Dis­cred­ited rape story a test for Wen­ner, Rolling Stone


Through decades of dig­ging into the pri­vate lives of rock stars and pro­vid­ing a fo­rum for col­or­ful writ­ers like Hunter S. Thomp­son and P.J. O’Rourke, Rolling Stone mag­a­zine pub­lisher Jann Wen­ner has never been afraid to push bound­aries.

Now Wen­ner, who founded the mag­a­zine as a 20-year-old col­lege dropout, is weath­er­ing the stiffest test of Rolling Stone’s cred­i­bil­ity that the mag­a­zine has faced in its 48-year his­tory.

On Sun­day, the mag­a­zine re­tracted last Novem­ber’s story on sex­ual as­sault at the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia in ad­vance of the re­lease of a damn­ing Columbia Uni­ver­sity re­port about its re­port­ing and edit­ing, and on Mon­day, a fra­ter­nity named in the story threat­ened a law­suit.

The mag­a­zine also faced crit­i­cism Mon­day for what some crit­ics deemed a muted re­sponse to the prob­lems out­lined in Columbia’s ex­haus­tive re­port.

The sharply funny O’Rourke, who worked at Rolling Stone from 1985 to 2000, said he found the edit­ing and fact-check­ing there to be as rig­or­ous as the leg­en­dar­ily tough New Yorker mag­a­zine.

“When Hunter S. Thomp­son dies and I leave, and the fac­tual re­li­a­bil­ity of a pub­li­ca­tion goes down, there must be some­thing wrong with mod­ern me­dia,” he said.

Rolling Stone’s unique niche in mag­a­zines was an out­growth of Wen­ner’s in­ter­ests, a mix­ture of au­thor­i­ta­tive mu­sic and cul­tural cov­er­age with tough in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing, usu­ally from a lib­eral world view. The mag­a­zine’s cir­cu­la­tion of just un­der 1.5 mil­lion copies an is­sue has been con­sis­tent over the past three years, ac­cord­ing to the Al­liance for Au­dited Me­dia.

The mu­sic cov­er­age now bears the hall­mark of a clumsy 50- year- old strug­gling to stay hip. Cover sub­jects can range wildly from Mi­ley Cyrus and Kanye West to Bob Dy­lan and Ringo Starr as Rolling Stone tries to cater to all tastes.

Spe­cialty web­sites like Pitch­fork of­fer sharper mu­sic cov­er­age. Like many me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions founded in a dif­fer­ent era, Rolling Stone has strug­gled to be­come an in­flu­en­tial on­line pres­ence, said vet­eran mu­sic writer Alan Light, a for­mer Rolling Stone em­ployee and still oc­ca­sional con­trib­u­tor.

Yet the mag­a­zine has sur­vived and thrived as once-hip com­peti­tors Spin, Vibe and Blen­der fell out of pub­lish­ing.

The mu­sic cov­er­age co­ex­ists with the long-form jour­nal­ism, from Thomp­son’s drug-fu­eled po­lit­i­cal cov­er­age to an in­ves­tiga­tive re­port that forced the res­ig­na­tion of Gen. Stan­ley McChrys­tal in 2010. Rolling Stone has ag­gres­sively cov­ered cli­mate change and the im­pact of money in pol­i­tics. The Vir­ginia story had an im­me­di­ate im­pact: Its 2.7 mil­lion on­line views were more than any non-celebrity story the mag­a­zine ever pub­lished.

The Columbia re­port crit­i­cized Rolling Stone for fail­ing to es­tab­lish that a man ac­cused of or­ches­trat­ing a fra­ter­nity house gang rape even ex­isted, fail­ing to con­tact the ac­cuser’s friends and not push­ing hard to in­ves­ti­gate in­for­ma­tion that might con­tra­dict its nar­ra­tive.

The episode doesn’t erase Rolling Stone’s le­gacy, but it’s a sig­nif­i­cant blow, Light said.

“Ob­vi­ously the great­est risk is that this be­comes so as­so­ci­ated with their name and this kind of a story,” he said. “It’s bad for ev­ery­one — it’s bad for the mag­a­zine, it’s bad for the read­ers, it’s bad for the is­sue that they were set­ting out to ad­dress in the first place.”

