Why is Rolling Stone Still Blaming Jackie?

[Content note: sexual assault]

Now that the report on Rolling Stone and its coverage of rape at UVA has come out, I’ve written a Daily Dot piece about how the magazine still isn’t taking full responsibility for its mistakes.

On Sunday, the Columbia Journalism Review released its report on Rolling Stone’s infamous article, “A Rape on Campus,” about the alleged gang rape of “Jackie,” a student at the University of Virginia. Published in November 2014, the article quickly provoked critics who claimed that some of the details about the incident just didn’t line up.

The Columbia report extensively details the journalistic “failure” of the now-retracted piece, and many are assuming, as usual, that this means that the survivor lied. Meanwhile, the leadership of Rolling Stone is still blaming Jackie for their failure in ways both subtle and not. According to the New York Times, the magazine’s publisher, Jann S. Wenner, was quite clear about where the blame should go:

The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. When asked to clarify, he said that he was not trying to blame Jackie, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”

Although it is possible that Jackie lied, it is unlikely for reasons that I discussedback when the original article was first being put through the online wringer. The errors she made in telling her story are completely consistent with the neurobiology of trauma. There is no evidence that Jackie is an “expert fabulist storyteller,” and you’d think this whole scandal would have taught Wenner not to make public statements without evidence.

But not everyone sees Jackie as the scapegoat. Steve Coll, Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, said in a press conference, “We do disagree with any suggestion that this was Jackie’s fault. As a matter of journalism, this was a failure of methodology.”

Why is Rolling Stone still blaming Jackie, even though the Columbia report documents the magazine’s errors in 13,000 meticulous words? Probably because it’s easy to do. Much of the public already seems to believe that Jackie lied, and many of them seem to believe that she lied intentionally. The thought process is that, sure, the writer and editor could’ve been more careful (and to their credit,Rolling Stone has acknowledged that), but lying is bad and it’s the liar’s fault, so that’s where the blame should really go.

Despite acknowledging their missteps, the Rolling Stone staff doesn’t seem to be planning on making any changes in the wake of this massive journalistic failure. Will Dana, the editor of the retracted article, says in the Columbia report, “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things. We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” But the report claims that “better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors.”

Especially controversial is the fact that Rolling Stone won’t be firing anyone involved in the debacle. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Jill Geisner says that Rolling Stone’s mistakes were very serious and that firing the staff involved might be a good idea: “Firings send a message that certain behavior is unacceptable. I don’t advocate them for public relations purposes, but rather to rebuild a team and restore trust.”

Whether or not anyone at Rolling Stone is fired over this, though, it’s crucial that journalists and editors understand that it is their responsibility, not that of their sources, to ensure accuracy and fairness in reporting.

Read the rest here.

Why is Rolling Stone Still Blaming Jackie?

11 thoughts on “Why is Rolling Stone Still Blaming Jackie?

  1. 1

    It’s worth noting that, although the Charlottesville Police have stopped their active investigation of the case, they explicitly did NOT say that they thought Jackie was lying. In fact, the police chief said that just because they didn’t find enough evidence to be sure the crime was committed “doesn’t mean that something terrible didn’t happen to Jackie.”

    It’s kind of sad when a rag that used to be a banner carrier for the counterculture shows less sensitivity than a police department.

    1. 1.1

      That’s a great point, and I’m really glad the PD made that statement. At its best, criminal justice is supposed to work that way–if we can’t find enough evidence, we refrain some assuming the crime happened. That’s not the same as assuming it didn’t happen.

    2. AMM

      I’ve never heard that “showing sensitivity” was ever something that Rolling Stone was all that interested in.

      As for “counterculture,” as I recall, people in the counterculture could be quite brutal towards anyone they disagreed with or considered insufficiently hip or cool or simply inconvenient. On top of that, open misogyny and exploitation of women was a major component. 1970’s feminism was in large part a reaction to the sexism and misogyny of 1960’s and 1970’s radicalism.

  2. 2

    Thank you for this.

    I saw another post about this yesterday – it sounds like the underlying cause was that the Rolling Stone writer wanted to convey a narrative more than to report what actually happened. And, frankly, the response seems to be serving a narrative itself: of the heroic magazine under attack for events outside its control. Which says terrible things about the editorial culture there.

