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The Columbia Report on Rolling Stone's Rape Story Is Bad for Journalism

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Last year, Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus,” a story whose centerpiece was a horrific tale of the orchestrated gang rape of a student named “Jackie” at a fraternity party. Rolling Stone has now retracted the story, after neither it nor any outside investigators (of whom there were many) could corroborate the details or even the fact of Jackie's alleged ordeal. Mortified, Rolling Stone then invited Steve Coll, dean of Columbia Journalism School, and his colleagues to investigate the matter.

That report is now out. It asks how Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the writer, could have been so credulous in reporting Jackie's story, and how managing editor Will Dana, editor Sean Woods, and the magazine's fact-checkers could have failed to follow up on even basic corroborating evidence. The Columbia report is a thorough, sober, and detailed review of how an institution renowned for investigative work could have gotten this story so wrong. It is destined to be required reading in journalism schools for decades to come. It is also harmful to journalism.

The problem with the Columbia report isn't its content. The problem is that no such report was needed, because the mistake Rolling Stone made was not subtle, complex, or hidden. Their mistake was so elemental it has a name: The Story Too Good To Check. Sophomores in Journalism 101 learn about it by their midterm exams. Cub reporters are told “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” The classic play The Front Page joked about it almost a century ago.

The Story Too Good To Check happens at the intersection of journalism's two imperatives: Be truthful, and be interesting. This doesn't provide a lot of room to operate—almost everything that's true is boring and almost everything that's interesting is false. There’s an asymmetry in the profession, however; journalists are expected to be truthful, but they are rewarded for being interesting. It is into that asymmetry that “A Rape On Campus” fell. 

There is enormous public demand for unbelievable believable stories. Storytellers fill that gap, and the job of fact-checkers and editors—the saddest, most essential job in the entire profession—is to discover and remove assertions that are unbelievable not because they are astonishing, but because they are wrong. Even seasoned professionals screw this up. The New York Times published Jayson Blair’s bogus reporting. Oprah sold James Frey's fabricated life story to her audience as the real deal. “This American Life” aired Mike Daisey's monologue on Apple and Chinese manufacturing as if the show had fact-checked it. This magazine allowed Stephen Glass to invent story after story.

Sometimes the storytellers in these scenarios are the journalists themselves. These are the easy cases. The only issue a Glass or a Blair raises is why they weren't fired sooner. The more common pattern is for the storytellers to be the journalist's source, someone who offers a reporter the thing they most want in the world, a story that is both amazing and true.

Failure to cast a skeptical eye isn't a simple mistake. It's the dividing line between journalism and rumor. Someone who publishes an unchecked assertion as if it had been verified has, however momentarily, abandoned the profession. For a piece like “A Rape on Campus,” healthy skepticism was especially necessary because the story, meant to shine a light on a significant social ill, was going to have to survive a lot of scrutiny.

It isn't hard to find the kind of stories Erdely meant to report. If someone says she was raped, she is almost certainly telling the truth. (Multi-site studies suggest the accuracy of reports of rape is between 90 and 98 percent.) The only way you could give a national stage to falsified reports of rape: if you centered your story on a single example, then picked a template that would fit liars better than truth-tellers. This is what Erdely did, and what Rolling Stone approved of, supported, and published.

As my colleague Jay Rosen has pointed out, Erdely decided to look for the “right” rape victim, interviewing women at several colleges, but not finding their (doubtless accurate) accounts of sexual assault emblematic enough. This desire for the one perfect victim essentially committed Erdely to passing over dozens of women telling the truth, until she got to a sufficiently appealing fabulist. Erdely got conned by Jackie because she wanted to believe. Rolling Stone got conned by Erdely for the same reason.

So when you publish The Story That's Too Good To Check, what do you do? You publish a post mortem. This too is an old pattern; there is a long history of this sort of retrospection, a genre that might be called A Serious Look at How We Did That Bone-Headed Thing. Time magazine ran a review of Philip Elmer-Dewitt's being hoodwinked by an undergrad posing as a researcher. Oprah had James Frey on her show to browbeat him. The New Republic issued a review of Stephen Glass's output, finding he'd falsified as many as half of his stories. Ira Glass devoted an entire episode to castigating Mike Daisey.

The contents of these reports are often quite good reporting, laying bare the faults of the individuals and the process, by way of coming to the foregone conclusion that something went terribly wrong. The function of these reports, however, is to absorb blame. A failure of fact-checking is made up for by after-the-fact checking. The ideal report makes the process by which the failure unfolded so complex and even interesting that its very publication begins the rehabilitation of the organization whose failure occasioned the need for the report in the first place.

If opprobrium can be spread around enough, the org chart can stay intact—if everyone is to blame, or, even better, if “the process” failed, then the organization can argue that what is needed is learning, rather than anybody losing their job. The easiest place to heap the blame, of course, is on the source. When “This American Life” ran its hour-long followup, Glass noted that his organization didn't seriously check Daisey's story, which amounted to Glass admitting “I'm not a journalist, but I play one on the radio.” You’d think this was the focus of the story, but most of the hour was instead dedicated to attacking Daisey. 

Fabulists gonna fab; blaming the source is admitting you didn’t do your job. This has found a disgusting nadir in the aftermath of “A Rape on Campus,” with Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone's publisher, blaming Jackie for his own employees’ failures. This is ridiculous, of course. Anyone serious about journalism has to defend against publishing false information, a commitment that practically constitutes the profession. 

The problem with “A Rape on Campus” wasn't that Rolling Stone was expertly taken in. Erdely travelled around the country rejecting real reports until she found a fake one she liked. The problem wasn't process. Skeptical review isn't a step in some journalistic production line: It’s the product. New procedures won't help. A group of people who could decide not to check their sources could also decide not to follow a rule that says you always have to check your sources. The problem with “A Rape On Campus,” as made plain by the Columbia report, is this: that had even one person at Rolling Stone asked “How do we know this is true?” the entire thing would have unravelled.

Yet the report, at almost 13,000 words and marked so clearly as Serious Business, cushions the very blow it delivers. Steve Coll is the dean of American journalism, one of the greatest investigative reporters in the nation's history and the actual dean of our most famous journalism school. He elevates everything he is involved with. This failure, however, did not need and does not deserve that sort of elevation. Trying to get to the bottom of the failure of “A Rape on Campus” is like trying to get to the bottom of a yogurt cup. Neither sharp tools nor much digging are required.

The report allows Rolling Stone to look transparent (“We allowed outsiders to investigate us!”) rather than incompetent (“We stopped being journalists and became stenographers!”). This in turn provides Wenner a rationale for not firing Dana, Woods, or Erdely; self-flagellation is always an act of propitiation. As Brian Stelter reported at CNN, “according to people with direct knowledge of [Wenner's] thinking, he concluded that the publication of Columbia's report was essentially punishment enough.” Perfect!

The weight and care taken by Coll and his fellow authors undermines what should have been their core message: Rolling Stone made the oldest mistake in the book, an obvious and trite error. We would all have been better served had the Columbia report been three sentences long: 

We investigated the matter thoroughly. We found no extenuating circumstances. The writers, editors, and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone abdicated the skepticism required by their profession. 

The rest is just an appendix.