A rare event occurred in our galaxy last week, something I believed I would never see nor read about in my lifetime. Rolling Stone Magazine, the venerable chronicle of modern American nihilism, issued an apology for getting a story wrong.
The story A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA appeared in the Magazine’s November 19th edition and revolved around investigative piece by Sabrina Rubin Erdely involving a woman solely identified as “Jackie.”
The 9,000-word story recounted a horrific attack on the U.Va. freshman on September 28th, 2012 in an upstairs room of the university’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. Crude comments attributed to fraternity members suggested the attack was part of an initiation. The gruesome details of the story recounted how the girl was raped over a shattered table with shards of glass jamming into her back. She alleged she had been raped over several hours by seven different individuals.
The piece portrayed U.Va.’s response as tepid, reporting that students who cheat on exams are routinely expelled for violations of U.Va.’s Honor Code, but none has ever been expelled for rape.
The publication of Erdeley’s article generated campus protests and vandalism of the fraternity’s property. It prompted U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan to suspend the activities of the university’s more than 60 Greek organizations. The school’s Board of Visitors adopted a zero-tolerance position on sexual assault. Police began an investigation.
However, after a Washington Post investigation called Jackie’s account into question, pointing out that there was no Phi Kappa Psi event on September 28, 2012, no PKP brothers with the nick names “Armpit”and “Blanket”, no back stair access through which she escaped her ordeal, Rolling Stone was forced to submit an apology:
“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” the Magazine commented on its website last Thursday.
Rolling Stone Managing Editor, Will Dana, tweeted later that day that “the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story.”
The apology itself aroused a storm of protest as the Magazine seemed to be blaming the victim for the story’s unreliability when the onus should have been on the reporter herself who failed to obtain any corroboration of the woman’s allegations.
Thereafter the Magazine published a second apology in which it shifted the blame for the story’s inaccuracies onto its own shoulders:
“We published the article with the firm belief that it was accurate. Given all of these reports, however, we have come to the conclusion that we were mistaken in honoring Jackie’s request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie. We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening.”
It is of course a good thing that the the Magazine, nearing 50 years old, has admitted that there are sometimes “other sides” to stories that are worth considering. However that is not an admission you will ever find when the Magazine launches its vitriolic attacks on the Koch Brothers, Tea Party groups, big business and Climate Change critics. But since Rolling Stone is now in the mood for a little self-examination, perhaps it might want to revisit some of these old stories for how ell its examined ” the other side”: .
Take for instance an article by environmental activist Bill McKibben in the August 16, 2012 edition of the magazine titled The Arctic Ice Crisis
In his piece McKibben offers a report from Jason Box, a scientist at the Byrd Polar Research Center in Greenland who contends that large sections of Greenland are just falling off the continent:
“Box had conservatively predicted that it might take up to a decade before the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet melted all at once. That it actually happened in just a few weeks only underscores how consistently cautious ice scientists have been in forecasting the threat posed by global warming. Now, however, that caution is being replaced by well-founded alarm. “Greenland is a sleeping giant that’s waking,” says Box. “In this new climate, the ice sheet is going to keep shrinking – the only question is how fast.”
But in the same year, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, which is co-funded by NASA – together with the Danish Meterological Institute, both revealed that the Arctic Ice Cap had actually grown.
In fact today the National Snow and Ice Data Center reveals an increase of 1.71 million square kilometers over the past two years – which is an an impressive 43% while the Danes, using a different measure, have found a 63% increase! We can debate how much global warming is responsible for changes in our climate. But maybe Mr. McKibben’s reporting on the issue might have benefited from a discussion with Dr. Ed Hawkins from the U.K.’s Reading University who observed that year that the decline seen in the years leading up to 2102 was not caused only by global warming. “It was,” he said, “intensified by ‘natural variability’ – shifts in factors such as the temperature of the oceans. This has happened before, such as in the 1920s and 1930s, when there was likely some sea ice retreat.” Like many scientists, Dr Hawkins has averred that these natural processes may be cyclical. If and when they go into reverse, they will cool, not warm, the Arctic, in which case, he said, ‘a decade with no declining trend’ in ice cover would be ‘entirely plausible’.
