Failures like Rolling Stone’s do not happen in every newsroom

September 26, 2023
Phil Roeder via Wikimedia Commons

In November 2014, at a time before President Trump took office, “fake news” and the acceleration of Americans’ dwindling trust in media, Rolling Stone published a viral sensation of a story called “A Rape on Campus.”

At that time, the venerable music magazine had been around for nearly fifty years and was experiencing something of a renaissance as a no-nonsense, indefatigable home of hard-hitting journalism, as chronicled in Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan’s unauthorized 2017 biography of the magazine’s founder and longtime editor in chief, Jann Wenner. An explosive 2010 profile of General Stanley McChrystal, in which he ridiculed President Barack Obama as “unprepared,” led to the general’s resignation. Rolling Stone staffer Matt Taibbi had become something of a sensation with his acerbic essays; in one, he referred to investment bank Goldman Sachs, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, as a “great vampire squid.”

“A Rape on Campus” was an especially harrowing account of a gang rape of a young woman at a University of Virginia fraternity house and a deeper exploration of sexual assault on school campuses nationwide. The story was told entirely from the recollection of the victim, referred to only by the pseudonym Jackie. But Jackie’s story quickly fell apart upon closer inspection by journalists at the Washington Post and Salon. Amid a firestorm of criticism, Wenner asked the Columbia Journalism School to produce an independent audit of what happened, hoping it would, in his words, “somewhat exonerate us, if not for our practices, at least for our integrity and intentions.”

But our report didn’t exonerate Rolling Stone. We found a host of basic reporting, editing, and fact-checking failures and wrong turns that were avoidable. The fallout was swift and severe. The UVA story ruined the careers of both its lead reporter and lead editor. Our report formed the basis of two libel trials that the magazine lost, resulting in judgments of $2.5 million to a university administrator and $1.65 million to the fraternity. Wenner, who by 2020 had sold his magazine to Penske Media, has described the episode, borrowing a phrase from late Rolling Stone luminary Hunter S. Thompson, as a “Million-Pound Shit Hammer.” More distressingly, the retracted story had the negative effect of increasing public skepticism about legitimate reports of sexual assault and rape, especially those that aren’t easily reportable.

Most of this would be in the rearview mirror had Wenner not revisited the subject in an interview with the New York Times, in which he defended himself and the magazine he founded. Wenner’s unfortunate comments about female and Black musicians have garnered the most attention, and rightfully so. (He’s since apologized for his choice of words.) But Wenner also continued his quixotic attempt to absolve both himself and his beloved magazine of blame in the UVA rape case. 

Describing the retraction and resulting libel trials to the Times as “one of the most miserable professional experiences I’ve ever had,” Wenner defended his professional reputation and that of Rolling Stone, concluding that the retracted story didn’t represent “some terrible black mark.” 

Yes, the magazine’s journalists, in Wenner’s words, should have been “tighter,” meaning tougher and more discerning of their subjects. They opted not to interview people who could corroborate Jackie’s story, in his telling, as to avoid further identifying and victimizing her. (Our report found that, in reality, both the reporter and the editor on the story had sought to interview three friends whom Jackie claimed to confide in but, for various reasons, gave up.) In the end, Wenner argues, Rolling Stone was among the victims, along with the university, the fraternity, and the defamed parties. Likening Rolling Stone’s retraction to journalistic scandals at the Washington Post and at the Times itself, Wenner offered, to interviewer David Marchese, a takeaway of sorts: 

“I think the lesson I learned is, yes, it does happen to everybody.”

We wrote the Columbia Journalism School report and spent months interviewing Rolling Stone‘s journalists and the subjects of that story. In preparing the report, we reviewed the journalistic scandals that Wenner is referring to, those of Janet Cooke at the Post in the early 1980s, Stephen Glass at the New Republic in the 1990s, and Jayson Blair at the Times in the early 2000s. Those failures involved three reporters who, seeking a degree of fame in a competitive industry that, at the time, lacked appropriate guardrails, fabricated characters and stories wholesale and published them as fact. 

