Bernard Law’s legacy of evil

Bernard Law in the 1980s. Photo (cc) via City of Boston Archives.

In late 1990 and early 1991 I spent four and a half months as the production manager for The Pilot, the Archdiocese of Boston’s venerable weekly newspaper. It was a difficult time in my life, and I was happy to take the job. They didn’t ask if I was a Catholic; I didn’t tell them I wasn’t.

One of my responsibilities was to proofread and lay out Cardinal Bernard Law’s weekly column. There wasn’t much to that particular task. As I was reminded in reading Law’s obituary this morning, he had spent the early part of his career as the editor of a Catholic newspaper.

Of course, Law’s facility with a typewriter is not the first thing we think of when we look back upon his legacy. Law was an evil man — evil in the way of people who accept the realities of whatever bureaucratic environment they happen to find themselves in, carrying out their tasks without regard for morality or humanity. Law facilitated the serial rape of children, and if that made him not much different from others in his position, that doesn’t exonerate him, either.

In 2001 I had the privilege of sharing a pod at The Boston Phoenix with Kristen Lombardi, one of the country’s great investigative reporters. Kristen, who’s now with the Center for Public Integrity, wrote a series of detailed articles showing that Law was reassigning and covering up for the pedophile priests under his command. The following year, The Boston Globe began its remarkable Spotlight series, which resulted in Law’s resignation and a well-deserved Pulitzer for the Globe — not to mention the movie “Spotlight.” (Walter Robinson, who oversaw the Spotlight Team’s coverage of pedophile priests, spoke with WGBH Radio earlier today.)

After fleeing Boston 15 years ago, Law lived the good life in the Vatican. I don’t know if he understood the horror of what he had done, but surely he understood that he was a reviled figure. It’s too bad that, when he was still alive and healthy, Pope Francis didn’t fly him back to Boston under armed guard and order him to fend for himself in the city where he did so much harm. But not only did Francis not take such action, he’s honoring him with his presence at the funeral.

The phrase “banality of evil” is unavoidable in thinking about Law. I doubt he even realized he was doing anything wrong until it was too late. His life demonstrates the importance of exercising our individual conscience and of never putting the needs of an institution ahead of human lives. It would be easy to describe his fall as a tragedy, and I’m sure it was to him. The real tragedy, though, was in the suffering of his victims.

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At Rolling Stone, doubt preceded publication

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 12.26.06 PMSabrina Rubin Erdely, the journalist at the heart of the Rolling Stone rape-story scandal, harbored doubts about “Jackie,” her principal source, all along — or, at the very least, had come to doubt her by the time the story was published.

That’s the only way I can make sense of a remarkable section that appears fairly early in the Columbia Journalism Review’s 12,000-word report on Rolling Stone’s article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia for which there turned out to be no credible evidence. The report was written by Steve Coll, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism; Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs; and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate researcher. According to the report:

A week after publication, on the day before Thanksgiving, Erdely spoke with Jackie by phone. “She thanked me many times,” Erdely said. Jackie seemed “adrenaline-charged … feeling really good.”

Erdely chose this moment to revisit the mystery of the lifeguard who had lured Jackie and overseen her assault. Jackie’s unwillingness to name him continued to bother Erdely. Apparently, the man was still dangerous and at large. “This is not going to be published,” the writer said, as she recalled. “Can you just tell me?”

Jackie gave Erdely a name. But as the reporter typed, her fingers stopped. Jackie was unsure how to spell the lifeguard’s last name. Jackie speculated aloud about possible variations.

“An alarm bell went off in my head,” Erdely said. How could Jackie not know the exact name of someone she said had carried out such a terrible crime against her — a man she professed to fear deeply?

Over the next few days, worried about the integrity of her story, the reporter investigated the name Jackie had provided, but she was unable to confirm that he worked at the pool, was a member of the fraternity Jackie had identified or had other connections to Jackie or her description of her assault. She discussed her concerns with her editors. Her work faced new pressures. The writer Richard Bradley had published early if speculative doubts about the plausibility of Jackie’s account. Writers at Slate had challenged Erdely’s reporting during a podcast interview. She also learned that T. Rees Shapiro, a Washington Post reporter, was preparing a story based on interviews at the University of Virginia that would raise serious doubts about Rolling Stone’s reporting.

