Why The Media’s Fact Problems Are Way Bigger Than Rolling Stone

Why The Media’s Fact Problems Are Way Bigger Than Rolling Stone

Too many reporters have "Jackies" -- politicians and causes they trust uncritically no matter what.
Mollie Hemingway

George Packer argues in The New Yorker that journalism’s big crisis is just a business crisis. In the very first paragraph, noting the collapse of Rolling Stone’s story about a violent gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, he makes the absurd claim it “has no larger significance for journalism beyond itself.” Later he digs in:

There’s no ongoing wave of plagiarism, fabrication, and inaccuracy; like earlier scandals (The New Republics Ruth Shalit and Stephen Glass; the Times’ Jayson Blair; CBS News’s Lara Logan; Alastair Reid, formerly of this magazine), Rolling Stone’s problems don’t reveal an across-the-board collapse of standards. Such journalistic sins remain the exceptions, with an ancient ancestry; they’re just easier to uncover in the Internet age.

Oh come on! The writer who sent the story to me suggested Packer must be very familiar with a river in Egypt.

It’s absolutely true that we don’t have a wave of outright fabrication-out-of-whole-cloth. But what we have is much worse. We have a tsunami of inaccuracy that is generally tolerated, embraced and even celebrated so long as it serves the right political and cultural goals.

The media’s tsunami of inaccuracy is generally tolerated, embraced and even celebrated so long as it serves the right political and cultural goals.

Yes, the latest shocking revelations about Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone’s journalism are stunning. They really, really messed up. Even more than we previously realized. They should receive every bit of opprobrium coming their way. But they should not be the scapegoat for a problem that is riddled throughout journalism. Waving it away in denial, as Packer tries to do, only announces one’s cluelessness.

Shattered Glass

Stephen Glass was a journalist at The New Republic who made up stories, or significant parts of them. Three dozen of the 41 stories he wrote for The New Republic were said to be fabricated in part or in whole, along with articles for George and Rolling Stone.

Where have I heard this story since?

I knew Stephen Glass was full of it in 1997 after I read his absolutely incredible story about all the sex and crazy partying done by young Republicans at a conservative gathering called CPAC. I had been at enough conservative functions — including that one — to know that they would have been a heck of a lot more interesting if they focused on sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But in the fever dreams of Stephen Glass, they did. Here are the opening two paragraphs of the very detailed story that, it later turned out, nobody could verify:

On the fourth floor of Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel, eight young men sit facing each other on the edge of a pair of beds. They are all 20 or 21 and are enrolled in Midwestern colleges. Each is wearing a white or blue shirt with the top button unfastened, and each has his striped tie loosened. One of the young men, an Ohioan, is wearing a green and white button that reads: “Save the Males.” The minibar is open and empty little bottles of booze are scattered on the carpet. On the bed, a Gideon Bible, used earlier in the night to resolve an argument, is open to Exodus. In the bathroom, the tub is filled with ice and the remnants of three cases of Coors Light. The young men pass around a joint, counterclockwise…

Over the next hour, in a haze of beer and pot, and in between rantings about feminists, gays and political correctness, the young men hatch a plan. Seth, a meaty quarterback from a small college in Indiana, and two others will drive to a local bar. There, the three will choose the ugliest and loneliest woman they can find. “Get us a real heifer, the fatter the better, bad acne would be a bonus,” Michael shouts. He is so drunk he doesn’t know he is shouting. Seth will lure the victim, whom they call a “whale,” back to the hotel room. The five who stay behind will hide under the beds. After Seth undresses the whale, the five will jump out and shout, “We’re beaching! Whale spotted!” They will take a photograph of the unfortunate woman.

So we have eight conservative men — first names only, thank you! — who participate in a gang sexual assault after drinking beer and smoking a joint. Where have I heard this story beforesince?

Glass’ story later describes — in vivid Rolling Stone-like cinematic detail — this gang sexual assault in greater detail and says that “[t]his repellent scene was only a little beyond the norm of the conference. A wash of despair and alcohol and brutishness hung over the whole thing.” He also describes an orgy that, when you realize he invented it, makes his sexual imagination look cartoonish.

One of the details in Erdely’s story that caused people to question her narrative was the shattered glass table Jackie said she was raped on.

One of the oddities of the Rolling Stone gang rape story’s dramatic unraveling is that author Erdely was a classmate of Stephen Glass at the University of Pennsylvania. They graduated the same year — 1994. And they both worked on The Daily Pennsylvanian. After the movie Shattered Glass came out, Erdely wrote about Glass and his journalistic problems. Her essay is full of great lines about how Glass’ “reporting felt almost too good to be true.” She calls him a sociopathic creep and points out he took more time covering up his falsehoods than it would have taken to just report the story to begin with. She wants to know why he did it. It’s a coincidence, too, that one of the details in Erdely’s story that caused people to question her narrative was the shattered glass table Jackie said she’d been raped by seven violent men on. That much shattered glass must have led to horrible injuries. How did the rapists keep from getting injured? These questions about shattered glass led, in part, to the eventual implosion of the entire narrative.

