Last week the jury in the federal court case against Rolling Stone found that the magazine had defamed a former University of Virginia associate dean in its 2014 article about sexual assault on campus. The article, “A Rape on Campus,” was written by Sabrina Erdely and included a false account of a fraternity gang rape. The ten-member jury concluded that Erdely was responsible for defamation with actual malice in the case brought by Nicole Eramo, a UVA administrator who oversaw sexual violence cases at the time of the article’s publication. The jury also found the magazine and its parent company, Wenner Media, responsible for defaming Eramo. Eramo asked for $7.5 million in damages, but the jury can decide to award more in the damages phase.
The verdict against Rolling Stone is a punishment for journalistic malpractice—but it’s also something more. The case highlights the elimination of an honor culture in journalism and in public life. Vast majorities of people dislike journalists, not because journalists are liberal, although that’s part of it. Journalists are disliked because they act without honor. Such was the case with Rolling Stone’s fake rape story.
To understand the importance of honor in journalism, it helps to go back to one of the best examples of honest journalism in history. It comes from the former pages of Rolling Stone itself. In 1970 Rolling Stone covered Altamont, a free 1969 Rolling Stones concert in California that ended in violence and death. At the time, Rolling Stone was the bible of the counter-culture; its founder Jann Wenner had created the magazine so he could meet rock stars. Yet here was the biggest rock and roll band in the world, mounting an ill-advised, dangerous (the Hells Angels were the bouncers), and disorganized event that resulted in four deaths and multiple injuries.
The editors and writers of Rolling Stone were absolutely unsparing and brilliant in their coverage of the event. Calling it “Rock & roll’s worst day,” one Rolling Stone writer described the scene this way: “Flickering silhouettes of people trying to find warmth around the blazing track reminded one of the medieval paintings of tortured souls in the Dance of Death.” The editors’ verdict: Altamont was “the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation, and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity.” The 1970 National Magazine Award was given to Rolling Stone for its Altamont coverage, with the judges writing on the citation that the magazine was being honored for “challenging the shared assumptions of your readers.”
Rolling Stone’s Altamont coverage won praise from a young journalist named Hunter S. Thompson, who was looking for a job and wrote to Jann Wenner. “Your Altamont coverage comes close to being the best journalism I can remember reading, by anybody.” While he is remembered as a drug-fueled anarchic spirit, Thompson was also a fair and honorable journalist. One recalls Thompson’s article about the Kentucky Derby, in which he wanted to find the illiterate, racist and inbred face at the derby that represented the worst of redneck America. After days of overindulging, Thompson found the face — it was his own, in the bathroom mirror. When covering Watergate, Thompson called Pat Buchanan “the one person in the Nixon administration with a sense of humor” and the two met in Washington for beers. (Thompson’s sense of honor and fair play may have been the result of his coming from Kentucky, a state with a deep sense of “honor culture.”)
“Diabolical egoism, hype, ineptitude”—those sharp and apt phrases used by Rolling Stone to describe Altamont are ones that could apply to Rolling Stone’s own staff today—and a lot of other journalists as well. Whereas once a nagging sense of honor would prompt a reporter to contact someone he was writing about, or to do basic research on the topic they were covering, or to be willing to challenge their own assumptions, today such fundamentals are barely even considered.
Incredibly, the statement Rolling Stone issued after the announcement of the verdict was defiant. The magazine’s editors noted that for fifty years the magazine had aimed to produce journalism “with the highest reporting and ethical standards, and with a humanistic point of view.” Erdely’s story had simply attempted “to tackle the very serious and complex topic of sexual assault on college campuses.” It went on:
In our desire to present this complicated issue from the perspective of a survivor, we overlooked reporting paths and made journalistic mistakes that we are committed to never making again. We deeply regret these missteps and sincerely apologize to anyone hurt by them, including Ms. Eramo. It is our deep hope that our failings do not deflect from the pervasive issues discussed in the piece, and that reporting on sexual assault cases ultimately results in campus policies that better protect our students.
Still unanswered: Will Rolling Stone apologize to the fraternity members whom they defamed in the article? Will they clean house, firing Erdely and, at long last, pink-slipping the lazy and unprincipled Matt Taibbi, the wanna-be heir to Hunter Thompson? Finally, is rape really a serious problem on college campuses? According to the Department of Justice, the number of female college students victimized by sexual assault is 6.1 per thousand, or six-tenths of one percent. The incidence of actual rape, which is even more serious than sexual assault, is only 2 per thousand, or two-tenths of one percent. The rate is 50 percent higher for women in the eighteen to twenty-four age group who are not students.
Assault and rape should always be vigorously prosecuted. So should media outlets that trade in sensationalist fabrications rather than facts.