Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, April 6, 2015 7:39 pm

Odds and ends for April 6

Apparently Jeb Bush listed himself as Hispanic when he most recently registered to vote in Florida, which would be hilarious and all except that putting false info on a Florida voter-registration form is a third-degree felony.

Now that Columbia University’s report on the now-retracted Rolling Stone article about rape at the University of Virginia has been made public, how successful is the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity likely to be in its planned lawsuit against the magazine? Eugene Volokh at the Washington Post discusses it.

The Supreme Court is letting a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina over its new voting restrictions move ahead to trial. Good.

Today’s Braves-Marlins game in Miami was delayed by rain in the second inning. Despite the stadium’s having a retractable roof.

Now he’s just showing off: Long Island high-school senior Harold Ekeh got accepted at all eight Ivy League colleges.


Sunday, April 5, 2015 10:35 pm

The post-mortem on Rolling Stone’s rape-at-UVa article: You say your mother loves you? Check it out.

UPDATED below.

Report by Columbia here; the key bits (emphasis mine):

The particulars of Rolling Stone‘s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail. … The magazine’s records and interviews with participants show that the failure of “A Rape on Campus” was not due to a lack of resources. The problem was methodology, compounded by an environment where several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague.

In retrospect, [Will] Dana, the managing editor, who has worked at Rolling Stone since 1996, said the story’s breakdown reflected both an “individual failure” and “procedural failure, an institutional failure. … Every single person at every level of this thing had opportunities to pull the strings a little harder, to question things a little more deeply, and that was not done.” …

Yet the explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong. [Article author Sabrina] Erdely’s reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie [the pseudonym the magazine used for the purported victim] had made no request that they refrain. The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie’s position. …

In hindsight, the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped. That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine’s editors to change plans.

I may or may not have more to say about the details later, after I have re-read the report, but I can say this just as I did soon after questions about the report arose: Failure to independently verify a primary source’s claims is journalistic malpractice, and the article’s author, Sabrina Erdely, manifestly failed to independently verify her primary source’s claims — and in some instances didn’t even try. And the article’s editor, Sean Woods, and the magazine’s managing editor, Will Dana, were aware of holes in Erdely’s reporting and let the article run anyway.

Rolling Stone’s fact-checker assigned to the case raised questions that the editors ultimately failed to answer. The report quotes Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, as saying, “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.” It’s not clear whether McPherson means “around” as a synonym for “about” (an increasingly common usage I despise precisely because it creates confusion like this) or whether she means that the policies are fine but were bypassed in this case.

At any rate, fact-checking is worthless if discrepancies that are found aren’t fully investigated. Rolling Stone’s fact-checker (who isn’t named in the report because she had no control over the ultimate content of the article) appears to have done her job — and to have been ignored by Erdely, with the complicity of Woods and Dana. McPherson, the fact-checking chief, is basically saying that Woods and Dana ignored her employee’s work because of the sensitivity of working with a primary source who claimed to have been a sexual-assault victim. If in fact that was the case, well, that’s not good enough.

I don’t think, contrary to some accusations, that Erdely fabricated the story. But she deferred excessively to a source whom even minimal attempts at verification would have shown to be questionable. And Wills and Dana didn’t demand enough documentation. The question remains why. McPherson has her theory, but Wills and Dana themselves don’t say. We may never know. We can only speculate. And I imagine that the culture warriors all along the spectrum are ready, willing, and able to serve up piping-hot scenarios that might or might not bear any relationship to reality.

Beyond that, this episode has probably made life harder for women who have been sexually assaulted — it provides fodder for people of bad faith who want to argue that sexual assault isn’t a big problem or a big deal, and that false reports are common. Erdely, Woods, and Dana owe their readers an apology, but they owe these survivors an even bigger one.