A journalist I follow on Twitter asks:


The latest story from the Washington Post’s T. Rees Shapiro shows that “Jackie” was engaged in a great deal of deception of her friends. She seems to have invented a suitor in order to make another boy jealous. Her stories about what she claims happened on Sept. 28, 2012, have changed a lot. Clearly this young woman has made some very bad decisions. But what the story really shows is just what bad journalism Erdely was doing. One of the tidbits in the story is that while Erdely claimed that one student had declined to speak with her out of “loyalty” to his fraternity, he said she’d never contacted him and he would have been happy to talk.

The real problem doesn’t seem at this point to be about journalistic invention so much as adoption of narratives at the expense of facts.

In any case, the Occam’s razor explanation at this point would not be that we’re dealing with an outright journalistic fabricator. This isn’t quite the same story as Glass or the New York Times’ Jayson Blair or the Washington Post’s Janet Cooke. It’s not at the level of the Monkeyfishing debacle, even if we know from her own claims that she wanted to write a story on “rape culture,” that she shopped around for a suitably horrifying story at an elite or Ivy League university, that she clung to the gang rape story even when the source asked to be removed from the article, and that she failed to do anything close to the minimum amount of checking on this story to make sure she wasn’t about to publish material that could make life very difficult for innocent people.

But the real problem doesn’t seem, at this point, to be about journalistic invention so much as adoption of narratives at the expense of facts. And that’s something many others struggle with as well.

Phony 1-in-5 Stats

Let’s look at a few tweets in a lengthy conversation between ABC News Analyst Matthew Dowd, National Journal’s Ron Fournier, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg and The Blaze’s Benjamin Weingarten:

This pretty much sums up the use of this statistic even a few days ago. The one-in-five stat has been used by anti-“rape culture” activists, the White House and the media for years. Sometimes you’ll see activists inflate it to one-in-four or one-in-three women on campuses are raped or nearly raped.

Ezra Klein of Vox used the stat to argue in support of affirmative consent laws: “Every discussion of the Yes Means Yes law needs to begin with a simple number: A 2007 study by the Department of Justice found that one in five women is the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault while in college. One. In. Five.”

Folks in the know have long been pointing out what a ridiculous and outlandish and unbelievable statistic this is. Most recently, Slate’s Emily Yoffe wrote at length about how absolutely wrong this statistic is. Who knows if her debunking will go better than all the previous debunkings.

But Rolling Stone’s gang rape story was published in an environment of credulity regarding that statistic and everything it suggests. It is likely true that college campuses are some of the most sexually confusing environments young men and women can find themselves in. It is of course true that any rape or attempted rape should be dealt with severely. It’s true that the way we handle sexual assault on campuses couldn’t be more messed up. But good policies are not aided by really bad numbers. And the Rolling Stone article was advocacy journalism designed to get policies changed. Yes, Erdely and Rolling Stone made some major journalistic malpractices. But so did a lot of other media outlets who parroted this claim without any of the skepticism they should have applied.

And it’s not just about statistics but how we cover this issue in general. Tim Dickinson, who covers National Affairs for Rolling Stone, had a couple of tweets that look really bad in retrospect:

Still, he noted that the New York Times, Slate and the Washington Post had all written about an easily identifiable, alleged serial campus rapist but only spoke to the alleged victim. There are major and important differences here, but perhaps the lesson wasn’t to ease up on Rolling Stone so much as make sure everyone improves their reporting on this topic.

BuzzFeed published a piece in recent days arguing for letting the narrative trump the truth when it comes to sexual assault stories. Are we sure all the blame should be on Rolling Stone?

Sabrina Erdely vs. Dana Milbank

Another extreme is to pretend that Erdely and Rolling Stone are total outliers. They’re not.

Some writers, such as this Vox.com reporter and this education writer, are calling for the Washington Post to stop pursuing the truth in the Rolling Stone debacle. That’s one extreme. Another extreme is to pretend that Erdely and Rolling Stone are total outliers. They’re not. They were doing what untold numbers of other journalists and media outlets do every day. And they just didn’t cover their tracks quite as well as others do. Unlike The New Yorker’s Packer, we should think about whether we’re making Erdely and Rolling Stone scapegoats for widespread journalistic worship of narrative and advocacy over truth.

Think about what happened when the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote a piece earlier this year headlined “Heritage’s ugly Benghazi panel,” about how a peaceful Muslim woman named Saba Ahmed was horribly victimized by bigoted anti-terrorism extremists. The immediate reaction from other journalists was to quickly spread the story around (to give just two examples of New York Times reporters swallowing it whole) and express horror at the gang-abuse by conservatives. The only problem with the story was that it wasn’t true. While the quotes were technically accurate, the framing and set-up for the quotes could not have been more inaccurate. I wrote about how Milbank’s eagerly accepted narrative deviated from reality in “Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Dana Milbank.” And I only knew to check the tape because he had once covered an event I spoke at and his write-up bore no resemblance to the actual event.

