordeal during which she said seven men raped her over the course of three hours, simply don’t pass “the straight face test,” in the words of one UVA law professor. If anything the torrential way in which Jackie first told the story would have made me suspicious, suggesting a certain exhibitionism (would you tell a stranger about your rape over the phone?) and of being overly practiced. 

If Rubin Erdely had actually had the chance to sit down with Jackie face to face to go over these details before she committed to using Jackie's story as her centerpiece, she might been more skeptical and found another case to lead her piece. She also might have been less reliant on Jackie in the backend of the piece as a central witness against UVA’s “institutional indifference.” So much of this supposed fecklessness is seen through Jackie’s point of view and rendered in her voice that once Jackie loses personal credibility on her own story, she loses credibility on the other stuff too, despite Rubin Erdley’s insistence that questions about Jackie’s story shouldn’t “sidetrack” the article’s “overarching point.” In fact the real point is that if Rubin Erdely had had a “sit down” with the girl at the front end of her reporting before her trust in her had solidified and before it became too complicated to find another touchstone, Rubin Erdley and Rolling Stone might have been spared a lot of pain.

Another thing to think about is that had Rubin Erdley spent more time on the ground engaged with the physicality of her story, she might have actually walked into the Phi Kappa Psi house itself and looked the frat’s composite photo, usually hanging in foyer or entry hallway of most fraternity houses in order to see whether the names Jackie provided her of her attackers matched up with names of members of the frat at the time Jackie said she was assaulted there. (These composites usually go back for several years, so finding a 2012 composite in the fall of 2014 isn't so difficult to imagine and could have given her the information that she could not find from the frat’s “outdated” contact sheet.”) It’s hard to say whether the composite photo would have had photographs of “Armpit” and “Blanket”---alleged frat members mentioned by nickname in the gang rape sequence--- but you never know. These frats don’t have security desks; if Rubin Erdely was uncomfortable identifying herself as a reporter, she could have walked in and pretended to be someone’s mother or hired a local male stringer. There are ways. And what better way for a writer to involve his or her reader than a description of journeying into the very belly of the beast?

Beyond helping to verify names of the Jackie's attackers, presumably within the bounds of the agreement that Rubin Erdely had made with Jackie not to rile them against her, time actually inside Phi Psi might have given her a more informed and less pejorative sense of fraternity culture. As described in the Slate podcast Rubin Erdely did, her understanding of frat dynamics is quite distant, cloistered really, making it easy for her to imagine a conspiracy of knowing silence among the brothers. Said Rubin Erdely in her Slate podcast:

I would speculate that life inside a frat house is a probably, you know, you have this kind of communal life where everybody is sort of sharing information…People are living lives closely with one another and it seems impossible to imagine that people didn't know about this.

More time on the ground, especially on a weekday, might have allowed Rubin Erdely to check the registrar’s office for proof that Jackie dropped out of an anthropology class she said she had shared with the attacker who experienced impotence and had to resort to a coke bottle. (My experience tells me you can get lucky with a clerk in person trying to get this information, but rarely so on the phone.) Also the time to actually attend a weekly meeting of UVA’s sexual assault survivor’s group, One Less, instead of reconstructing what those meeting are like courtesy of descriptions she received secondhand and doing so in such a way as to encourage the false notion that She Was There. (Carefully re-read this section; while it’s skillfully written to affect the impression she was there, in fact you can discern she was not.) Being at one of those meetings, which Erdely characterized as UVA’s “true secret society,” would have certainly been good for the “color and quotes” magazine writers live for as a way to establish immediacy. But it also could have opened Rubin Erdely's ears to the possibility that some of the victims in the UVA rape survivor network might be embellishing their stories, in the unavoidable way that groups of undergraduates engage in story-topping no matter what experiences they are sharing, and that these stories represented a recursive information loop that could have thrown Rubin Erdely’s efforts to confirm Jackie’ story off course.  (Renda told me the group meets every Monday; would it have been that hard for Rubin Erdely to extend her stay beyond the weekend?)

