Rolling Stone’s Rape Crisis: And the Band Played On

And on and on and on.  Following the release of Columbia School of Journalism’s April 5 report, “A Failure That Could Have Been Avoided,” the majority of media responses have focused on the hows of the fiasco, as did the Columbia report itself: how Rolling Stone‘s seasoned editorial staff deviated from standard editorial procedures in their zeal to publish their highly controversial story, “A Rape on Campus” in the December 2014 issue.  The report also discussed the whats–what decisions the magazine might have made prevent the “failure,” like following widely accepted routine protocols. However, I am more interested in the whys of this entire mess. Why did the writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely,  and the editors decide they could–and should–deviate from standard journalistic practices and ethics?   Why were  these professionals so compelled to publish the now retracted story, despite doubts that had surfaced prior to publication. A story that would go on to earn the magazine the “media-fail sweepstakes” prize in Columbia Journalism Review’sWorst Journalism of 2014” issue?

To be certain Rolling Stone committed some egregious editorial errors, but their failures do not stop there.  Rolling Stone maintains that the impetus behind the magazine’s string of bad decisions was in fact sensitivity–to and for Jackie, the alleged victim–an expression of care and concern that encouraged the entire editorial team involved to abandon standard verification practices, for starters.  Translation: the editorial team acted on their feelings, subjective emotions,  instead of following long-established procedures.

Surprisingly, after reading Columbia’s report and much of the associated coverage, I have been struck by how frequently the editorial staff and writer relied upon their feelings to make critical editorial decisions.  In fact, the report reveals that the initial idea for the story was itself based on feelings shared by the magazine’s senior editorial team. In Ravi Somaiya’s  Dec. 7 New York Times article, managing editor Will Dana describes the story’s birth: “Mr. Dana said the article stemmed from a feeling he and other senior editors had over the summer that the issue of unpunished campus rapes would make a compelling and important story.”  But Dana does not explain what led to this mutually shared emotion: A recently released report perhaps? Some alarming statistics they had recently come across?   

Similarly,  Erdely relied upon her feelings during the investigation and writing of the story, beginning with her six-week search for examples of campus rape that would substantiate Rolling Stone‘s original premise. Communicating with such prestigious schools as Harvard, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania, Erdely came up empty-handed. “None of those schools felt quite right,” she explained to Paul Farhi’s in his Nov. 28 Washington Post article. And then along came the University of Virginia.

From start to finish, emotions  figured  prominently in the magazine’s  decision-making process, but, disturbingly, precious little logic. Unfortunately, feelings did not also persuade the editors to first ascertain the precise nature and scope of the problem, nor did they guide Rolling Stone staff toward seeking out appropriate guidance from sexual violence advocates so the magazine could most accurately represent the issues without causing further injury to victims or alleged perpetrators.  Had they been thinking more broadly, the editors might have decided to explore other angles related to the incidence of campus rape. They could even have developed a story focusing on the perpetrators of sexual assault—young men. This perspective would have been the ideal moment to introduce a discussion of the pervasiveness of rape culture on college campuses and to provide guidance for young men  on how to become allies and agents for change in combatting sexual violence in their communities.

But Rolling Stone knew what kind of story it wanted to run from the start.  In the Columbia report Erdely states that she was “searching for a single emblematic rape case,”  a quest that would lead her to select a story that was not in fact representative of the overarching problem of campus rape but instead was emblematic of the exploitative culture that cultivates and profits from the objectification of women, a contributing factor in sexual violence against women. Emily Renda, a UVA sexual assault expert interviewed in Somaiya’s NYT article and in the Columbia report noted that: “The magazine was drawn toward the most extreme story of a campus rape it could find. The more nuanced accounts, she suggested, seemed somehow “not real enough to stand for rape culture. And that is part of the problem.” In the end, Erdely went with a story that “felt right”, one that would speak to Rolling Stone readers and whose lurid details were guaranteed to sell: a vicious gang rape at a frat house.

And sell it did. According to the report “the online story ultimately attracted more than 2.7 million views, more than any other feature not about a celebrity that the magazine had ever published.” But just what led this seasoned editorial team down this wayward path, prompting them to favor emotion over logic, profit over process? It is doubtful that the editors would have made the same decisions if 1) the story did not have the potential to sell, and 2) if they were not speaking from their entrenched orientation as purveyors of a violently normalized misogynist culture.

Rolling Stone’s primary agenda is to turn a profit, and we would be remiss in thinking otherwise. This motive was the driving force behind the magazine’s decision to publish this particular genre of rape story. For example, they did not focus on the much larger problem of rape among college age women not attending college, as supported by data collected in the 2007 National Crime Victimization Survey. The editors selected campus rape for a reason–because it involves a population of privileged young people who are reflective of and reflected in the magazine’s readership. Young white college educated males comprise the majority of the magazine’s readership–and young, partially clad females in sexualized poses routinely pepper its pages.

As it has done throughout the debacle, Rolling Stone continues to have the audacity to deflect blame–onto the process, onto their deferential treatment of a “sensitive” issue, and, horrifically, onto Jackie–anywhere but on the magazine, the sole culprit.  Rolling Stone has issued several apologies, each  managing to  miss the mark, that is an apology that does not account for the mistakes made nor the damage inflicted upon the wounded party or parties  ( a topic I discussed in my December 2014 post, Language Matters: Media’s Role in Sustaining Rape Culture).

“Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim,” explained Sean Woods, principle editor on the story.”  So kind of Mr. Woods, whose protective stance and “deferential” treatment of “our” rape victim barely veils his patronizing arrogance. Woods adds, “We honored too many of her requests in our reporting.” Yet the Columbia report makes clear that that Jackie made few, if any, demands. She did not explicitly ask Erdely to refrain from identifying or speaking with the alleged perpetrator, for example. Erdely made that decision on Jackie’s behalf, fueled  by fear of losing Jackie–and her story. With each step along this messy trail, Rolling Stone made decisions that were based on their own internalized biases and motives and not on the victim’s stated wishes.

And if they couldn’t bury themselves in BS any deeper, Rolling Stone publisher Jann S. Wenner had to get in on the post-mortem action following the release of Columbia’s report: “The problems with the article started with its source, Jackie.” Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s editorial process.”   While foisting responsibility for his magazine’s errors upon the “manipulative,” and “expert” storyteller, Wenner  still has the audacity to excuse the magazine’s “professional” editorial staff of any serious wrongdoing. Echoes of blame-the-victim refrain reverberate through Wenner’s self-pardon.  Wenner concludes: “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.” We maybe did her a disservice?

Now here’s a question for Rolling Stone: why hasn’t anyone stopped these men from issuing public statements? Without a doubt, Rolling Stone should and could have been “much tougher”—not on Jackie but on themselves. And it’s not too late, Rolling Stone, you can still face the music and hold  your magazine accountable for the errors it alone has committed. For starters, hire a feminist editor. She’ll make sure you get the job done right.

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