This was one of those rare instances where other reporters actually paid attention to how very bad Milbank’s story was. He took some heat from others, including a  male media critic named Dylan Byers. Milbank didn’t respond to my very specific points of criticism, and I’m not sure if it’s part of his long-standing problem of treating non-liberal women with respect, but he responded to Byers. He wrote a defense about how he was in the room while Byers only watched a video. And who were you going to believe? Milbank or your lying eyes and ears that also watched the video?

And how did Milbank’s passionate and defiant defense of defaming people go among other journalists? Well, it actually went pretty darn well for him! Who cared about the facts that were observed by a simple viewing of the videotape? See, he’d applied shoe leather to get down to UVA and interview Jackie go over to Heritage and imagine a mob that “taunted” things like “yeah …. yeah.” Here’s a partial list of journalists who praised Milbank: Sarah Posner, Erick Eckholm (New York Times), Brian Beutler (The New Republic), Jamelle Bouie (Slate), Jennifer Bendery (Huffington Post), Adam Weinstein (Gawker), Michael Littwin (Denver Post), Simon Maloy (Salon), David J. Lynch (Bloomberg News), Jessica Valenti, Scott Butterworth (Washington Post), David Montgomery (Washington Post), Jennifer Rubin (Washington Post), Adam Kushner (Washington Post), Felicia Sonmez (AFP), Dan Zak, J. Freedom duLac, Paul Schwartzman (Washington Post), Paul Kane (Washington Post), Wesley Lowery (Washington Post), Greg Sargent (Washington Post), Wayne Slater (Dallas Morning News), Juan Forero (Wall Street Journal), Lori Montgomery (Washington Post), and Michael McAuliff (Huffington Post).

Now, maybe you can cut the Posties some slack for defending one of their own. But Milbank’s claims are indefensible. Yes, actually attending an event is better than not attending the event. But whether you attend or don’t attend, you can’t slice and dice quotes to the point they are unrecognizable or imagine mutterings that no one else can hear or describe a horrific scene when the record of the event doesn’t back it up at all.

But … narrative. If you’re part of a group the media tend not to like, you might get accused of a gang rape or a bullying! And facts be damned.

Could It Be … Satan?

Last year during a debate over late-term abortion legislation in Texas, pro-choice activists countered pro-life prayers and singing with chants of “Hail Satan!” This received almost no media coverage outside of conservative and pro-life media outlets. Of course. But when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, discussed this fact earlier this year, and when Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, described abortion as “savagery,” here’s how the Associated Press twisted things:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Calling their opponents Satan worshippers and savages, anti-abortion lawmakers on Wednesday insisted that Republican contenders keep an intense focus on social issues in the upcoming midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race.

I know you’re shocked — shocked! — that AP reporter Philip Elliott inaccurately described speeches about abortion. But note that it fit the media’s general narrative of downplaying news that might be damaging to the pro-choice movement — COUGH GOSNELL COUGH — while distorting and hyping news about pro-lifers to make them look bad. (And many more examples along these lines here.)

Or one might note the journalistic disaster that was the mainstream media description of Religious Freedom Restoration Act legislation earlier this year. A broad religious liberty bill was renamed by a juvenile, idiotic and/or nakedly activist press as “anti-gay.” See: “Dumb, Uneducated, And Eager To Deceive: Media Coverage Of Religious Liberty In A Nutshell.” Narrative over facts. Always.

The White House Is Our Jackie

Sadly, for many journalists covering politics, it’s a regular practice to trust sources without question when the source is telling them something they want to hear. That’s just as true of reporters covering “Jackie” as it is reporters covering Congress and the White House. Far too many reporters covering this administration are willing to swallow whole the outlandish claims made by officials regarding what happened in the IRS scandal and, basically, every other scandal that we’ve seen in the last six years. The way Sabrina Erdely and Rolling Stone treated Jackie is the way a lot of reporters treat the causes, candidates and White House that they love and are passionate about.

So yeah. George Packer is wrong when he says the Rolling Stone debacle has no larger significance for journalism beyond itself. The media wasn’t exactly swimming in seas of credibility in recent years. But the more we push narrative over facts, the worse it’s going to be for us. You can deny it all you want, but this “shattered glass” debacle is at least as much cause for journalistic introspection as the previous one.

Follow Mollie on Twitter.

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a senior editor at The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @mzhemingway
Photo By Shutterstock
Photo By Shutterstock

Copyright © 2016 The Federalist, a wholly independent division of FDRLST Media, All Rights Reserved.

comments powered by Disqus