Additional ground time might have allowed her to get a better sense of “Stacy,” who the reporter seems to have been connected to courtesy of that “survivor” network.  According to Rubin Erdley, Stacy had brought a complaint to the university sexual misconduct board in the spring of 2014   against a male student who was allowed to remain on campus despite a guilty verdict and “pattern evidence” from two other women who said he had attacked them too. In Stacy’s account, the alleged assailant's wealthy family had threatened to sue her as well as individual UVA deans if they went forward with the complaint.

I found Rubin Erdely’s description of Stacy’s case suspect for a couple of reasons. The description of the assault Stacy said she experienced did not involve anywhere near the kind of vicious rape Jackie had endured but instead involved drunken groping, albeit with “digital penetration,” in a semiconscious haze of “too much whiskey,” which the Charlottesville DA’s office declined to prosecute. More significantly, the writer  references a nine-hour formal hearing into Stacy’s charges, but the hearing is rendered in a secondhand way, probably through Stacy, without specificity. Rubin Erdley also cites Stacy’s claims that the family of the accused interfered with the proceeding against him and threatened legal action against the accuser and the school’s deans without anybody else aside from Stacy confirming that this family harassment actually happened in the way Stacy said it did. 

Any nine-hour formal hearing is going to generate a hearing transcript, a copy of which the complainant and her representative would most likely have received. Would more time on the ground have offered Rubin Erdely the chance to obtain it? Passing such a document to a reporter is often fraught for a victim given the legal and administrative restrictions governing these procedures; at UVA it might actually represent an Honor Code violation. But if she actually met "Stacy" in person and spent enough time to gain her trust, Rubin Erdely might have gotten at least a peek at it. This would have at the very least put her and Rolling Stone’s fact checkers in a more informed position to absorb a very unambiguous email warning from UVA’s press rep that they had their facts wrong on Stacy's case, which they apparently simply dismissed.

More time in situ might also have helped the reporter find material to corobborate Stacy's allegation of the accused family’s interference---letters, email, phone logs. As it stands in the piece, we only have Stacy alluding to the family interference and lawsuit threats with no other attribution or documentation to back her up. How did Rubin Erdely confirm what Stacy had alleged?

To be sure, Rubin Erdley sees herself as someone who has high regard the value of first person reporting and for experience. Her website explains that 

For the sake of her articles Erdely has trekked thorough Tibet, watched an autopsy, joined a religious cult, visited maximum security prisons and once tried out to be a Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader.  

But the UVA regent who accused Rubin Erdely of an act of “drive by journalism” was actually being more literal than he might have imagined. Even the scenes she actually did experience first hand, the frat row tour for example, as well as the scene where she is having a meal with Jackie at a restaurant on The Corner, have a generic, guidebook feel to them. Until I started putting questions to people in the position to know whether she was actually there that night, I had suspicions she might have cribbed some of the on-scene details from YouTube videos, and had "been there" herself via Skype or FaceTime on a tablet or a smartphone but not in person. Maybe these scenes are rendered so superficially because she was just tired, packing too much in for what was, in effect, a pit stop. Parachute journalism--- the whole “get in, get what you came for and get out” involved in it---isn’t easy.


We’re all waiting now for the Columbia Journalism School to issue its report on the UVA rape fiasco, the J School having been given that assignment when Rolling Stone owner Jann Wenner gave up on his own “internal review” for reasons still undisclosed. According to a release from the office of J- School dean Steve Coll, Rolling Stone had asked Columbia to “conduct an independent review of the reporting and editorial decision making that led to the publication of its recent story on sexual violence at the University of Virginia.”  Coll later told the New York Times that he had been promised unfettered access to Rolling Stone’s staff and materials. “We are focusing on the editorial process but have the freedom to move in any direction along the way that we believe would be germane and of public interest,” Coll said.

This gives the impression that Rolling Stone will be opening its editorial books so to speak, and that Columbia will have access to all reportorial materials associated with the story. This presumably means all internal editorial communications, such as emails and memos between the writer and her editors and fact-checkers, as well as traffic between those editors and fact- checkers themselves bearing on what the writer was up to and whether or not they had a sense something might be wrong.  