Late on Dec. 4, Jackie texted Erdely, and the writer called back. It was by now after midnight. “We proceeded to have a conversation that led me to have serious doubts,” Erdely said.

You can see the problem. The story had already been published and had created a sensation. “I was shocked to have a story that was going to go viral in this way,” Erdely told the report’s authors. “My phone was ringing off the hook.” And Erdely felt queasy enough about what she had written that she was still bugging Jackie for the name of the guy who led the gang rape she claimed to have been subjected to at a UVA fraternity house.

From the time that Erdely’s story unraveled, I’ve been wondering what lessons journalists could take away from Rolling Stone’s institutional failures. Those failures were so profound and so basic that it’s hard to know how we can even look at this as a teachable moment. The lesson is “don’t do any of this.” As the CJR report makes clear:

  • Erdely had just one source, Jackie, for her account of the gang rape.
  • She made no more than a passing attempt at interviewing the alleged rapists — and, as we have seen, she never did find out the name of the supposed ringleader.
  • She also did not interview three friends of Jackie’s who supposedly spoke with Jackie shortly after the rape. As the author’s reports note, that stands out as the key failure, since they would have debunked many of the details, which in turn would likely have led to the unraveling of the entire story.

Jay Rosen of New York University has posted a must-read analysis of the CJR report. He writes, “The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative.” Making the facts fit the story, in other words.

In reading the full CJR report, I think there are two other major problems: an understandable instinct to believe the victim (while less understandably ignoring the small internal voice saying, “No, wait, there’s something wrong here”). And a culture inside Rolling Stone that for whatever reason did not allow the story to be derailed even though everyone involved knew there were problems.

Sexual assault on campus is an enormous problem. I know there are those who question the oft-cited statistic that 20 percent of female students are victims. But whatever the true number is, it’s too high. Rolling Stone’s failures have set back efforts to do something about it. So I’ll close by noting that the CJR quotes my former Boston Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi on the right way to do this kind of reporting. Lombardi’s work in this area for the Center for Public Integrity truly represents the gold standard. From the report:

Problems arise when the terms of the compact between survivor and journalist are not spelled out. Kristen Lombardi, who spent a year and a half reporting the Center for Public Integrity’s series on campus sexual assault, said she made it explicit to the women she interviewed that the reporting process required her to obtain documents, collect evidence and talk to as many people involved in the case as possible, including the accused. She prefaced her interviews by assuring the women that she believed in them but that it was in their best interest to make sure there were no questions about the veracity of their accounts. She also allowed victims some control, including determining the time, place and pace of their interviews.

If a woman was not ready for such a process, Lombardi said, she was prepared to walk away.

In “The Elements of Journalism,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write, “In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art.”

Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her colleagues at Rolling Stone trusted (sort of) but did not verify.

This commentary also appears at WGBHNews.org.

Caitlin Flanagan on the harm caused by Rolling Stone

The single best analysis I’ve run across regarding the meltdown of Rolling Stone’s story about rape at the University of Virginia campus is by Caitlin Flanagan, the author of a long investigation into fraternities that was published by The Atlantic earlier this year.

Flanagan was interviewed by “On the Media” over the weekend. Give it a listen and you’ll understand why journalistic failures by Rolling Stone and journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely have done so much damage to the campaign against sexual assault on campus.

The gold standard for reporting on this issue has been set by my friend and former colleague Kristen Lombardi of the Center for Public Integrity. Here is an archive of her work.

A harrowing case of sexual assault on campus

This is long but worth it: a deep dive into a case of sexual assault on campus by Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times. If you’ve ever thought that the college form of justice discriminates against men and subjects them to unfounded accusations, here is an example of just the opposite occurring.

