The independent report on Rolling Stone's discredited and retracted report, "A Rape on Campus," detailing a purported gang assault during a University of Virginia fraternity house party, tore the national magazine to shreds over its (mis)handling of the story.
The magazine commissioned the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to analyze the article, from its genesis to the reporting to the fact-checking to the editing to management oversight. The report, which at 13,000 words is longer than the original article (9,000 words) released in November 2014, detailed an astonishing number of lapses in judgment and reporting.
At the risk of oversimplifying the report, and with your indulgence as I inject some opinion, I offer these four points:
* The reporter and editors could have based the article on a campus sexual assault that was verified as having occurred, with police and court documents to back them up (legally and journalistically). Rape on campus -- or, according to recent news reports, on the beach during spring break -- is an all-too-common crime. However, Rolling Stone passed up those cases to pursue a more graphic and sensational account -- one that campus, law-enforcement and fraternity officials knew nothing about -- based almost exclusively on interviews with an alleged victim given the pseudonym "Jackie."
* Journalists tend to be deferential to victims of sexual assault -- and there are reasons for that -- but that likely contributed to the reporter's failure to press Jackie on details for corroboration. If the story were about murder or robbery, I doubt that would have happened.
* Even when Jackie's answers didn't add up, or she was uncooperative, Rolling Stone rolled on toward publication.
* In short, in my opinion, the prospects of a blockbuster story clouded the judgment of the reporter and editors.
"Rolling Stone's repudiation of the main narrative in 'A Rape on Campus' is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable," the Columbia journalism school report stated. "The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine's editors to reconsider publishing Jackie's narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine's reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from."
The full report is posted on THonline.com/weblinks.
In another section, the report noted that in their post-mortem on the article, Rolling Stone's editors and reporter "concluded that their main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault."
That might be true, but it goes well beyond kid-gloves treatment of Jackie. There was the issue of not giving the fraternity -- which has filed a lawsuit against the magazine -- more of a chance to comment and cooperate for the article. Fraternity records indicate that there was not even a house party the night Jackie said she was attacked.
The magazine officially has retracted and apologized. That was the least it could do. To its credit, it did commission the independent report and, scathing as it is, shared it with the rest of the world.
However, there is a question I am struggling to answer. Which is worse: The journalistic failures of Rolling Stone, or that no one at the magazine is out of a job because of them?
That's right: Will Dana, the senior editor, said no discipline is forthcoming for anyone involved in publication of the article (including him).
I guess Rolling Stone has its reasons to give everyone a pass, but it reflects poorly not only on the magazine but journalism overall.
Cooper's email address is email@example.com.