It’ll be interesting to find out how much Rolling Stone has actually shared with Columbia, whether it is doing so in the spirit of legal “discovery” or whether it set protective limits, a likelihood given the defamation and libel suits that will surely follow. It also will be interesting to learn what Columbia learns of the decision-making involved in the construction of the story itself, which we’re told we will be able to read in articles Steve Coll and his teams will publish in Rolling Stone itself and on the magazine’s website. Even more intriguing, given the importance face-to-face interrogatories play in this kind of reporting, is the question of whether Rubin Erdely is a cooperating witness and whether Coll will be have direct access to her. Such face-to-face access will help move the inquiry beyond the paper and digital trail, which will make it easier to tell whether her journalistic malfeasance stemmed from simple negligence or active wrongdoing---i.e lying to her editors, misleading fact-checkers or somesuch. Now that's a deposition I'd pay money to watch. 

For now though I think it’s safe to say that if Columbia does get access to the tapes and transcripts of the interviews that Rubin Erdley conducted in the process of her reporting, most of those interviews will have been conducted on the phone or by email and not face-to-face. Let’s hope Columbia notices the crucial difference between these two different modes of assessing credibility and determining truth, as well as the role that this difference might have played in this particular journalistic debacle. If the rest of the journalism world takes it as a cautionary tale for the Internet age, so much the better. Tech-savvy reporters,  especially those in the iPhone generation, have come to take some new reporting tools for granted. We've forgotten that while they may extend our reach, it's what they actually grasp that is what's most important. They may make reporting easier, more convenient and less costly, but an overreliance on them at the expense of actually "being there" can make for an awful, and awfully expensive mess. Sometimes you have to reinvent the wheel.   

Friday, December 19, 2014

Sabrina Rubin Erdely, Rolling Stone’s UVA Rape Writer, Has A 'LOL’ LinkedIn Account

Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s LinkedIn page offers some inadvertent humor in light of the train wreck her article about the “rape culture” at UVA has produced for Rolling Stone.

The RS contributor sees herself as a “feature writer and tireless reporter” whose work has appeared in a long list of impressive national glossies, as well as "possibly some other publications that don’t come to mind right now.” She adds that she specializes “in narrative nonfiction, with a particular focus on crime, health & society -- and anything, it seems, that requires about a thousand interviews.” Her work, she also notes, “has won an armload of prestigious awards.” In conclusion, she declares “I love what I do." 

As the UVA rape story enters its second month of controversy, the LinkedIn lulz stand in stark contrast to the Rolling Stone’s editorial agony. The magazine has been to forced to launch an “internal review” into where it’s reporting, editing and fact checking procedures fell down, which follows two different “Note to Our Readers,” both of which left critics and readers growling. The first focused on “Jackie,” the victim, who was the primary focus of much of the RS account, explaining that “Our trust in her was misplaced." Amending the note after an uproar for “blaming the victim,” the magazine took responsibility for reporting errors, saying "These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie."

So far, even without the results of the internal review, there’s mounting evidence that Rubin Erdely failed to do the due diligence required to verify that the main character in her Rolling Stone article on campus rape at the university of Virginia was in fact assaulted by seven men at a frat party, or to verify that there even was a frat party to begin with. She also seems to have misrepresented what the friends who came to her aid after the rape said and did when she called them out in the middle of the night for help. In the article, Rubin Erdley portrays the three friends as being more worried about the social repercussions of helping the victim than in getting her to the hospital and alerting authorities.

 The Washington Post, the AP and others have all reported that Rubin Erdley seems to have fallen fatally short of her “1000 interviews” claim, and made an agreement with the alleged victim not to contact the “perpetrators” for their side of the story. And other news organizations have also reported that Rubin Erdley did not interview the three friends who she said came to the alleged victim just after the supposed attack, despite reconstructing their encounter and the conversation at its center for the article she wrote.

