After its story on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia fell apart, Rolling Stone magazine commissioned the Columbia School of Journalism to investigate the incident and write a report about what went wrong. That report, by Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz, was issued today. More or less simultaneously, the author of the Rolling Stone piece, Sabrina Erdely, released an apology.
While it does go behind the curtain at Rolling Stone, the Columbia report doesn’t tell us a lot that we didn’t already know. The reporter’s and editor’s principal failings were already a matter of record. Rolling Stone’s story was based on the account of a single witness, “Jackie,” years after the fact. “Jackie” blamed her purported rape on a person who, it turned out, did not exist. And the reporter never tried to track down the three friends who, according to “Jackie,” saw her shortly after the alleged gang rape. If the reporter had talked to those students, she would have found that they told a story completely different from “Jackie’s.” She also could have learned from them that “Haven Monahan,” the villain of “Jackie’s” story, was a figment of “Jackie’s” troubled imagination.
The Columbia report takes us behind the scenes at Rolling Stone and adds new details about how the false story made its way into print. But it says little about why the scandal, one of the worst instances of journalistic malpractice on record, happened. The closest it comes is this paragraph:
The problem of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here. Erdely believed the university was obstructing justice. She felt she had been blocked. Like many other universities, UVA had a flawed record of managing sexual assault cases. Jackie’s experience seemed to confirm this larger pattern.
Of course: Sabrina Erdely and her editor, Sean Woods, believed “Jackie,” even though there were obvious indications of unreliability, because she was telling them what they wanted to hear, something that was consistent with a “larger pattern.” One might think that the nightmare the principals at Rolling Stone have lived through might generate some self-knowledge. But no. Their biases are intact.
Sabrina Erdely’s apology is also revealing:
[I]n the case of Jackie and her account of her traumatic rape, I did not go far enough to verify her story. I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts.
It never occurred to Ms. Erdely to wonder whether “Jackie” had been traumatized in the first place. And why does a reporter have confidence in the credibility of some sources, but not others? In this case, it seems obvious that Erdely found “Jackie” credible, even though her story was outlandish on its face, because “Jackie” was saying what Erdely wanted to hear.
This part is still more significant:
I want to offer my deepest apologies: to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the U.V.A. community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.
Notably missing from Erdely’s apology, at least by any specific reference, are the people she actually hurt: members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, whom Erdely accused of casually (and, one might infer, habitually) encouraging the gang rape of young women who wander into their parties, and the administrators at U. Va. whom Erdely accused of self-interested callousness toward rape victims. Ms. Erdely seems to believe that her story was really “true”–men who belong to fraternities are animals, and university administrators are corrupt buffoons–and she only chose the wrong vehicle to express these verities.
There is an old saying that something is “too good to be true.” In journalism they use the phrase “too good to check” to refer to a story that is so perfect that the journalist is afraid to verify it lest it turn out to not be true. Jackie’s tale of ritualized gang-rape was too good to check.
It was a perfect storm of lies and gullibility.
What is most amazing is that nobody was punished or fired. Not even Sabrina Erdley. Jackie is reportedly still a student at UVA. A scathing report has been issued, but nothing has changed. Incredibly, some people still insist that “something happened” to Jackie.
It reminds me of when Hillary took responsibility for Benghazi. There is more to accountability than saying “My bad!”