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, Pressthink.org. 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.

Thursday, June 3, 2010 8:19 pm

Yeah, there’s fraud, all right …

… but, despite what Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli might think, former University of Virginia climate-change researcher Michael Mann ain’t the one who’s committing it:

Whatever the judicial doctrine of academic freedom may mean, at its heart it must protect those exercising core First Amendment rights—like researching, writing, speaking, and teaching. If government officials are allowed to dictate how the faculty exercises those rights, they are surely impinging on free speech. Indeed, the government impinges most directly on free speech by threatening to prosecute faculty for academic work that is wrong, shoddy, incomplete, mistaken, or fraudulent.

And this is precisely what Cuccinelli has asserted. He says he issued the subpoena because he wants to explore allegations that Michael Mann falsified data in his scholarship. Despite the fact that multiple academic inquiries into Mann’s research have vindicated him, it’s important to understand what the attorney general seeks to do here: Cuccinelli is not alleging fiscal fraud—he isn’t saying Mann used state funds to buy a Mercedes or finance trips to Aruba. Instead, Cuccinelli is investigating the scientific scholarship to make sure it meets his standard of academic integrity.

Using the threat of criminal or civil sanction to pursue “academic fraud” is the paradigm First Amendment case. Academic fraud is essentially what the authorities charged Galileo with—when he dared question the conventional religious wisdom that the sun revolved around the earth. It is what prosecutors alleged when they threatened academics during the Red Scare. And it is exactly what Cuccinelli is alleging here. The UVA subpoena violates both the individual rights of academics engaged in the exercise of speech rights on matters of public concern and the autonomy rights of the university to act independently from the government, as Frankfurter described in Sweezy.

“Academic fraud” is too easily used to suppress ideas that the authorities do not want to hear—in one case, the earth revolves around the sun; in another case, the earth is warming. It may be that what academics say is wrong, it may be that their methodologies are faulty, it may even be that they are twisting the evidence or making stuff up. But the government, through its prosecutors, cannot say anything about that.

I would add that not only is there zero evidence that Mann has committed academic fraud, we have multiple, independent reviews of his work that have found it sound. Pat Robertson protege Ken Cuccinelli is in this for the politics, pure and simple. Sadly, the only remedy for this kind of official misconduct is political as well.

Saturday, May 1, 2010 11:03 pm

“Say goodbye to science in Virginia.”

Virginia’s attorney general, Pat Robertson acolyte Ken Cuccinelli (and although I call him Robertson’s acolyte, I should clarify that I have no evidence suggesting Robertson ever sexually molested Cuccinelli), has gone fishin‘:

Now, it appears, [Cuccinelli] may be preparing a legal assault on an embattled proponent of global warming theory who used to teach at the University of Virginia, Michael Mann.

In papers sent to UVA April 23, Cuccinelli’s office commands the university to produce a sweeping swath of documents relating to Mann’s receipt of nearly half a million dollars in state grant-funded climate research conducted while Mann— now director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State— was at UVA between 1999 and 2005.

If Cuccinelli succeeds in finding a smoking gun like the purloined emails that led to the international scandal dubbed Climategate, Cuccinelli could seek the return of all the research money, legal fees, and trebled damages.

“Since it’s public money, there’s enough controversy to look in to the possible manipulation of data,” says Dr. Charles Battig, president of the nonprofit Piedmont Chapter Virginia Scientists and Engineers for Energy and Environment, a group that doubts the underpinnings of climate change theory.

Mann is one of the lead authors of the controversial “hockey stick graph,” which contends that global temperatures have experienced a sudden and unprecedented upward spike (like the shape of a hockey stick).

Translation: Cuccinelli’s going to try to create a whole new East Anglia brouhaha in Charlottesville, and never mind that the East Anglia scientists were cleared of all accusations of wrongdoing. Prediction: He’ll find something that he doesn’t understand, claim that it is a Bad Thing, and laugh up his sleeve as the scientifically illiterate media go along with him.

Even if my prediction is wrong, and even granting that a state AG has a right and even a duty to ensure that state funds are not misused, given the lack of probable cause to believe anyone has done anything wrong*, this strikes me as political harassment, pure and simple.

*”Somebody said some guys at a different university in a completely different country did something wrong (but they really didn’t)” does not constitute probable cause. Just sayin’.

UPDATE: What Cuccinelli is up to when he’s not on fishing expeditions:

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli apparently isn’t fond of wardrobe malfunctions, even when Virginia’s state seal is involved.

The seal depicts the Roman goddess Virtus, or virtue, wearing a blue tunic draped over one shoulder, her left breast exposed. But on the new lapel pins Cuccinelli recently handed out to his staff, Virtus’ bosom is covered by an armored breastplate.

When the new design came up at a staff meeting, workers in attendance said Cuccinelli joked that it converts a risqué image into a PG one.

The joke might be on him, said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

“When you ask to be ridiculed, it usually happens. And it will happen here, nationally,” he said. “This is classical art, for goodness’ sake.”

Apparently just being a screwup at his job wasn’t generating enough persecuted-Christian hormones to warm the cockles of Cuccinelli’s Robertsonian heart, so now he’s pulling an Ashcroft and draping the government’s iconography. Yo, Ken, from one Christian to another, stop making us look bad, bro.

Previously.

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