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Thursday, October 27, 2016

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.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including …and His Lovely Wife, which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz ([email protected]) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

Photo via Wikicommons

  • bernieo

    The problem is deeper and more complex than your explanation. The New York Times has allowed itself to be used as a megaphone for right wing propaganda on more than one occasion. The Whitewater charges against the Clintons were made up by a known con man David Hale who had been caught embezzling a cool $2 million from the government and was looking to deal by giving up a bigger fish. Right wing operatives shopped it to the Times’ Jeff Gerth who was allowed to report the charges with no independent fact checking or sources. Other mainstream outlets followed the Times’ lead. The same process was repeated with Judith Miller’s WMD stories. I seriously doubt this happened because of the factors you discuss here. The editors of the Times had plenty of time and resources to check the facts of these stories that had such terrible impact on our democracy.

    • TZToronto

      Everyone wants another Watergate story. The difference is that the two young guys on that story were under the control of Ben Bradley, who demanded journalistic integrity in accusing the POTUS. When they screwed up, he let them know it–but he knew there was a big story there. It took a while for Woodward and Bernstein to follow the trail, but it was done right, and it stuck. Shortcuts to get ratings will come back to haunt those who take them.

  • FireBaron

    In the case of the “Stone” article, it was almost as if the writer went into the article with a personal agenda – in this case trying to find proof of a “campus-fratboy-jock-no-means-yes” mentality among college males, and a corresponding “we-didn’t-personally-see-it-so-it-didn’t-happen” reaction among college administrations. From when I first read the article, I thought “Where is the police report? Where are the other interviews with the alleged rapists? Where is the school administration?”
    The writer bought hook, line and sinker into the “victim’s” plea to not interview anyone else as it would cause her pain to read about it! That killed the story for me right there. Objective journalism? Not by a long-shot! Fiction? Not even The National Enquirer would have touched this one. And now, the writer and her editors have become the story.

  • Godzilla

    For those old enough to remember Walter Cronkite and him being the most trusted man in America, you have been fortunate to witness the very best of times in honest news reporting. Fast forward to today, so called honest news reporting has gone the way of the dinosaur, extinct. I can’t think of one Main Stream News agency that qualify as honest and accurate. Most, if not all, are politically corrupt. Investigative journalism today is now known as conspiracy theory and real news stories are ignored if it shines a bad light on whatever political side the media likes. The purposeful lies being spewed by what used to be respectable news agencies is appalling. Instead of just reporting the facts, they twist them in an attempt to alter the meaning, thus changing the story. The LIE then becomes the story. Even after the truth comes out, it is often ignored and the LIE lives on in the minds of the ignorant.

    • Sand_Cat

      Well said.

  • itsfun

    Seems like far to many times, “reporters” want to make the news and not honestly report it.

  • latebloomingrandma

    At least Rolling Stone has come forward to admit it’s mistake, rather quickly. RS has done some very important stories, and I’m sure they are distraught over their tanking credibility. Perhaps by being forthcoming, they may repair it. Personally, I find that “The Nation” does pretty good investigative journalism, and i don’t believe they are “owned” by any corporation. With all the hoopla, how does Fox News continue to do what it does? I know many people who absolutely believe evreything they put out.

    • Daniel Jones

      Yeah, but they aren’t firing anybody.

  • Sand_Cat

    The question is, with the opportunity to find even juicier and largely true stories in college sports and other student misconduct winked at by colleges, why did they feel such urgency to go with this one?