New York Times reporter Jonathan Mahler on Monday covered the final damning discrediting of Rolling Stone magazine's story of a gang rape at the University of Virginia: "In Report on Rolling Stone, a Case Study in Failed Journalism." But Mahler skipped his own paper's disgraceful coverage of a previous campus rape hoax -- involving the Duke lacrosse team in 2006.
When Rolling Stone took the unusual step of bringing in Steve Coll, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dean of America’s most prestigious journalism school, to dissect its widely discredited article on campus rape, the magazine was clearly making a statement. It was going to get to the bottom of this mess.
Rolling Stone now has what it asked for: a thorough indictment of its behavior.
The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism report issued on Sunday makes plain in forensic detail what went wrong, how traditional safeguards broke down at pretty much every level of the editorial process. The tone is more constructive than chiding; it is a case study in the failure to follow best journalistic practices.
Now that the facts have been laid bare, “A Rape on Campus,” published in November, joins America’s rogues’ gallery of journalism scandals. For ease of reference, the scandals can be divided into three general categories (excluding the recent phenomenon of television figures telling tall-tale war stories).
(Which makes it a little curious that the front of the Times' Sunday Review the day before featured "My U.Va. Story," an opinion piece by Jenny Wilkinson, who said it was a shame the Rolling Stone story had "been called into question.")
Mahler gave a potted history of recent media misdeeds:
The first two are straightforward. There is pure fabrication, for which high-profile culprits include Jayson Blair (The New York Times), Stephen Glass (The New Republic) and, going back a little further, Janet Cooke (The Washington Post). And there is the act of plagiarism (culprits too numerous to list).
“A Rape on Campus” falls into a third category: lack of skepticism.
While Mahler mentioned his paper's own appalling fabrication/plagiarism scandal (Jayson Blair), he also dug into the paper's "at-times credulous coverage of Saddam Hussein’s supposed cache of chemical and biological weapons in the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003," as if that was a comparable scandal (it helps if you're an anti-Bush leftie).
“As an editor, it’s the one that really leaves you feeling you’ve failed at your job,” said Bill Keller, former executive editor of The Times and now editor in chief of the Marshall Project. “The job of editors is to be the last line of defense against reporters who get carried away by an unreliable source, or stampeded by their zeal to break a big story, or who fall for a pat narrative.”
It is a subject Mr. Keller knows well, having presided over The Times’s internal investigation of the paper’s at-times credulous coverage of Saddam Hussein’s supposed cache of chemical and biological weapons in the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. In both that case and “A Rape on Campus,” an institution’s better judgment was overwhelmed by its hunger for scoops.
And Mahler himself committed the journalistic sin of bias by omission:
A closer parallel to the Rolling Stone article may be much of the media’s breathless coverage of members of the Duke University lacrosse team who were accused of gang-raping a woman in 2006. Like “A Rape on Campus,” it was a story that seemed to conform to a lot of the public’s worst ideas about the behavior of privileged young men at elite colleges.
“It was too good to not be true, and that’s what’s going on in this case as well,” said Daniel Okrent, a former public editor at The Times. “You don’t want women to be gang-raped in a fraternity house, but you want to believe this terrible thing is happening and therefore you can expose it.”
Mahler totally skipped the Times own pathetic Duke lacrosse coverage, the most friendly to the rogue prosecution of any news outlet. Okrent himself, the paper's former public editor, told the Duke University student newspaper in the aftermath of the hoax that "I think The Times' coverage was heartbreaking. I understand why they jumped on the story when they did, but it showed everything that's wrong with American journalism.'"
As the Media Research Center has previously documented, the Times shamefully played prosecutor with the racially charged rape hoax at Duke University in 2006. The paper notoriously slimed three innocent Duke lacrosse players, falsely accused by stripper Crystal Mangum of rape at a house party. The allegations were shown to be completely false, and Nifong was later disbarred for fraud and misconduct.
The most notorious story was Duff Wilson and co-author Jonathan Glater's 5,600-word front-page summary of the case on August 25, 2006, a story so slanted it was fricasseed by law-writer Stuart Taylor Jr. in Slate four days later. The subhead to Taylor's rebuttal reads "The New York Times Is Still Victimizing Innocent Dukies." A 2007 book, "Until Proven Innocent -- Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case," by Taylor & KC Johnson, ripped apart the Times' shoddy coverage of the case, taking particular aim at Wilson and Roberts.
Mahler did unwittingly put his finger on how liberal reporters generate bad liberal reporting – it's soul-satisfying to stick up for a perceived victim or underdog against a powerful villain. In the liberal world view, that dichotomy conveniently breaks down neatly into Democratic victims and Republican villains.
Journalists are often driven to cover atrocities and personal traumas by the best intentions, chiefly the desire to right wrongs and shed light on injustice -- in a word, empathy. It is a noble impulse that animates a lot of important and courageous reporting. But empathy can also be a source of vulnerability for journalists, lowering their defenses against bad information.