  3. 3

    Regardless of whether Jackie had a traumatic experience, she made demonstrably false accusations against innocent people. What kind of justice can we ave if we tolerate her behavior? If a traumatized white woman made a false rape accusation against an innocent black man, as has frequently happened, would you excuse her in the same way?

    1. 3.1

      Regardless of whether Jackie had a traumatic experience, she made demonstrably false accusations against innocent people. What kind of justice can we ave if we tolerate her behavior? If a traumatized white woman made a false rape accusation against an innocent black man, as has frequently happened, would you excuse her in the same way?

      That reasoning is, simply put, dangerous. Zero tolerance regardless of intent or sincerity is not only going to punish traumatized people who sincerely believe what they are saying, it will scare people from coming forward at all. Not only will people be punished because of mistaken memories, but the consequence of mistakes on the investigative side will be more dire. If the police or administration make a mistake, or weigh the evidence improperly, or are simply apathetic, it can lead to people telling the truth being punished anyways.

      The police and administrations have a long track record of coming to conclusions they like regardless of evidence; supporting them in making that behaviour more damaging is definitely not the answer here.

  4. 4

    @3 dickspringer:

    If Jackie had gone to the police and made a formal accusation, AND had then been shown to have made up the accusation out of whole cloth, then I think your criticism would be justified. But what we actually have here is a reporter determined to find a story, who apparently searched relentlessly to uncover, or possibly create, a compelling victim, and who, once she thought she had found one, relentlessly pursued said story with a reckless disregard for both the victim’s preferences and the truth. Remember, Jackie never actually went to the police, and did not cooperate with them even after the story came out.

    There’s obviously a lot we still don’t know, and will probably never know. Jackie might have actually been gang-raped, but in the aftermath failed to recall any of the details and recreated them falsely due to well-understood interviewing mistakes (in the same way children can be coached to remember details of abuse that never took place). Or perhaps she underwent some other trauma, and her brain reshaped her memories as a defense mechanism. Or perhaps she was undergoing some kind of mental breakdown, and these memories were a symptom. Or perhaps it was something we can’t guess at yet, without the help of a trained professional who is familiar with Jackie in person.

    I also think you’re also off the mark here: ” What kind of justice can we ave if we tolerate her behavior?” It’s worth noting that the justice system actually functioned here — no innocent person was arrested or charged. What we had was a failure of the media — which was what the OP was about.

  5. 5

    I don’t know that this is that easy. There has certainly been the meme going around to listen and believe, and certainly there is at least a feeling that questioning someone claiming to have been raped is itself morally wrong. Rolling Stone seems to have made this idea part of their journalistic process, or they are at least hiding behind it now.

    Jackie certainly may be blatantly lying. Telling fantastic stories where you are the central victim is not unknown. It’s possible she raped and her trauma has made her narrative unreliable, but it’s also possible she made the entire thing up. We are unlikely to know now in any case.

    Moving forward, there are lots of interesting topics to explore. Sure, journalists need to act like journalists, but most people aren’t journalists. What do you do when confronted with such a story from a friend? When you read about it? These are really challenging issues, and I don’t think there is a “one size fits all” approach to dealing with them.

  6. 7

    I have been mugged twice, both times in 1969 and each time by a pair of black teenagers. After the second mugging two weeks after the first mugging I was definitely traumatized (not the same as being raped, I agree.). I recognized that my perceptions were distorted by my experience and did not feel competent to identify either pair of muggers. False eyewitness identifications are common. Being a victim does not give you a moral free pass and making false charges against innocent people is one of the most immoral things you can do. As I hinted in my other comment, many innocent victims of false charges are black, but not all. Two notorious cases of false rape charges are those against members of the Duke lacrosse team and the Tawana Brawley case in suburban New York. You can google them for details.

  7. 8

    dickspringer: Pay attention. You’re “jus’ saying” that it’s terrible when false charges are brought. You seem unable or unwilling to process that, in this case, justice functioned exactly as it is supposed to and no charges were brought. What didn’t work the way it should was the media, specifically RS. That’s a very, very different thing.

    You do see the difference, yes?

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