Hello, University of Virginia sons, daughters and lovers. The post below is intended to get you to go to The New Yorker online or in print or on SoundCloud (!) and get the full version of TNY's discussion of Rolling Stone’s discredited report that infringed the life and beauty of our University. It also motivated us to search ourselves and begin to develop new solutions to sexual assaults that are sweeping campuses all across America. Please read this trailer and then go to www.newyorker.com or wherever you read this venerable magazine.—Gerry
with George Packer and Margaret Talbot; hosted by Dorothy Wickenden
Discussing Rolling Stone’s discredited report on an alleged rape at the University of Virginia.
According to the report, Erdely included a boldface note for her editors: “she says—all her POV.” It was a scrupulous move—the writer was letting her editors know that this vivid exchange came entirely from Jackie, a fact that might need to be acknowledged. But the magazine opted for the seamless purity and vividness of the unattributed version. Similarly, when Erdely included in one draft a disclosure that Jackie “refuses to divulge [Drew’s] full name to RS” out of fear, Erdely’s editor, Woods, cut the disclosure, thought about restoring it, then decided to leave it out. One can imagine the impulses competing in the feature editor’s mind—carefulness and transparency on the one hand, the stylistic pleasure of an uninterrupted flow of narrative on the other. It’s a question that comes up in every piece of literary journalism worth the name.
The report’s authors are sympathetic to the dilemma, but not to its outcome: “There is a tension in magazine and narrative editing between crafting a readable story—a story that flows—and providing clear attribution of quotations and facts. It can be clunky and disruptive to write ‘she said’ over and over. There should be room in magazine journalism for diverse narrative voicing—if the underlying reporting is solid.” In other words, Rolling Stone’smistake was not to leave out attributions but to use flimsy and easily falsifiable material in the first place. “To live outside the law, you must be honest,” Bob Dylan sang—to raise journalism above the artless presentation of facts, you’d better be damned sure of those facts.
Although the report describes the scandal as “another shock to journalism’s credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry,” Rolling Stone’sfailure doesn’t seem to me to be representative of any larger problem in journalism. It isn’t part of a growing pattern of collapsing institutional standards. It isn’t even a case of the reporter’s having fabricated or plagiarized, which are graver wrongs than credulousness, and far harder to fathom. The Columbia report concludes with various recommendations for how Rolling Stone could restore itself to the good graces of journalism by adopting clearer, more stringent rules on pseudonyms, sourcing, and checking, and for how journalists in general should approach the difficult subject of sexual assault. All of them make sense and should be taken to heart. But, as the report makes clear throughout, the sins of Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her editors at Rolling Stone were basic ones. This wasn’t so much a failure of policies and rules as of conscientiousness in individual human beings.
It was a collective failure to resist temptations that arise every day in their work. Faced with a series of decisions and turning points, again and again the magazine took the path that would lead toward what could be called a “better” story. For journalists, that’s what makes the scandal the worst kind—unconscionable, and imaginable.