Heads Will Not Roll at Rolling Stone

Blame Jackie, Erdely, and Rolling Stone.


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As I previously reported, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner has opted not to fire anyone involved in the now-retracted gang rape story written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, even after a recent investigation by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism highlighted manifest journalistic failures on the parts of Erdely and her editors.

Editor Sean Woods—who made the unforgivable decision to quote Jackie's friend Ryan as declining to be interviewed by Rolling Stone even though no one at the magazine had ever talked with him, or even attempted to reach him—will not lose his job. Nor will Managing Editor Will Dana, nor will the fact-checkers who labored on the story (doing what, I couldn't tell you). Even Erdely, a contributor to Rolling Stone, will somehow keep her job, according to CNN. Wenner said the publication of Columbia's report was punishment enough for all involved.

And in an interview with The New York Times, Wenner laid much of the blame for the story's numerous errors on Jackie herself, calling her "a really expert fabulist storyteller" who hoodwinked his staff. This insistence has prompted something of a backlash, with many on Twitter chiding Wenner for blaming the source for the errors of the editor and the author.

I think it's fine to blame Jackie: she more than deserves this criticism. At one point, many in the media presumed she was exaggerating or misremembering details of the attack because of post-traumatic stress. But we now know that's not the case; Jackie was complicit in a pattern of stunning lies formulated for her own self-promotion and self-preservation. She invented a romantic interest, sent fake text messages from his phone via an online service, lied to her friends about her attack, misrepresented them to a reporter, and fabricated entire conversations at their expense. She used outright deceit to string Erdely and Rolling Stone along. So yes, the magazine was duped by a pathological, yet highly rational, serial liar.

But while Rolling Stone's writers are justified in blaming Jackie, they should also blame themselves. Because even though Jackie's lies were creative, she should have been caught before the story went to print. If Erdely or her editors had done any of the most basic things that their jobs required of them, they would have deduced the truth. A call to any of the friends would have doomed Jackie's narrative, for instance.

Rolling Stone asserts that this mistake will never happen again; its fact-checking model is fundamentally sound. Its staff has apologized. Is there any need for further punishment?

Unfortunately, yes.

I'm willing to forgive their errors. And let's say, for the sake of argument, I believe that they will never make this mistake again. I should still think that at least Erdely, and probably Woods, would have to go. That's because this isn't a case of no harm done. There was considerable harm done to Jackie's friends, UVA, and Phi Kappa Psi. The members of the fraternity had to virtually go into hiding off-campus. The university administration had to defend itself from charges of systemic neglect of rape victims. Jackie's friends were dragged through the mud.

Surely some people have to be held responsible for these consequences, even if they swear that they will never make any mistakes again?