As of this writing, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner is saying no one at the magazine will be disciplined, and Erdely will continue to write for the magazine, because he believes that the errors were unintentional. Not that what I think matters, but I think all three should be fired. Checking facts is Journalism 101, even for news outlets without the resources and fact-checking infrastructure of a Rolling Stone. The quantity and quality of the unforced errors that led to the publication of this unsupported story are simply too egregious to be ignored.

UPDATE: Reaction from some others in or formerly in media.

UPDATE: Columbia Journalism Review interviews the report authors.

UPDATE: Erdely’s public apology. Note that she did not apologize to Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity named in the article and an organization that suffered real, albeit not life-shattering, consequences.

UPDATE: The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple summarizes the report and lists those victimized by the Rolling Stone article.

I also recommend that you read press critic Jay Rosen’s take whenever it appears on his site, As of midnight Sunday, he hadn’t posted yet, but he has said his take is in progress. UPDATE: It’s here, and I quote from it Rosen’s discussion of an important angle that the report authors didn’t consider in any depth:

5. The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative. The key term isemblematic. The report has too little to say about that fateful decision, probably because it’s not a breach of procedure but standard procedure in magazine-style journalism. (Should it be?) This is my primary criticism of the Columbia report: it has too little to say about the “emblem of…” problem.

6. Not that it’s entirely missing. The basic facts are there:

Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.

Idea: Maybe “a single, emblematic college rape case” does not exist. Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start. Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.

7. This is from Paul Farhi’s Nov. 28 account in the Washington Post:

So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

None of those schools felt quite right. What kind of “feel” is this? It’s feeling for a fit between discovered story and a prior — given — narrative.

8. “Mr. Dana said the article stemmed from a feeling he and other senior editors had over summer that the issue of unpunished campus rapes would make a compelling and important story,” read Ravi Somaiya’s Dec. 7 report in the New York Times. There’s the prior narrative I mentioned. It didn’t start with Sabrina Rubin Erdely. She was sent on a search for where to set it.

Rosen also makes clear just how badly Rolling Stone screwed up in its reliance on “Jackie” as a primary source:

14. Part of what made Rolling Stone editors vulnerable to the “emblem of…” problem was some seriously dated thinking about credibility, in which it’s said to be sort of like charisma. You have charisma or you don’t. You “have” credibility or you don’t. If a source is felt to be credible, the entire story can ride on that. Your colleagues are credible, so it doesn’t occur you to ask if they could all be missing something.

A dramatic high point for this kind of thinking comes during Hannah Rosin’s incredible podcast interview with Sabrina Erdely. Rosin asks near the end of it: If you were Jackie’s lawyer, how would you prove her case? (Go to 6:35 on this clip and listen.) The author’s reply: “I found her story to be very— I found her to be very credible.”

15. It’s almost like, if you have credibility you don’t need proof. That’s an absurd statement, of course, but here’s how they got there (without realizing it.) Instead of asking: what have we done in telling Jackie’s story to earn the skeptical user’s belief? you say: I’m a skeptical journalist, I found her story believable, so will the users. Voilà! Credibility. Will Dana is one of the best editors in New York. Who “has” more credibility than him? No one! He finds her story believable. Doesn’t that “give” it credibility too?

In short, journalism is supposed to be built around the discipline of verification … and the people and process that led to Rolling Stone’s story were utterly undisciplined.

UPDATE: Mediagazer links to other sources on the story, some of which duplicate items above, here.

UPDATE: Several years ago, the Center for Public Integrity published a series of articles on campus sexual assault. While the details of the cases discussed might not be as spectacular as those in Rolling Stone’s article, the reporting is far better documented.

UPDATE: I should have disclosed earlier that I once sold an article to Rolling Stone, back in 1986. I’ve had no dealings with them since.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010 12:22 am

Eye on the ball

Filed under: Journalism — Lex @ 12:22 am
Tags: , ,

The stink over Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s disparaging remarks about his commander-in-chief remind me of something: that I’m old enough to remember when David Stockman got his education.

