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.

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A Baltimore TV station’s incendiary ‘error’

A television station in Baltimore edited video of protesters calling for the jailing of “killer cops” to make it sound like they were chanting “kill a cop.” I find it horrifying that anyone this side of the white supremacist movement would do something so irresponsible at a time when relations between the police and communities of color are already fraught.

David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun reports that WBFF, a Sinclair-owned Fox affiliate, has called the incident “an error” and posted an apology on its website (which I can’t find on  the station’s home page or its news page this morning). Some error. In fact, the protesters were chanting, “We won’t stop. We can’t stop ’til killer cops are in cell blocks.” The footage was recorded at a protest in Washington on Sunday and was carried by C-SPAN.

If this really was an error, it’s a matter of someone making some pretty ugly assumptions about the protesters. The fact that the line “are in cell blocks” was edited out raises serious questions about whether this was truly an error. Mediaite has posted the original WBFF video. You should take a look.

Is this the media fail of the year? I think so. Bad as Rolling Stone’s false story about a sexual assault at UVA was, WBFF’s ignorant stunt could incite violence. Broadcast stations such as WBFF are licensed and regulated by the FCC. I am not a fan of letting the government poke into matters involving the First Amendment. But in this case I’d say a hearing is in order. We need to know how this happened.

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.

Flashback: The state of digital culture in 1993

In the spring of 1993 I attended a conference on journalism and technology at Columbia University. It was a time when the digital culture that was to emerge was right on the brink: the Internet was not nearly as much of a force in the lives of ordinary people as were commercial services like Prodigy, and Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser, had just been released. With The Boston Globe just having run an image of the story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix after that conference, I thought I’d reproduce it here in full.

Future Watch: Lost in space

Why the electronic village may be a very lonely place

Copyright © 1993 by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.

May 7, 1993: From 500-channel interactive TV to portable electronic newspapers, an unprecedented explosion of information technology awaits us in the next several years. These services, media analysts say, will allow you to tailor news programming to your own interests, do your banking and shopping at home, and make restaurant reservations with a hand-held computer while you’re sitting at a bus stop.

Certainly the speakers were bullish at this past week’s conference on “Newsroom Technology: The Next Generation,” sponsored by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, at Columbia University, in New York. Expert after expert talked in rapturous tones about the “information highway,” fiber optics, coaxial cable, digital compression, and the like.

But there’s a dark side to the emerging electronic village, acknowledged almost as an afterthought amid the glowing financial projections and the futuristic technobabble. And that dark side is this: as information becomes increasingly decentralized, there’s a danger that consumers of that information — all of us, in other words — will become more and more isolated from society and from each other.

What’s being lost is the sense of shared cultural experience — the nationwide community that gathered to watch, say, the Vietnam War, in the 1960s, or the Watergate hearings, in the 1970s. Media analyst Les Brown, a former television reporter for the New York Times, believes that for all their “insufferable arrogance” during that era, the Big Three networks “served the needs of democracy very well.” With 500 channels, he fears, users will choose news programming that suits their political biases — if they choose any news programming at all.

“Whatever happened to everybody talking to each other?” he asked during the Freedom Forum gathering. “What happened to this big tent we used to have? As the media become more democratized, they may serve the needs of democracy less well.” Continue reading “Flashback: The state of digital culture in 1993”

Victim or villain? Times and Post analyze Bowe Bergdahl

Afghanistan Prisoner Swap
Bowe Bergdahl

Update: June 3. The Times and the Post change places today, with the Times running a story on Bergdahl’s dubious record in Afghanistan and the Post publishing an article on the problems Bergdahl may have re-integrating into his life in Idaho.

Is Bowe Bergdahl a victim or a villain? In their sidebars to the main story this morning, The New York Times and The Washington Post tell dramatically different tales about the Army sergeant, who was released by the Taliban in Afghanistan on Saturday after five years as a prisoner of war.

