The Slatest

A “Journalistic Failure” Won’t Get You Fired From Rolling Stone (But a Bad Review Could)

Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner speaks onstage at the 28th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on April 18, 2013, in Los Angeles.  

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The reviews of the review are in, and everyone is pretty much flabbergasted that Rolling Stone can act as if there don’t have to be any real consequences to the devastating 12,644-word takedown of its now thoroughly discredited rape-on-campus story. The Columbia University report, written by Sheila Coronel, Derek Kravitz, and Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, make it clear that as far as the magazine’s leadership is concerned, nothing needs to change. In an interview with the New York Times on Sunday, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner said the fault really was with the subject of the story, who is “a really expert fabulist storyteller.” The Wrap’s Sharon Waxman is incredulous:

The fault apparently is neither with the writer, nor the editors, nor the process. Wenner told the Times that the erroneous article “represented an isolated and unusual episode and that Ms. Erdely would continue to write for the magazine.” Furthermore, “Mr. Wenner said Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, and the editor of the article, Sean Woods, would keep their jobs.”

This is unacceptable, a sham of accountability.

As the Coll report shows, this debacle is not merely the fault of a rogue fabulist. That’s too easy, and so is making the article go away with no consequences attached.

Jann Wenner, you owe this honored profession a proper response.

For the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, the equation is simple:

News organizations have but two things to protect their journalism from lapsing into disaster: Their policies and their personnel. Since Rolling Stone’s leaders think so highly of their policies, the only possible conclusion is that the magazine’s personnel that failed miserably.

Scholar Clay Shirky took to Twitter to say that the Columbia report amounts to “a distraction,” noting that “this wasn’t a failure wasn’t of process, it was a failure of competence, one big enough that Will Dana should resign.”

Huffington Post political reporter Sam Stein said the issue went beyond the media industry, adding that the failure to hold anyone accountable at the magazine could lead many to question reports of rape in the future. “Rolling Stone has to understand in some respects that by not holding anyone accountable, by not firing anyone, they’re not just damaging their own reputation but the reputation of the industry of journalism,” Stein said on Morning Joe (via Mediaite). “People will look at future stories about rape on campus or rape anywhere suspiciously, and will think that reporters get a free pass if they get wrong, because of what Rolling Stone is doing here. It’s almost irresponsible for them not to hold anyone accountable.”

In Slate, Hanna Rosin also expresses surprise that in the final section of the Columbia report Rolling Stone’s editors agree that their editorial systems don’t need to change. Rosin writes: “Are they serious? Did they read the report?”

CNN’s Brian Stelter points out that what some might see as a failure to hold anyone directly accountable, “others might call a show of loyalty and a second chance for the staff.”

Too bad, though, that Rolling Stone didn’t seem to have that same loyalty toward other staff members who had been forced out of the magazine for offenses that seem downright minor—if offenses at all—in comparison with the UVA rape story debacle. In 1996, Wenner fired senior music editor Jim DeRogatis after he wrote a negative review of Hootie and the Blowfish, which was replaced by a positive review. When the New York Observer asked DeRogatis whether Wenner was a fan of the band he answered: “No, I think he’s just a fan of bands which sell eight and a half million copies.” 

Bad party planning can also apparently get you in hot water. Steven DeLuca was fired in February 2006 after a two-year stint as the magazine’s publisher after he got into a tiff with Wenner about a party to celebrate the 1,000th issue. Wenner apparently thought the location that DeLuca had selected for the party was too expensive and changed it. “Mr. DeLuca objected to the move, they argued and Mr. Wenner fired him,” according to the New York Times story from the time.