Like many pub­li­ca­tions, Rolling Stone has suf­fered with the on­line ex­plo­sion. Its ed­i­to­rial staff, not in­clud­ing peo­ple work­ing in art and photo, has dropped by 25 per­cent since 2008, ac­cord­ing to the Columbia re­port. But the ex­am­i­na­tion said Rolling Stone’s fail­ures in the Vir­ginia story had noth­ing to do with be­ing short-staffed.

The mag­a­zine’s man­ag­ing edi­tor, Will Dana, took re­spon­si­bil­ity for the re­tracted story, writ­ten by Sab­rina Ru­bin Erdely. In a note to read­ers — Rolling Stone pub­lished the full Columbia re­port on its web­site — Dana called it painful read­ing and said the mag­a­zine was com­mit­ting it­self to a se­ries of rec­om­men­da­tions about im­proved jour­nal­is­tic prac­tices that was rec­om­mended.

At least ini­tially, no one — Dana, Erdely or Sean Woods, the prin­ci­pal edi­tor on the story — lost their jobs. That has sur­prised many long-time ob­servers of Wen­ner, who’s been known for hav­ing a quick trig­ger fin­ger for em­ploy­ees who don’t meet his stan­dards, and speaks to his re­spect for vet­eran em­ploy­ees Dana and Woods.

Asked at a news con­fer­ence on Mon­day about whether he thought the in­ci­dent should cost some­one their job, Columbia Uni­ver­sity School of Jour­nal­ism Dean Steve Coll, one of three au­thors of the re­port, de­clined to of­fer his opin­ion, say­ing he didn’t know the work of the jour­nal­ists in­volved be­yond the one story.

“We’re not the D.A.’s of­fice,” Coll said. “We’re not a spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor.” It’s a tough call, since there’s no ev­i­dence the jour­nal­ists in­volved were in­ten­tion­ally de­ceit­ful, said Kelly McBride, an ethics ex­pert at the Poyn­ter In­sti­tute. The ini­tial re­sponse sug­gests Rolling Stone is putting its own self- i nter­est ahead of its read­ers, she said. “That’s a com­pletely rea­son­able man­age­ment re­ac­tion to this,” she said. “But you also have to look at what the au­di­ence needs to trust you.”

Samir Husni, a Uni­ver­sity of Mis­sis­sippi jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor who pub­lishes an an­nual guide to con­sumer mag­a­zines, said it was a mas­ter stroke by Wen­ner to in­vite Columbia in to in­ves­ti­gate Rolling Stone’s prac­tices.

“It takes guts to apol­o­gize for ev­ery­thing that has gone down,” Husni said. “The only per­son that can save Rolling Stone is Jann Wen­ner. By go­ing out­side and do­ing what he did, he was able to con­tain the story.”

The last­ing dam­age may be if Rolling Stone de­cides to pull back from in­ves­tiga­tive pieces. It al­ready feels that this has hap­pened to a cer­tain ex­tent while the mag­a­zine waited for the Columbia re­port to come out, said Aileen Gal­lagher, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in the mag­a­zine depart­ment at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­sity’s Ne­w­house School of Public Com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Wen­ner, 69, is at the stage of his ca­reer where le­gacy is an im­por­tant is­sue. New York mag­a­zine writer Joe Ha­gan re­cently signed to write a bi­og­ra­phy, with Wen­ner’s co­op­er­a­tion, to co­in­cide with the mag­a­zine’s 50th an­niver­sary. Wen­ner’s son Gus is a po­ten­tial suc­ces­sor at the com­pany that also in­cludes Us Weekly and Men’s Jour­nal, works at Rolling Stone if his fa­ther opts to leave things in the fam­ily.

Gal­lagher said that ul­ti­mately, writer Erdely’s ca­reer will suf­fer more than Rolling Stone as an in­sti­tu­tion.

“The writer al­ways takes the heat for th­ese things,” she said. “The mag­a­zines do at the be­gin­ning, they apol­o­gize and lessons are learned. Are peo­ple not go­ing to read Rolling Stone any­more? I don’t think so.”

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