The Times’ story, headlined “Mentally, G.I. Has Long Path Back to Idaho,” by Mark Landler, is sympathetic to Bergdahl. Noting that the soldier was subjected to tremendous stress during his captivity, and possibly torture, Landler writes that Bergdahl will require a great deal of physical and psychological treatment in order for him to be able to reclaim his life. Landler:

It is not yet clear whether Sergeant Bergdahl was tortured by his captors, as were many prisoners of war in North Vietnam. But given the ruthless reputation of those who held him, experts said it was likely, at a minimum, that he faced unremitting fear.

Bergdahl may even have lost some of his ability to communicate in English after years of exposure to terrorists who spoke nothing but Pashto, former Times correspondent (and former captive) David Rohde is quoted as saying.

By contrast, the Post’s article, by Dan Lamothe and Kevin Sieff, focuses on the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance in 2009, questioning whether Bergdahl deserted his unit (touched on only briefly by the Times) and if the subsequent search may have placed U.S. forces in danger (mentioned not at all by the Times).

In print, the Post’s headline is relatively mild: “Among some peers, resentment lingers.” The online version is a scorcher: “Mixed reaction to Bergdahl’s recovery by service members who consider him a deserter.”

Particularly rough is a quote from Javier Ortiz, a former Army medic who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. Ortiz tells the Post:

I had a responsibility while I was there to the guys I was with, and that’s why this hits the hardest. Regardless of what you learned while being there, we still have a responsibility to the men to our left and right. It’s terrible, what he did.

The Post also quotes from a long, pseudonymous comment posted below a profile of Bergdahl by the late Michael Hastings that was published in Rolling Stone in 2012.  The comment reads in part:

The Taliban knew that we were looking for him in high numbers and our movements were predictable. Because of Bergdahl, more men were out in danger, and more attacks on friendly camps and positions were conducted while we were out looking for him. His actions impacted the region more than anyone wants to admit.

The use of unverified comments on the Post’s part is extraordinary, as is its quoting from a series of tweets by @CodyFNfootball that went on in a similar vein following Bergdahl’s release. The Post justified it by saying:

The Washington Post contacted the individual running the Twitter account but received no reply. Like the Rolling Stone comment, however, the tweets included enough specifics about Bergdahl’s unit and location to be regarded as potentially credible by many discussing the case.

The comments, of course, were already widely available online, and they match up with other reporting by the Post. (They also match up with Hastings’ largely sympathetic profile of Bergdahl.) So I have no problem with the Post’s using them as long as everyone understands that they may not be what they seem to be.

As for which story we’ll be talking about more in the days to come, the edge has to go to the Post. The Obama administration was already facing criticism, as Jonathan Topaz reports in Politico, for cutting a deal with the Taliban to send five Guantánamo prisoners to Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl.

At the very least, the Post’s reporting (and not just the Post’s — see this, by CNN’s Jake Tapper, for example) raises serious questions that demand answers.

Swartz case leads Media Nation’s top 10 of 2013

Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012
Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012

Last January, not long after the young Internet genius Aaron Swartz committed suicide, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate wrote powerfully about the abusive prosecutorial tactics that may have led to his death.

Swartz faced a lengthy federal prison sentence for downloading academic articles at MIT without authorization. Even though the publisher, JSTOR, declined to press charges, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz brought a case agains Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As Silverglate put it, the law is “a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.”

Silverglate’s article was republished in Media Nation with the permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, where it originally appeared. And it was far and away the most viewed article in Media Nation in 2013.

Today we present Media Nation’s top 10 posts for 2013, based on statistics compiled by WordPress.com. They represent a range of topics — from the vicissitudes of talk radio to a media conflict of interest, from Rolling Stone’s controversial cover image of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the sad, sudden death of The Boston Phoenix.

The top 10 is by no means representative of the year in media. Certainly the biggest story about journalism in 2013 involved the National Security Agency secrets revealed by Edward Snowden to The Guardian and The Washington Post — a story that did not make the cut at Media Nation.

Here, then, is our unrepresentative sample for the past 12 months.

