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

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On Rolling Stone UVA Rape Post-Mortem, Why Is Columbia Journalism School Taking So Long?

For those who still actually remember the great Rolling Stone UVA “campus rape” fiasco brought to us in late 2014 by prize-winning reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the wait for the Columbia Journalism School’s investigation into what went wrong there is growing a bit frustrating --- and puzzling.

Identifying the bad editorial decisions and poor reporting methods that led to this journalistic train wreck isn’t exactly a lay-up, but it’s not exactly on par with the challenges faced by the 911 Commission either.

In fact, it’s been two months now since Rolling Stone gave up on the internal review it spent several weeks telling media reporters it was conducting on its own and threw the ball to Columbia J School. In announcing the Columbia J School’s involvement, Rolling Stone owner Jann Wenner said J School Dean Steve Coll and Academic Affairs Dean Sheila Coronel, herself an much-acclaimed investigative reporter, would be leading the “independent review,” of the “editorial process” that led to the publication of the controversial story. At the time, Coll told the New York Times that Rolling Stone had promised unfettered access to its staff and materials, and that while they were going to focus on the “editorial process” he and his colleague had “the freedom to move in any direction along the way that we believe would be germane and of public interest.” The Times also noted that while Coll said he hoped to complete the review “as soon as possible,” he did not have “a firm deadline.”

Some cynics thought the hand-off was a savvy crisis management tool on the part of Rolling Stone, a way to stall for time so that sharp-knived media reporters might move on to other, newer things. But Steve Coll was too smart and had too good a reputation to get suckered into carrying Jann Wenner’s water, I remember thinking. 

As noted however, we're at the two month mark. And if the old Japanese adage that people tend to forget everything after two and half months holds here, Coll and his team will be publishing their findings just as everyone’s interest in the case, and the sense of urgency it produced, has dissipated. It’s not a matter of “justice delayed is justice denied.” The libel lawyers will certainly have their day in court, most likely a very lucrative one. But in terms of broader public interest, the window on that is closing, which is going to limit the attention the J School report receives and with that the “impact” it will have in terms of who is held accountable and what kind of accountability they will experience. The wait just works in Rolling Stone's favor. It’s hard to scream for heads to roll or other forms of professional sanction when everyone around you is scratching their own heads trying to recall what all the fuss was about-- or yawning because other things that just happened yesterday are just so much more interesting, principally because they just happened. 

I’ve been rubbernecking on the Rolling Stone UVA Rape story pretty hard--maybe too hard, perhaps indulging in schadenfreude to mask the unconscious dread I might have at the prospect, far-fetched though it is, of one day finding myself in the same position as Sabrina Rubin Erdely. But as a career-long magazine writer, I do also find it fascinating how much of a “perfect storm” this case represents--how much it seems to embody many of the less desirable tendencies in this end of the journalism business---the premium put on “narrative storyline” at the expense of inconvenient facts that might clutter or complicate it; the need to know what your story is before even getting your assignment (and your reporting allowance); the overreliance on digital reporting at the expense of spending time in the field, on the ground, doing the face-to-face reporting that used to be considered journalistically indispensable but is now regarded as merely decorative. I've discussed the ridiculously paltry time Sabrina Rubin Erdely spent in Charlottesville itself reporting her story---one weekend---with fellow professionals and with civilians alike, most of whom are quite struck when I bring it to their attention. But the only people who are not struck by it have been fellow media professionals, either because they've come to accept this lack of shoe leather reporting as a sad, if disturbing, sign of the times or because they actually don't think it matters, which is even more disturbing. 

I also find the Rolling Stone disaster so compelling for what it says about who gets recognized and who does not in the magazine writing biz. Sabrina Rubin Erdely may have been of the right ethnicity, and might have had the right Ivy League credentials. But after combing through her oeuvre, which reflects an annoying ideological predictability and may yet to be found holding other journalistic dishonesties on par with her UVA piece, I can’t help but think of her in terms other than the Emperor’s New Clothes. The fact that she won so many seemingly prestigious journalism awards seems to say less about her noteworthy talents than it says about the credulousness and cheap politics of the organizations  who bestowed those awards on her, which it should be noted, include Columbia J School itself in the form of the Dart Center Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma Rubin Erdely won in 2013. It’s also quite striking that Rubin Erdely’s piece is still up on the Rolling Stone website despite having been almost thoroughly debunked by reporters from the Washington Post, ABC News, CNN and others. The fact that the online version is now framed by an editorial note acknowledging that the piece's disputed status just doesn’t justify leaving it up there for so long in such a wounded state. It may have been a bit premature of me to call for its removal back in early December on WNYC Brian Lehrer’s show. But for that piece to be still up there a full two months later, like bad meat hanging in a butcher’s window, is just contemptible. The piece is full of  misrepresentations, falsehoods and collective character assassination. Why would any publication pretending to be serious about its journalistic credibility and reputation leave a piece with those kind of issues up on its site?    

Coll and team have been maintaining a tight seal on what they have found. But some facets of their investigative approach have leaked. They are, in fact, conducting face to face interviews with the principals involved at the magazine, and have taken these depositions, so to speak “at various locations,” as one source put it, meaning they’ve gone into the Rolling Stone offices to interview some of the subjects and have met with others up at Columbia or at neutral locations. Contrary to rumor, I’ve been told that Columbia has no complaint about RS level of cooperation, although it has been difficult to schedule interviews with editors and fact-checkers given the magazine twice-a-month closings. As for the sixty-four dollar question whether Sabrina Rubin Erdely is cooperating, no one will say, although if I were her lawyer, I certainly would not advise her to do so. No word either on whether Coll and Coronel have journeyed to UVA to re-report parts of the Rolling Stone piece purporting to document "institutional indifference"on the part of administrators, although some have argued this is "germane and of public interest." 

The real mystery left unexplained by Columbia’s slow delivery is what kind of deal Rubin Erdely, and presumably her editors, struck with “Jackie,” the article’s central source, for the use of her story about the fraternity gang rape she claimed to have suffered. According to the Washington Post, after giving Rubin Erdely extensive interviews, Jackie told the reporter that she had grown uncomfortable about the magazine using her story and would prefer not to be included in the piece. The Post said that the magazine only secured Jackie’s permission to do so by making an agreement that let Jackie “fact check” her own story. But the paper did not say if that fact-checking privilege extended to aspects of the article that involved more than what personally happened to Jackie in the fraternity bedroom that night, such as the experiences of other alleged assault victims or the purportedly callow, self-involved response of the three friends Jackie called for help that night. 

Columbia could be finding this question more involved to answer than it might seem, since it's always more time-consuming to figure out stupid than people generally think. This might help explain the delay in publishing the Columbia post-mortem, yet it won’t make that post-mortem any less dead-on-arrival if we have to wait much longer to read it. The quality of the report will most likely be very high, showing intelligence about the right questions to ask and diligence in answering them. If the case no longer holds public attention however, that report will be of academic interest only. Odd that the deans of such a prestigious journalism school wouldn't have set themselves a deadline. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this — it's weird how this debacle has fallen into the memory hole, apart from this astute follow-up, although I imagine it'll all go kablooey again when the slow-walked report finally lands.