I don’t mean his college degree, which he got in 1964 or thereabouts. I mean his experience as Ronald Reagan’s first White House budget director — and with the national media and his fellow Republicans — after he talked to William Greider of The Atlantic, perhaps too candidly, about his work.

What Stockman actually said was almost forgotten immediately. What the press insisted on talking about, to the exclusion of almost everything else, was: What would happen to David Stockman? In particular — and, God, how tired I grew of hearing this phrase — would he be taken to the woodshed? In other words, the most important story in U.S. government for — well, I don’t remember how long, now, because it was almost 30 years ago, and it was probably only days, but it seemed at the time like months — was, “Will some bureaucrat keep his job?”

Not “Is the government doing what it is supposed to?” or “Is the government doing what it’s doing cost-effectively?” or even “Do the people who are running the government know what they are doing?”

No, it was all about David Stockman’s Job.

(And people think TODAY’s news media suck.)

See if you can guess what it was that Stockman said that actually got people all het up in the first place. Go on. If you weren’t there at the time, you’ll never figure it out.

Well, it was this.

The main idea on which Ronald Reagan had campaigned in 1980 — cutting top marginal income tax rates would stimulate business and industry enough to generate a net increase in revenues — was bogus. During the campaign, Stockman said, he’d never believed all that strongly in the idea in the first place, and once he got into the actual business of crafting a budget, he knew it was crap.

Now, a news media that had the first idea of what it was doing might be expected to pounce upon, pursue, expand upon and analyze the idea that the signal piece of ideology behind a president’s historic, overwhelming electoral victory was fraudulent. That, however, was not the news media we had.

Had we had that media, we might have learned much sooner (perhaps even before the 1980 election) what Stockman finally told us in 1986, long after he had left government: The President of the United States didn’t have the first damn idea what he was doing with the budget.

Michael Kinsley summarizes in his New York Times review of the book:

There are repeated scenes of the President sitting in amiable silence through policy discussions until some word or phrase -”Medicare,” perhaps, or ”oil depletion allowance” -sets him off on an anecdote, usually revealing that he has totally misunderstood the preceding conversation. A reference to the Cabinet’s failure to cut personnel costs leads to a long and familiar anecdote about filing cabinets. Senator Bob Dole comes by to plead for cuts in programs other than welfare. Mr. Dole utters the word, ”welfare.” Mr. Stockman thinks, ”I wish he hadn’t said that.” And sure enough, ” ‘Bob’s getting at the same thing we found in California,’ the President observed right on cue. He went on to make a point precisely the opposite of Dole’s.”

Cabinet members take skillful advantage of the Commander in Chief’s capacity for befuddlement. Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis convinces him that quotas on Japanese cars are not a violation of free trade because Government regulations have hampered American producers. (Japanese cars must meet the same regulations, of course.) Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger shows up for a meeting intended to settle whether the defense buildup should be $1.46 trillion over five years or only $1.33 trillion. His chief prop is a cartoon of three soldiers – one, a pygmy without a rifle, representing the Carter budget; one, ”a four-eyed wimp . . . carrying a tiny rifle,” representing $1.33 trillion, Mr. Stockman’s defense budget; and one, ”G.I. Joe himself . . . all decked out in helmet and flak jacket and pointing an M-60 machine gun,” representing $1.46 trillion. This is how Presidential decisions are made.

This information would have been helpful to know in real time. It certainly would have been helpful to know before the 1984 election, although I doubt it would have made any difference.

I tell this story because we’re in a similar situation with McChrystal and his disrespectful staff: we’re focusing on whether one guy will keep his job.