Such revelations give the pronounced impression that Rubin Erdley may have lied about her efforts to contact them and instead lazily relied on the alleged victim for a reconstruction of the post-attack encounter, which did not remotely happen as Rubin Erdely reported. As one of these students told the AP: "I couldn't help but notice that everything that the article said about me was incorrect.” One of the other students told CNN that "That whole entire conversation about debating the social price of reporting a rape, and any sort of detriment to a reputation that might come around from reporting a rape, absolutely never happened." This student added that the description of the victim standing barefoot in a bloody dress was at odds with what he saw firsthand: "I didn't notice any sort of physical injuries. I didn't notice a lack of shoes. I really didn't notice anything that was consistent with the physical description that was in the article."

The tone of the LinkedIn page, which manages to be glib and grandiose at the same time,  is noteworthy ---the many publications for whom she has written and "possibly some other publications that don't come to mind right now." In fact, it’s kinda bi-polar. Which is an adjective that certainly captures the ups and downs Rubin Erdley has experienced since her piece came online November 19 for the December 4th issue of RS. In the week immediately after her piece was published, Rubin Erdely was the toast of the national media, profiled by the Washington Post and booked as a guest on public radio, PBS and MSNBC.  The Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg, like Rubin Erdely a University of Pennsylvania alum, tweeted that “Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story on UVA’s culture of rape is astonishing. A superb reporting job.” 

But once critics like Worth editor Richard Bradley, who had once been rooked by infamous New Republic fabricator Stephen Glass when Bradley was editor of George magazine, began to poke holes in her reporting, Rubin Erdely became a media piƱata. The Washington Post was relentless, sending reporters into the field to speak to the subjects whom Rubin Erdley, it turns out, never did. The Post’s media reporter and its media critic added to the coverage which produced a string of devastating reports and commentary in the first half of December. PBS wound up appending a note to their Nov 21 interview with Rubin Erdely. Jeffery Goldberg, whose own badly sourced reporting on Iraq’s WMD in 2002 still haunts his credibility as the “official therapist” of the US-Israel special relationship, promptly tweeted that his “week’s biggest regret” was “praising that Rolling Stone piece.” Choosing to throw Rolling Stone under the bus and not his fellow alum even as he seems to have forgotten how fact-checkers at the New Yorker allowed his erroneous WMD reporting through the editorial gate, Goldberg added: “It never struck me that a magazine with fact-checkers on staff wouldn’t use them.“ Rubin Erdely retreated into a bunker, refusing to answer questions from journalists and even put her busy (and also boastful) Twitter feed to sleep.

Rubin Erdley’s LinkedIn account also cites the many journalistic awards the now disgraced writer has won. Among them is a 1993 “Rolling Stone College Journalism Award” for a profile of the “Christian rocker” Michelle Shocked.

What Rubin Erdley did not share however is she “borrowed” from other news organizations for the facts she “reported” in that story, which is also called “plagiarism” --- and that most of those “facts” in that award-winning story turned out to be bogus.

In a video clip of an October 2012 presentation she gave at her Ivy League alma mater, Rubin Erdley explained that she had missed a press conference Shocked had given and had “fused” her story together from other media sources. "I went to the library and pulled up tons of clips on her, borrowed whatever facts I could find. It turns out that those facts, which were in mainstream publications and magazines, were not actually factual. Which completely shocked me. I just assumed those were real and legit but they were not at all."

Erdley told her interviewer, RS contributing editor Anthony De Curtis, that Michelle Shocked’s husband at the time, the well-known music journalist Bart Bull called her up at home and stepped her through her errors. He did so less to scold her than to help her in a avuncular kind of way, she explained. “He had read the story and just about everything in the story was wrong," Rubin Erdley told De Curtis somewhat matter-of-factly.

Despite the factual inaccuracies of the profile, and its dubious methodology, which for the record entailed no interviews at all, Erdely took the RS award as a "sign from God" that she should be a journalist instead of a psychiatrist. She switched from pre med to major in English, graduating in 1994. She was immediately hired at Philadelphia magazine by Eliot Kaplan, another Penn alum, who is now head of “talent acquisition” at Hearst.   

