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What Would Joseph Pulitzer Think of Rolling Stone?

What Would Joseph Pulitzer Think of Rolling Stone?

By Carl M. Cannon - December 7, 2014

Even before issuing a lame apology for its flimsy story on campus rape, Rolling Stone magazine presented Americans with a disturbing dilemma. I felt acutely torn myself.

Out of solicitude for college-age women, I found myself praying that the magazine’s shocking—but thinly sourced—tale of gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party was greatly exaggerated, even fabricated.

Yet because I value journalism so highly, part of me hoped that every word of that horrifying tale was true. We can’t afford another scandal in our profession right now, I thought. But deep down I knew better. So did many journalists, including The Washington Post reporters who attempted to verify Rolling Stone’s sensationalist account.

Like any parent, I worry about the young women who leave home for the uncertainty and potential peril of the outside world. Our youngest is a college sophomore whose safety has been entrusted to complete strangers in another state.

At the same time, my life’s work has been devoted to journalism. I believe, unblushingly, that a free, fair, and honest press is the bulwark of liberty. In a career spanning 3½ decades, I still cherish the principles espoused by Joseph Pulitzer:

“…fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare…”

I assume Rolling Stone’s editors believed their 9,000-word story about college rape by Sabrina Rubin Erdely adhered to Pulitzer’s values. It didn’t. When it comes to reporting, good intentions are not enough. Facts are paramount. Fairness and accuracy aren’t niceties, they are necessary elements of arriving at the truth.

Erdely opened her story with a horrific scene. An innocent college freshman is lured to a party by an upper classman who orchestrates her three-hour gang rape, apparently as a fraternity initiation rite. After Jackie (Erdely identifies her source by her first name) relates this crime to three “friends,” they dissuade her from reporting it out of fear Jackie will be ostracized—and they won’t be invited to future Greek functions. The school’s administrators are equally clueless.

In the aftermath of publication, Greek life at U-Va. was put on hold, demonstrations held, the offending fraternity house defaced with graffiti. The usual talking heads emerged, decrying “rape culture” while demanding structural changes at the university.

To skeptics, the salacious story evoked two other infamous cases: the false sexual assault allegations against the Duke University lacrosse team in 2006 and the Tawana Brawley hoax in 1987. But as Rolling Stone began explaining its cursory reporting and fact-checking methods, it brought to my mind an instance of notorious journalistic excess involving neither rape nor race: the case of Steven Hatfill, wrongly railroaded in the 2001 anthrax attacks.

At first, Rolling Stone’s critics expressed skepticism about Jackie’s account itself: an assault by seven men lasting three hours? That’s ritualized torture more akin to a war crime amid ethnic cleansing than college “date rape.” Nobody at the frat house saw anything? Nobody called the cops?

I wasn’t as dismissive. As a young police reporter, I covered depraved crimes, including one in which a young woman and her date were kidnapped in San Diego at gunpoint by five gang members who beat the man and raped the woman before stuffing them in a car trunk, which they riddled with bullets, paralyzing the woman from the neck down.

So evil exists in the world, and not just on the streets of Southern California—on college campuses, too. What bothered me about the Rolling Stone story were the explanations Sabrina Erdely and her editor provided to the doubters:

--The magazine didn’t attempt to interview the men they accused of rape because of an agreement with Jackie.

--They neglected to corroborate Jackie’s recollections with her three erstwhile “friends.”

--They didn’t reveal that the version she gave them is materially different from the one she provided the university.

In interviews with other news organizations, Ederly explained that she found Jackie credible. “We were telling Jackie’s story,” Erdely told The Washington Post. “It’s her story.”

Even before the Rolling Stone piece unraveled Friday in the face of contrary facts unearthed by the Post and the fraternity’s lawyers—the frat didn’t even host a party on the date in question—so much was wrong with this approach that it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s try.

First, as I tell young reporters, if your byline is on that story it’s your story, not your source’s. Second, you don’t use a hunch to assess a source’s credibility; you check out their story. Third, libel law aside, it’s not old-fashioned to ask a person you’ve accused of a serious felony for their side of the story; it’s an essential exercise in ascertaining the truth.

Erdely did find time to interview Wendy Murphy, whom she introduced to readers as an attorney who has filed Title IX lawsuits. She’d have been better identified as the activist who made incendiary and spurious public statements in the Duke lacrosse hoax. It’s disturbing how these same people -- and the same news outlets -- keep arising in stories. Al Sharpton, Tawana Brawley’s champion and Crown Heights riots provocateur, is now organizing protests over the police shooting in Ferguson. The New York Times, cheerleader of the fake Duke lacrosse claims, led the witch hunt against Steven Hatfill.

That case was reported properly by diligent Los Angeles Times investigative journalist David Willman. It was not Hatfill who terrorized the East Coast with anthrax, it was government scientist Bruce Ivins, who killed himself when the FBI finally closed in. Willman, who won an earlier Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on the Food and Drug Administration, would have made Joseph Pulitzer proud. Rolling Stone magazine—not so much.

If my daughter or any of her friends were harmed in the way Rolling Stone described, I’d have wanted to drive to her college and take the fraternity house apart brick by brick. The problem is, that kind of destruction is already happening to journalism—and the vandals come from our own ranks.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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