In fact, he probably should have lost it long ago:

After Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former-NFL-star-turned-Ranger, was accidentally killed by his own troops in Afghanistan in April 2004, McChrystal took an active role in creating the impression that Tillman had died at the hands of Taliban fighters. He signed off on a falsified recommendation for a Silver Star that suggested Tillman had been killed by enemy fire. (McChrystal would later claim he didn’t read the recommendation closely enough – a strange excuse for a commander known for his laserlike attention to minute details.) A week later, McChrystal sent a memo up the chain of command, specifically warning that President Bush should avoid mentioning the cause of Tillman’s death. “If the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death become public,” he wrote, it could cause “public embarrassment” for the president.

“The false narrative, which McChrystal clearly helped construct, diminished Pat’s true actions,” wrote Tillman’s mother, Mary, in her book Boots on the Ground by Dusk. McChrystal got away with it, she added, because he was the “golden boy” of Rumsfeld and Bush, who loved his willingness to get things done, even if it included bending the rules or skipping the chain of command. Nine days after Tillman’s death, McChrystal was promoted to major general.

Two years later, in 2006, McChrystal was tainted by a scandal involving detainee abuse and torture at Camp Nama in Iraq. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, prisoners at the camp were subjected to a now-familiar litany of abuse: stress positions, being dragged naked through the mud. McChrystal was not disciplined in the scandal, even though an interrogator at the camp reported seeing him inspect the prison multiple times.

As the article points out — and unwittingly illustrates — McChrystal has been a media favorite, for reasons probably only a forensic psychiatrist could explain: Even while writing an article that exposes McChrystal, Michael Hastings says the Tillman scandal “would have destroyed the career of a lesser man” (emphasis added).

Well, should McChrystal lose his job? Probably, for two reasons: 1) Active-duty service members, who matter who they are, are forbidden from publicly criticizing the commander-in-chief, no matter who he/she is. 2) This isn’t McChrystal’s first such mistake. He publicly criticized the counterinsurgency plan for Afghanistan developed by Vice President Joe Biden — who, like him or not (and I think he’s kind of an ass), has a lot more foreign-policy experience than McChrystal does. Not to say that McChrystal is bad at what he does. Quite the opposite. But what he does, or has done, mainly, is black ops, which is, at best, one tool among many in a comprehensive counterinsurgency program and at worst just flat illegal.

But to focus only on McChrystal’s insubordination is to miss a much bigger picture: McChrystal’s — this country’s — counterinsurgency strategy is failing in Afghanistan. In all fairness, that’s not for lack of trying on McChrystal’s part:

McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It’s “insurgent math,” as he calls it – for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. “For a while,” says one U.S. official, “the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a ‘civ cas’ incident.” The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There’s talk of creating a new medal for “courageous restraint,” a buzzword that’s unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military.

In fact, the response from his command has been even more negative:

Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. “Bottom line?” says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.”

And if the U.S. were winning hearts and minds, perhaps — perhaps — the U.S. casualties might be worth it. But that isn’t happening:

In the first four months of this year, NATO forces killed some 90 civilians, up 76 percent from the same period in 2009 – a record that has created tremendous resentment among the very population that COIN [counterinsurgency] theory is intent on winning over. In February, a Special Forces night raid ended in the deaths of two pregnant Afghan women and allegations of a cover-up, and in April, protests erupted in Kandahar after U.S. forces accidentally shot up a bus, killing five Afghans. “We’ve shot an amazing number of people,” McChrystal recently conceded.

We’ve been in Afghanistan longer than in any other war. The person whom we went to war to get, Osama bin Laden, is still alive and not even in the country anymore. The best minds in U.S. counterinsurgency have been set on the problem of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and have come up dry. McChrystal is failing. The U.S. military effort in Afghanistan is failing. It is time to bring the troops home.

That is the fact that matters most. Whether or not Stanley McChrystal gets to keep his job or retire with the thanks of a grateful nation, while certainly important to Stanley McChrystal and those who love him and work with him, is not, ultimately, an important national concern.

The media couldn’t keep their eye on the ball in the David Stockman case in 1981. They won’t keep their eye on the ball this time. And more people, American and Afghan alike, will die unnecessarily because of it.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at


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