Rolling Stone isn’t commenting right now about the UVA rape fiasco, or about Sabrina Rubin Erdely. I’m sure though that its editors now wish the magazine had noticed problems in her work long ago---and never gave her the award that she took as divine encouragement.  

Of course, a psychiatrist with a loose sense of the truth and a loose sense of professional ethics can do a lot of damage too. But it’s usually one patient at a time, and not anywhere near the broad damage that Rubin Erdley has wrecked on the reputations of a university, on a fraternity system, on nearly a dozen individuals who were defamed, slandered and libeled by this bit of “execrable” journalism, as the Washington Post has called it, and on the journalistic credibility of Rolling Stone, especially its rigorous fact-checking process.  

And that’s not even getting into the harm done to individuals and institutions at the center of Rubin Erdley’s other pieces for RS, as well as the ones she has written for well-known magazines such as The New Yorker, Philadelphia, Self and Cosmopolitan. Many of these pieces, which I’ve read over the last week or so, give off the same problematic odor as her dubious UVA rape story.  They are overreliant on anonymous sources who make outlandish claims and offer ringing quotes that are “too good to be true.” They’re also focused on traumatized victims who may become objects of solicitude or hypersensitivity for fact-checkers, if the fact-checkers were even allowed direct access to them, which in the case of UVA’s Jackie I’ll bet did not happen. I reached out to Philadelpha to see if they were planning an audit of the pieces Rubin Erdely did for them and was told they weren’t sure if they were planning on one but would get back to me. I spoke with Nicole Scott, the managing editor who said she was a Penn grad too, from the class of 2013. Penn grads seem to move up the ladder pretty quick.

The Rubin Erdely pieces I found troubling epitomize the very “radical chic” sensibility that Tom Wolfe, a Rolling Stone writer for some time, once satirized. These pieces take a sensational approach to the presumed moral and institutional failings of the Catholic Church, Christian evangelicals and the American military, with ideological feminism functioning as a pole star and filter, edged with ethnic snark and cultural prejudice.

The UVA story, for instance, is filled with what the cultural studies majors might refer to as Anti Wasp “hate signifiers,”  ---“dog whistles,” as ethnic guardians like Jeffrey Goldberg call them. Rubin Erdley describes ”the toned, tanned, overwhelmingly blonde” members of the UVA student body, as well as the university’s “aura of preppy success,” “old money” and “privilege.”  UVA is a place “where social status is paramount,” she writes, with the university’s “cherished Party culture” fusing “the decorum of the Southern aristocracy with binge drinking.”

Rubin Erdely has acknowledged that she had considered using other schools as her focus for an examination of campus “rape culture”---Harvard, Yale and her alma, Penn among them---“rape shopping,” it’s been called. But she chose UVa instead, a place where Scott McConnell of the American Conservative explains, “the perpetrators could unambiguously presented as white Christian males—a group which would likely be underrepresented at any other prestige college.” Indeed, you can say what you will about Penn, where the ethnic and religious composition of the student body is much, much different than UVA’s, but it’s hard to see anyone ever describing that school as “overwhelmingly blonde” or being Aryan Highball Heaven.  

Likewise the aroma exuded from “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex Crime Files,” a 2011 expose of the “secret” archives that the Philadelphia Archdiocese maintained on its clerical abusers and their victims. The piece, accompanied by an illustration of bloody Jesus on the cross, focused on a former Philadelphia altar boy who claimed that two priests and a Catholic schoolteacher “raped and sodomized” him when he was ten years old in 1998, “sometimes making him perform stripteases or getting him drunk on sacramental wine after Mass.”  Rubin Erdley based this piece on a grand jury report that was found to have at least 20 factual inaccuracies, and failed to acknowledge that every time the victim told his story he changed it, in the end  dropping the most lurid accusations at trial. As former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Ralph Cipriano reported in Newsweek, Rubin Erdley also failed to tell readers of the accuser’s extensive criminal record and history of drug abuse that impugned his credibility, and that every witness who police interviewed, including the boy’s mother, brother and former teacher, contradicted the boy’s account.

