The media hasn’t had a good run with ethics stories lately. First we heard about Brian Williams' misrepresentations, then Bill O’Reilly’s fabrications, and now we have the full report of Rolling Stone’s erroneous coverage of a rape scandal at UVA.
There is no question that Rolling Stone did not adequately fact-check the UVA rape story and that it's proof of a severe lapse in journalistic ethics. The fact that the story was about campus rape is especially disturbing: This is an issue that requires even greater ethics and transparency—it also needs reporting of the highest standards. Rolling Stone needs to answer for the mistake and not try to pass it off onto others.
But the real story behind the Rolling Stone retraction is the way that the magazine handled it. When the Washington Post uncovered problems with the Rolling Stone story, the story became part of a major national scandal. Rather than find another way to “handle” the crisis, Rolling Stone chose to address the problem head on. They contacted Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and asked him to lead a team that could investigate “how they could have gotten the story wrong,” and they agreed to cooperate fully and to publish their findings in full. As Will Dana --managing editor at Rolling Stone -- writes in the preface to the published piece, the “report was painful reading” but it was also a “fascinating document … a piece of journalism … about a failure of journalism.” He then explains that they plan to commit themselves to the “series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report.”
Most coverage has gone after the blood in the water and called out Rolling Stone for all of its transgressions. The stories have jumped on the scandal and hyped it even more. Fewer have focused on the fact that the Rolling Stone rape story retraction is actually a story about ethical journalism. It is a story about what the news media should do when it learns that its reporting has been shown to lack integrity. The point is that the magazine didn’t just retract the story; it succumbed to an overall investigation of its reporting practices by a well-respected third party and agreed to implement meaningful changes.
Think for a moment about what our news media landscape would look like if that sort of news accuracy took place across the board. Today we have groups like FactCheck.org, and politifact.com that do nothing but serve as watchdogs for the lies, misrepresentations and inaccuracies in media and politics. These groups exist not just to call out the lies, but also to prove they took place. They exist because the sort of coming clean that Rolling Stone did simply doesn’t happen in the mainstream news.
Imagine for a moment what might have happened if Brian Williams had actually admitted that he had fabricated his story. Instead it seems he is allergic to even saying that he lied, preferring to pretend he suffered a memory lapse or other sort of injury. It is even worse with Bill O’Reilly whose entire response to being exposed as a liar is to yell and bully those who accuse him. Can you possibly imagine Bill O’Reilly inviting Steve Coll and his team to investigate his accuracy?
You can’t imagine it and here’s why: We actually have come to so thoroughly distrust the mainstream news that it is no longer news when we learn they are lying, unethical and inaccurate. Poltifact states that its Fox News file is one of its most popular sites. The “news” channel’s current scorecard shows that 51 percent of statements made by Fox News personalities are pants on fire lies, false or mostly false. Another 29 percent are half-true or only mostly true. Only 10 percent of their statements are entirely true. Fox News deceives its audience nine times more often than it tells the truth.
This leads me to my second takeaway. Somewhere along the way as Rolling Stone merged music coverage with Vietnam reporting, it became a serious news source -- one that the public turned to for important reporting of major significance. The magazine has come a long way from Hunter Thompson’s political reporting, from what Maureen Dowd describes as an “antiwar hippie magazine.” Jean Marbella writing for the Baltimore Sun pointed out back in 2010 that Rolling Stone had become known for calling out BS, not succumbing to corporate pressures, and “taking on important subjects but with a sort of rock-and-roll vocabulary.”
In recent years Rolling Stone has broken major stories, including Matt Taibbi’s scathing takedown of Goldman Sachs in 2009 where he referred to them as “a great vampire squid” -–a name that stuck. Taibbi went on to cover other major news on bank foreclosures in Florida in 2010 and on Libor in 2012. Other major news was Michael Hastings’ 2010 reporting on Gen. Stanley McChrystal where he broke the general’s critical comments about the Obama administration. McChrystal resigned shortly after the statements were made public. In 2013 Matthieu Akins reported for Rolling Stone on the “A-Team Killings,” covering the story of the discovery of the remains of 10 Afghan villagers.
Fox News isn’t breaking these stories; Rolling Stone is. And that is why we are holding Rolling Stone—a magazine that started off covering the rock music scene—to a higher standard than Fox News, which launched in 1996 under the tag line “fair and balanced.”
Now alternative news sources have always served as a corrective for big business news; but the inversion of real reporting over false reporting that I have described here—where the mainstream fails and the alternative sources succeed-- is at an all-time high for our nation. When shows on Comedy Central like Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” are proven to inform viewers more than any other televised news, we know that something serious has happened to the integrity of reporting.
In fact, we have always been able to count on Stewart for reminding the public of Fox’s penchant for lies. (He covered 50 of their lies in six seconds with this one vine.)
But the lessons from the Rolling Stone scandal are deeper. Not only does the story reveal a sharp contrast in the reporting practices of Rolling Stone and mainstream TV news like Fox News; it also shows us that even when the issue of ethical reporting is literally right in their face Fox News doesn’t get the point. Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, who has reported on the fact that Santa Claus is white, seemed almost excited to be able to cover the story of Rolling Stone’s journalistic failure. Until Kelly and her counterparts on Fox understand that they too have journalistic standards to uphold, we should thank Rolling Stone for holding to a higher standard.