Connie Schultz: As if Rolling Stone were our only problem
There’s no tap dance in my shoes over Columbia Journalism Review’s epic takedown this week of the Rolling Stone story that never should have seen the light of day.
That may strike you as an odd confession, but that just means you’re probably not a journalist. We’ve got a lot of bad habits.
I’ve read so many accounts of the post-mortem coverage on the CJR report that I worry that my mentioning it here will only tax your patience. But rule No. 1 of column writing is that you must never assume everyone shares your current preoccupation.
On Nov. 19, Rolling Stone published a story about a gang rape of a woman, named Jackie, at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia. It was a gruesome tale of men behaving like animals and a university that wanted nothing to do with the aftermath. The story attracted more than 2.7 million online viewers and an almost immediate onslaught of critics insisting that something — a lot, actually — wasn’t right about the reporting.
The story quickly began to unravel, in real time. Less than three weeks after it posted the story, Rolling Stone retracted it and asked Columbia Journalism Review to conduct an independent investigation on what had gone wrong.
The answer: Pretty much everything.
To quote from CJR’s findings:
“The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. 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 story’s blowup comes as another shock to journalism’s credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry. The particulars of Rolling Stone’s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.”
There’s not a journalist still working in this business who doesn’t recognize the truth in that last sentence. No matter where we work, we’re all seeing the fraying edges: Too many editors pressuring reporters to post early and often. Too many single-source stories later rewritten with “updates” rather than corrections. Too many reporters agreeing to submit questions in writing to people who should have to answer unscheduled calls. Public officials, for example. Hospital administrators, for another.
Thousands of veteran reporters have been laid off or fired or pushed so far into irrelevance that they feel forced to resign. So many young reporters are taking their place, but not really. I do not mean to disparage young journalists. We were them, once upon a time, but we were allowed to grow into those jobs. In the best newsrooms, most of our mistakes never made it past the first edit.
When the news broke about CJR’s findings, I noticed little of the celebratory tone of old. There was a time when that was our habit. A fellow journalist would go down for the count, and we’d marvel for days, if not weeks, over how the wretched sap ever could have thought he or she would get away with it. We are, at our core, professional gossips, and no news traveled faster than the demise of a competitor, which was anyone whose stories got bigger play than ours. In the dark, cramped space of our competitive hearts, the practice of journalism has always been a zero-sum game. Your Page One is my bad day.
Those days seem so over, as is our self-congratulatory tone of due diligence when we lower the ax of self-scrutiny. With this latest CJR report, what I once would have championed as a stellar example of how we police our own now just feels like another withering blow to our collective credibility.
I am grateful to CJR’s Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz for their investigation into everything that went wrong and to Rolling Stone for its willingness to make the whole ugly thing public.
My gratitude ends there.