On TV, Bill Donahue of the Catholic League often comes across a bit under-medicated. But his letter of complaint to Rolling Stone that Erdely’s clerical sex abuse piece inspired was spot on, especially about the article’s conspiratorial tone. Wrote Donahue

As with any form of prejudice, there are staples that are commonly employed by bigoted writers. Anti- Catholics, for instance, like to play on the stereotype that the Church operates in secret, as a top-down organization, run by Rome. True to form, not including the title of Erdely’s piece, the term “secret” appears 16 times in her article… This is the kind of melodramatic language that is important to Erdely’s agenda; it invites the reader to think the worst about the Church.

And let’s not forget Rubin Erdely’s 1998 Philadelphia piece about a high end suburban prostitute, who has come to be known as the “Mainline Madam.” This yuppie hooker/mother, Rubin Erdley claimed, was bothered by the fact that some people thought prostitution was immoral. The hooker, Erica, Rubin Erdley explained, was “a devout Catholic who goes to church twice weekly and considers herself an exemplary human being with a strong sense of values.” Like many other rubin Erdley pieces, this one too has a central character who was given a pseudonym (“Erica”) and whose claims, particularly about the frequency of her mass-going, were difficult if not impossible to fact check. 

Some journalists are now speaking of Rubin Erdley in the same breath as Stephen Glass, the New Republic’s serial fabulist and fabricator who, incidentally, also wrote for Rolling Stone before scandal brought him down in 1998. Some think RS, which was lackluster in reviewing the work Glass had done for them, and even went so far as to hire him again for a 2003 piece on Canadian marijuana laws, might be experiencing karmic payback.

 In fact, Rubin Erdley was a classmate of Glass’s, who was the editor of the Penn student newspaper when Rubin wrote for it. In a Penn alumni magazine piece about Shattered Glass, the film made from that 1998 episode, Rubin Erdley said she had once regarded her fellow student journalist as an endearing if “pathetic weenie," but began to realize he was a “sociopathic creep.” 

I wonder whether Rubin Erdley doth protest too much about Glass. In fact, if she would ever respond to my efforts to contact her, I would have to ask whether Glass may have coached her in putting together the piece that won that 1993 RS student prize--the one she admits to plagiarizing and getting wrong--- just as her victim Jackie might have coached her in inventing so many of the fraudulent details in Rubin Erdley's most recent, and probably her last, Rolling Stone article. As they say, it’s hard to make all this up. But it gets a little easier when you have help. 

Interestingly, it seems that  Jackie might have employed some of Glass’s manipulative methods to establish the persona of “Haven Monahan,” the UVA upperclassman she told her three first-year friends was interested in her and who took her on the ill-fated date that ended in the frat house gang rape. According to the Washington Times, the numbers Jackie gave her friends for “Haven Monahan” were from online texting services, like Pinger, which make it easy to hide or invent an ID and scam the unsuspecting. It’s also possible that Jackie used Glass-like digital tricks to fabricate an email account for “Randall” the friend in the story who came to her aid that night in 2012, who Rubin Erdely said in her article refused to talk to her “out of loyalty to his own frat.” Jackie may have even employed dummy emails for the two other rape victims who were said to have also been attacked at the same frat as Jackie who Rubin Erdley claimed “chose not to speak to RS.” 

With RS staying mum about it’s “internal review,” we’ll have to wait to find out whether Jackie created any fake websites along the lines of the one that Stephen Glass used concocted for “Jukt Micronics,” which led to his downfall. We’ll also have to wait to see what what lessons RS may draw about the kind of writers it hires and the rigor of the editing and fact checking they get. For now though, it’s safe to say that one of the important lessons of writing a LinkedIn profile is to be careful what you brag about. Especially the number of interviews you routinely perform in the course of your award-winning work.