1. Harvey Silverglate on the Aaron Swartz case (Jan. 24). Few people were more qualified to weigh in on U.S. Attorney Ortiz’s abusive tactics than Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator, who several years ago wrote “Three Felonies a Day,” a book on how the federal justice system has spun out of control. But Silverglate’s take wasn’t the only article about Swartz to generate interest in Media Nation. The aftermath of Swartz’s suicide also came in at No. 11 (“The Globe turns up the heat on Carmen Ortiz,” Jan. 11) and No. 13 (“Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the meaning of justice,” Jan. 14). In a bit of poetic justice, a project Swartz was working on at the time of his death — software that allows whistleblowers to submit documents without being identified — was unveiled by The New Yorker just several months after his suicide.

2. The New Republic’s new owner crosses a line (Jan. 28). A little more than a year ago, the venerable New Republic was saved by Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who is using some of his fortune to restore the magazine to relevance and fiscal health. But he crossed an ethical line last January when he took part in an interview with President Obama, whose campaign he had worked on, and tossed a series of softball questions his way. At the time I wrote that Hughes was guilty of “no more than a minor misstep.” So how did it rise to No. 2? It turns out that a number of right-leaning websites picked up on it, bringing a considerable amount of traffic to Media Nation that I normally don’t receive.

3. Dailies go wild over sports controversies (Aug. 30). Four months after publishing this item, I find it hard to make heads or tails of what was going on. But essentially Globe-turned-Herald sportswriter Ron Borges contributed to a Rolling Stone article on the Aaron Hernandez murder case, which generated some tough criticism from both the Globe and the well-known blog Boston Sports Media Watch. That was followed almost immediately by a Globe article on the ratings collapse of sports radio station WEEI (AM 850), which brought yet more tough talk from, among others, ’EEI morning co-host Gerry Callahan, who also happens to write a column for the Herald. Yes, Boston is a small town.

4. Rolling Stone’s controversial cover (July 17). I thought it was brilliant. I still do. The accusion that Rolling Stone was trying to turn Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into some sort of pop-culture hero is absurd and offensive — and not borne out by the well-reported article that the cover was designed to illustrate.

5. Glenn Ordway walks the ratings plank (Feb. 14). Ordway built sports talker WEEI into a ratings monster only to see its numbers crater in the face of competition from the Sports Hub (WBZ-FM, 98.5). Ordway was by no means the problem with WEEI. But station management decided it could no longer afford his $500,000 contract, and so that was it for the Big O.

6. A big moment for The Boston Globe (Dec. 17). It was actually a big year for the Globe, from its riveting coverage of the marathon bombing and the standoff that led to the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the paper’s acquisition by Red Sox principal owner John Henry. But two days in mid-December were emblematic of the paper’s continuing excellence and relevance — a long, detailed exposé of the Tsarnaev family that revealed Dzhokhar, rather than his older brother, Tamerlan, may have been the driving force behind the bombing; an investigation into a case of alleged “medical child abuse” that pitted a Connecticut family against Children’s Hospital; and a nationally celebrated series of tweets by staff reporter Billy Baker about a Boston teenager from a poor family who had been admitted to Yale.

7. The Boston Phoenix reaches the end of the road (March 14). A stalwart of the alternative-weekly scene and my professional home from 1991 to 2005, the Phoenix was a voice of incalculable importance. But with even the legendary Village Voice struggling to survive, the alt-weekly moment may have passed. At the time of its death, the Phoenix had more than 100,000 readers — but little revenue, as advertising had dried up and both the print edition and the website were free. I scribbled a few preliminary thoughts in this post, and later wrote something more coherent for PBS MediaShift.

8. The return of Jim Braude and Margery Eagan (Feb. 6). Eagan and Braude’s morning show was the one bright spot on WTKK Radio, an otherwise run-of-the-mill right-wing talk station that had been taken off the air a month earlier. So it was good news indeed when the pair was hired to host “Boston Public Radio” from noon to 2 p.m. on public station WGBH (89.7 FM). (Note: (I am a paid contributor to WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” where Eagan is a frequent panelist.)