We can say, with a high degree of confidence: Failures like the Rolling Stone UVA story, involving a disregard of 101-level reporting and basic due diligence, do not happen to every newsroom. It is, thankfully, the exceedingly rare exception. Unreliable or outright false narratives like Jackie’s, when discovered, are caught early, before publication, and are cut. If unverifiable accounts were published with any frequency, the bleak state of American journalism would be even bleaker, with many fewer newsrooms staying afloat.

Wenner has walked this blame-game tightrope for years. In the spring of 2016, during one of the libel trials, he testified via videotape in Manhattan, arguing that Rolling Stone had erred in fully retracting its story and not just the Jackie-provided anecdotes (never mind that her story proved to be crucial to the entire nine-thousand-word narrative). Brazenly, he told the UVA administrator who was suing him: “I’m very, very sorry. Believe me, I’ve suffered as much as you have.”

In his 2021 memoir, Like a Rolling Stone, Wenner again acknowledged the journalistic failures at the heart of the Columbia report—the unverifiable statements Jackie gave the reporter should have “sent up a red flag.” But, again, Wenner appeared focused on the outside treatment Rolling Stone received, as opposed to the fundamental errors it made. In his telling, Rolling Stone had been the “victim of some kind of psychotic fantasy.” The resulting Columbia report had left the magazine open to the libel lawsuits and further pillorying by a red-meat-hungry press corps. 

As Wenner is alluding to, journalism can be competitive and cannibalistic. Within that broad category, investigative journalism of the type Rolling Stone and other magazines and newsrooms produce is even more difficult—expensive, laborious, complex—all in an effort to unpack a weighty subject in the hopes of exploring new truths.

Investigative journalism on fraught topics like sexual violence routinely involves inconvenient and convoluted narratives offered by unreliable narrators. Clear, concise descriptions can be hard to find. Many good stories, those with revelatory details about how government agencies or institutions operate, fall apart before publication or simply go untold. Some stories are the victims of shrinking newsroom budgets, low morale, and journalist turnover.

In short, investigative journalism of these topics can be lonely, demoralizing, and ultimately unfulfilling. Some of the best investigative journalism produced achieves little, if any, of the impact it is striving for. 

Yet, despite those substantial headwinds, investigative journalists routinely produce “bulletproofed,” fact-checked accounts of seemingly difficult-to-verify subjects. In just the past year, this work has been on display with some regularity: This spring, the Times published a multipart series on hundreds of underage migrant children being allowed to illegally work at slaughterhouses, construction sites, and factories across the country. To get the story, an investigative reporter drove to factories, spoke to underage workers as they left, and reviewed their legal documents, work badges, and paychecks to verify the details. A team of journalists at the Wall Street Journal collected data on thousands of toxic lead cables left abandoned by the nation’s largest telecommunications companies by poring over thousands of paper permit files, wrote code and built a database to understand them, and—in a particularly impressive feat of journalistic verve—accompanied research divers, scientists, and environmental consultants on underwater missions to examine the lead-sheathed cables. 

In arguably the most relevant example, a recent ProPublicaNew York magazine investigation dived into the already prosecuted case of Dr. Robert Hadden, the Columbia University gynecologist who sexually abused hundreds of his patients over two decades. The reporters found that Columbia, the same private university that produced the Rolling Stone report, repeatedly deflected blame and distanced itself from the Hadden scandal at every turn—and even allowed Hadden to continue practicing despite being told by his victims what was happening.

Like UVA, Columbia didn’t make it easy on the journalists investigating them, refusing to make any of its leaders available for interviews and providing terse and inadequate statements in response to the reporters’ questions. Still, the journalists involved attempted to speak to more than a hundred of Hadden’s former colleagues. Just one doctor would speak on the record. But the story is stronger for having that one named former colleague, the result of an untold number of hours of cold calls, emails, and rejections.

To be sure, there are errors and corrections in today’s investigative journalism but vanishingly few retractions. That’s a testament to the journalistic process, one replicated across mainstream media outlets seeking to develop sustained trust with the audience they serve.

So no, Mr. Wenner, failures like this don’t happen to everybody. And we should be thankful, as a profession and as a functioning democracy, that such journalistic failures are few and far between.

Derek Kravitz is the investigations editor at MuckRock, and a co-author of the Columbia Journalism School report on Rolling Stone's "A Rape on Campus".