Monday, April 6, 2015

Sadder but Wiser Man

Having exited the journalism industry on the heels of making some fundamentally stupid errors, I know from whence I speak: Reading about the Rolling Stone Oopsie of 2014 hurts.

Best details of the story, its implosion, and the aftermath are here (offered by Slate) and here (offered by the Washington Post by a writer who was offered the story before Rolling Stone, but who poked it full of holes and decided against pursuing it).

I know full well the feeling of writing, and then having published, a story that turned out not to be true. And I lost my job because of it – and rightfully so. So to hear this kind of thing boggles the mind (from Slate):

No one is getting fired. And the editors, despite lots of apologies throughout, wind up sounding indifferent. Dana ended by saying they don’t need new ways of doing things; they “just have to do what we've always done and just make sure we don't make this mistake again." And Coco McPherson, head of fact-checking, said, "I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter."

And from The Huffington Post:

The authors walk through several reporting lapses and make recommendations, such as Rolling Stone considering not using pseudonyms and for fact-checkers to be more assertive in the editorial process. But the report falls short of making recommendations about which of the principals, if any, should lose their jobs over the debacle. Wenner told The New York Times that Dana and Woods would keep their jobs and Erdely would continue writing for the magazine.

Buzzfeed – of all places – is even more damning in its assessment:

Rolling Stone, in other words, has taken an idea native to the world of feminist advocacy, that of unconditionally believing and supporting rape victims, and used it as a shield for its own journalistic errors. Many rape counselors preach unquestioned belief to both encourage victims to come forward and create safe communities for them when they do — but this is not the role of reporters. And despite Columbia’s conclusion, Rolling Stone hasn’t stopped emphasizing how its mindfulness of Jackie’s status drove the failure to properly scrutinize her story.

They also add:

According to the report, Erdely could have also built the story around other alleged victims, instead of Jackie — but apparently none packed the same narrative punch Rolling Stone was looking for. The report states “Erdely’s reporting led her to other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated her narrative, although none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie’s.”

And people wonder why some cry about pre-programmed bias in the news media, when things like this happen. I don’t say this to say everyone involved in reporting has a preprogrammed agenda that will trump editorial standards, but it’s growing obvious that in this case, there was such an agenda.
I don’t wish the loss of a job on anyone. But to say it’s going to be business as usual after this kind of thing for both the magazine and the writer involved is puzzling, especially as the editor in charge had this to say to the HP:

Dana, who has been at Rolling Stone for nearly two decades, said the breakdown was both an “individual failure” and “procedural failure, an institutional failure.”

“Every single person at every level of this thing had opportunities to pull the strings a little harder,” he said, “to question things a little more deeply, and that was not done.”

I’m a sadder but wiser man now. It still hurts that I screwed up and let my newspaper down. I don’t regret their decisions, nor the path my life has led since. To see others make such mistakes is painful, in that it reminds me of my own errors. But to see them go blithely on, admitting fault without even considering a fix, shows the complacency that may allow such a thing to happen again.

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