9. Joe Scarborough grapples with history — and loses (Feb. 17). Asking cable blowhard Scarborough to write a review for The New York Times Book Review about the relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon could have been a smart, counterintuitive move. But it only works if the writer in question is, you know, smart.

10. The bell tolls for WTKK Radio (Jan. 3). As I already mentioned, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan were able to walk away from the rubble of WTKK, which was shut down by corporate owner Greater Media and turned into an urban music station. Just a few years earlier the station had been a ratings success with trash-talking hosts like Jay Severin and Michael Graham. But tastes change — sometimes for the better.

Photo (cc) by Maria Jesus V and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Globe, Herald at center of multimedia sports battle

Aaron Hernandez
Aaron Hernandez

The week before Labor Day is usually a slow one, but the last few days have featured some hot Globe-on-Herald action (by proxy). If you haven’t been following it, here’s your guide to catching up.

On Tuesday, Rolling Stone published an article offering new information about former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez, who faces first-degree murder charges. I haven’t read the article, but you can. According to various summaries, including this one, Hernandez reportedly carried a gun at all times, used angel dust and did not get along with Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

So where’s the Globe-Herald angle? The article was written by Paul Solotaroff and Ron Borges — the latter being a former Boston Globe sportswriter who now toils at the Boston Herald.

Borges’ contribution prompted a tough blog post on Wednesday by Bruce Allen of Boston Sports Media Watch. His headline — “Plagiarist Ruins Perfectly Good Rolling Stone Feature” — sets the tone for what follows. Borges, as those of you without long memories might not know, left the Globe under a cloud in 2007 after he was found to have committed something akin to plagiarism in his Sunday football notes column.

I wrote about Borges’ departure at the time, and, as you will see, I thought he got a bad rap, given that the Sunday notes columns produced by him and other beat reporters included this disclaimer: “material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.” Is it really plagiarism when you announce in advance that you’re lifting other people’s work?

Allen’s diatribe turned out to be just the opening act. On Thursday, the Globe’s Ben Volin went after the Rolling Stone article in a story that carried the deceptively mild headline “What Rolling stone got right, wrong on Aaron Hernandez.” Though Volin allows that Solotaroff and Borges did “a thorough job of recounting Hernandez’s sordid past,” he goes on to say that “the story also is filled with sensationalism, hearsay, convenient fact-bending, and even one blatant falsity.”

Whoa. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it in the Globe. And though I’m not in a position to judge the accuracy or fairness of the case that Volin lays out, it makes for a pretty entertaining read. I’d love to see Borges respond in the Herald.

(Both the Globe and the Herald today report Patriots president Jonathan Kraft’s refutation of the Rolling Stone article.)

As if this weren’t enough, the Globe on Thursday also ran a front-page story on the ratings collapse of sports radio station WEEI (AM 850) in the face of a challenge by upstart WBZ-FM (98.5 FM), better known as “The Sports Hub.” The article was written by business reporter Callum Borchers, a terrific young journalist who I had the privilege of getting to know when he was part of Northeastern’s graduate journalism program a couple of years ago.

The Herald angle is that Borchers devotes a good chunk of his story to WEEI’s “Dennis & Callahan” show, and Gerry Callahan is a Herald columnist. On its website, the station emphasizes the fact that Borchers is a former WEEI intern, something that was not disclosed in the article. You can hear Callahan and Borchers mixing it up on the air in this clip.

Should the Globe have noted that Borchers was once an unpaid summer intern at the station he was writing about? I don’t think disclosure ever hurts, but in this case I’m not sure what it would have added. There is no current conflict. I’ve written critically about many news organizations where I’ve applied for jobs, starting with the Globe and the Herald. (I even had a three-day tryout at the Herald in 1988.) I’m noting that here not by way of disclosure, but to point out how ridiculous it can get.

In any event, as with Borges, I hope Callahan will use his Herald column to respond. Because the three leading topics in Boston, as always, are sports, politics and revenge — with revenge being the most interesting of all.

More: “Dennis & Callahan” third wheel Kirk Minihane unloads on Borchers and the Globe.

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