For more, here is my friend Kristen Lombardi’s series “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice,” which she reported for the Center for Public Integrity.

Please feel free to get angry at George Will all over again.

Why you should be upset about “upset” emissions

ExxonMobil Refinery, Baytown TX
ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown, Texas

Kristen Lombardi, the best reporter I ever worked with, has a horrifying new report on an environmental hazard you’ve probably never heard of before — “upset” emissions, accidental and/or unplanned dumping of toxic chemicals that is underreported precisely because it is accidental and/or unplanned.

A Boston Phoenix alumna who’s now on staff at the Center for Public Integrity, Lombardi finds that the miserable consequences of this dumping is particularly acute in the unregulated business paradise that is Texas and Louisiana.

“Nobody really understands what’s being dumped on them,” a former resident of Baytown, Texas — home of a massive ExxonMobil petrochemical complex — tells Lombardi. “It’s an invisible kind of poison that’s being rained down.”

Photo (cc) by Roy Luck and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The Globe, the Phoenix and the pedophile-priest story

Jim Romenesko has posted a letter from my friend Susan Ryan-Vollmar on the Boston Phoenix’s groundbreaking work in exposing the pedophile-priest story, and on the Boston Globe’s ongoing silence about the Phoenix’s coverage, which predated the Globe’s by nearly a year.

I think Susan, a former Phoenix news editor, gets it fundamentally right. The Globe got the documents that led to Cardinal Bernard Law’s departure. The Globe richly deserved the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service that it won in 2003. But I agree with Susan that Kristen Lombardi’s reporting for the Phoenix warrants more public recogntion than it has received.

Susan, Kristen (currently a Nieman Fellow) and I all worked at the Phoenix together and remain friends. I consider Kristen to be the finest reporter I ever worked with. Susan is a first-rate editor who did much to shape and focus Kristen’s stories. Walter Robinson, who was the Globe Spotlight team editor that covered the priest scandal, is now a valued colleague at Northeastern.

But Susan has laid down the gauntlet, and Romenesko has asked Globe editor Marty Baron to respond. This bears watching.

Kristen Lombardi named a Nieman Fellow

Kristen Lombardi

Congratulations to my friend and former Boston Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi, who will be a fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation in 2011-’12. FOKs have known for a few weeks, but today Nieman made it official. It looks like an impressive group.

Kristen is a dogged investigative reporter, the best I worked with. While at the Phoenix, she broke several important parts of the pedophile-priest story months before the Boston Globe began its Pulitzer Prize-winning work. I’m proud to say I worked at the Phoenix during the Kristen Lombardi era.

For the past few years she’s been at the Center for Public Integrity, where she recently won a Dart Award for her reporting on sexual assault on college and university campuses.

Reporting sexual assaults on campus

My former Boston Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi is the lead reporter in a series on how college and university administrators respond to allegations of sexual assault. Published by the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit investigative-reporting project, the series is the product of months of work and scores of interviews.

Lombardi reports that when law enforcement declines to step in because of insufficient evidence, conflicting stories and the like, colleges are mandated under federal law to investigate. Yet victims and alleged victims encounter a frustrating atmosphere of secrecy and of administrators who don’t always take them seriously. Lombardi writes:

College administrators bristle at the idea they’re shielding rapes. But they admit they’ve wrestled with confidentiality in campus assault proceedings because of FERPA and the Clery Act [federal laws that mandate privacy]. Confusion over the laws has reinforced what critics see as a culture of silence that casts doubt on the credibility of the process. “People will think we’re running star chambers,” says Don Gehring, founder of the Association for Student Conduct Administration, referring to secret, arbitrary courts in old England. “And that’s what’s happening now.”

The series, “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice,” is a vivid example of investigative journalism’s migration to online, non-profit organizations. And, as is more and more often the case with such projects, it comes complete with multimedia, additional resources and an extensive “Reporter’s Toolkit” to help news organizations follow up on the work produced by Lombardi and her fellow journalists.

Last week, Lombardi discussed her report on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”