Rolling Stone fails to take full responsibility for its actions

Two of the most revealing moments in the months-long saga since Rolling Stone magazine published its campus rape piece came in the last 24 hours.

On Sunday evening, shortly after Columbia Journalism School issued its fatal post-mortem of the piece, the author of the now retracted Rolling Stone article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, issued a statement. She offered what she called her “deepest apologies” to her readers, to her editors and colleagues, to the University of Virginia community and, she wrote, “to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.”

However full-throated it sounded, that was a grudging act of contrition. Her mea culpa lacked any direct apology to the campus chapter of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity that her article singled out as the site of a gang rape. There is no evidence such a gang rape occurred there. They deserved an apology from her. They did not receive it. (It may come as little surprise that the fraternity has issued a statement declaring it intends to sue Rolling Stone.)

Erdely’s grudging posture has been in evidence since the beginning. As she told me in an interview in early December, and has said to others as well, Erdely started from the belief that campus rape is a problem and she also believed the way colleges and universities address it is a problem. Both are reasonable conclusions. She was shopping for locations to illustrate what she thought was a crisis, and landed on the University of Virginia as a perfect locale: in her formulation, not Ivy, but elite. The central story offered up by the woman identified solely as “Jackie” fit too neatly into Erdely’s view for her to consider seriously the kind of reporting that would be needed to confirm the details.

The second moment of reveal also arrived Sunday evening, when Rolling Stone‘s publisher and founder, Jann Wenner, denounced Jackie as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” to The New York Times. While he told the newspaper he was not trying to blame her, he added, “obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”

Wrong again. This sits at Rolling Stone‘s doorstep. Jackie is responsible for her own statements. She may, as the Charlottesville police chief said, have been the victim of some crime. Just not, by dint of what journalists or authorities were able to uncover, anything like the heinous account that Rolling Stone omnisciently presented as fact. In preparing a story for NPR’s Morning Edition, I listened again to a Slate podcast from late November in which Erdely said—incredibly, in retrospect—that she had talked to almost all of Jackie’s friends. That appears to be untrue. And her editors were along for the ride. Erdely, after all, had signaled to editors that the narration of the gang rape was from Jackie’s point of view.

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The magazine is not a megaphone, for anyone to grab. It determines what to publish in its own pages and on its site. Erdely’s editors were active partners in the decisions to grant pseudonyms and to fail to seek out sources to verify or disprove the grave accusations that Jackie made.

The magazine made the decision to defend Jackie’s emotional state at all costs. In this case, the decision ended up costing Rolling Stone its journalistic integrity.

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David Folkenflik covers the media for NPR News.