Did McKibben not know of the contradictory evidence and views or did he just decide exclude it?
Or take this September 24, 2014 attack on the Koch Brothers by investigative journalist Tim Dickinson. His beef with the Koch Brothers seems to be largely that they are rich and successful, that they trade in oil and support right wing political causes – all cardinal crimes against humanity in his and Rolling Stone’s world view
Among the many allegations made by Dickinson are that the Koch Brothers are that they are unreformed toxic polluters, financial manipulators, Machiavellian political schemers and treacherous partners.
Here is how he sums them up at the end of his 5,000 word story:
“Koch has profited precisely by dumping billions of pounds of pollutants into our waters and skies – essentially for free. It racks up enormous profits from speculative trades lacking economic value that drive up costs for consumers and create risks for our economy.
The Koch brothers get richer as the costs of what Koch destroys are foisted on the rest of us – in the form of ill health, foul water and a climate crisis that threatens life as we know it on this planet. Now nearing 80 – owning a large chunk of the Alberta tar sands and using his billions to transform
the modern Republican Party into a protection racket for Koch Industries’ profits – Charles Koch is not about to see the light.”
In a long response to the multiple slurs, untruths and outright deceptions in the Dickinson piece, Koch Industries who had opened themselves to Dickinson’s inquiries and had been assured by him that he was attempting to engage in ” a good faith discussion”, they pointed out that of the 3,200 word response they offered Dickinson in response to his written questions, he only chose to quote 99. There was barely a mention of the 900 awards for safety, environmental excellence, and community stewardship Koch has received since 2009 alone or that the EPA has repeatedly praised Koch for a productive and collaborative approach to environmental protection. The article falsely claims that Koch’s petroleum coke business at its KCBX North facility in Chicago is endangering the “health of South Side residents,” despite the fact that they provided Dickinson with the Congressional Research Service research, findings from the city of Chicago that “there are no known illnesses or health effects associated with pet coke dust,” and EPA’s own conclusion that “petroleum coke itself has a low level of toxicity and that there is no evidence of carcinogenicity.” Nor does Dickinson note that KCBX was honored with the Good Neighbor award from the Southeast Environmental Task Force in 2001 and again in 2005.
They provided a summation of the absence of journalistic integrity, fairness and balance in Dickinson’s piece:
‘”Any reasonable reader will conclude that this article is nothing more than a thinly veiled “hit piece.” We believe that Rolling Stone readers would have benefitted from an open and honest discussion of the issues Mr. Dickinson decided to write about. We are confident that if the true facts had been presented, Rolling Stone readers might have learned something about us that was contrary to the misinformation that Rolling Stone and other media have rehashed and regurgitated over the years. Apparently Rolling Stone and Mr. Dickinson do not trust or respect their readers enough to provide them with balanced information and an objective narrative, nor do they want their readers to make up their own minds.”
Balance and fairness – providing a wide perspective on controversial issues – is what we should expect from our journalists. But how little editorial oversight there is of so many contributing writers to Rolling Stone. The magazine regularly accepts hit pieces, just like the one above, presenting opinion as if it is fact, excluding information which does not fit within its own political narrative and resorting to name calling and epithet slinging against all those who disagree with its polemical approach. The absence of journalistic integrity puts Rolling Stone in the vanguard of the decline in standards we have seen in the U.S. over the past 30 years in both reportage and investigative journalism.
Maybe the failures of Sabrina Rubin Erdely to adequately corroborate her story will hasten a broad review of the magazine’s journalistic practices. But don’t count on any real change until Rolling stone is hit hard by the a declining subscriber base and perhaps even the fall off of advertising revenue due to its abandonment of proper journalistic practices and its preferences for ideology over truth.