Rolling Stone responded to critics by having an outside review of its journalistic practices on the UVa rape story, while USAToday revealed its blindspot by not recognizing it and the entire media committed the very same mistakes in the Penn State cover up story.
An independent report published by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism made it clear that Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her editors ignored basic journalism rules in publishing a story that alleged a gang rape of a co-ed by University of Virginia fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi. The summary of Columbia's report stated:
“Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in “A Rape on Campus” is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.
In late March, after a four-month investigation, the Charlottesville, Va., police department said that it had “exhausted all investigative leads” and had concluded, “There is no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article.”
The story’s blowup comes as another shock to journalism’s credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry. 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.”
Give Rolling Stone credit for taking the initiative to have the Columbia school review what happened and admitting its mistakes. However, some of Rolling Stone's critics, most notably USAToday, similarly didn't let facts stand in the way of drawing an incorrect parallel between the UVa and Duke cases.
Apparently, the word "rape" seems to cloud the judgment of journalists across the country.
USAToday Wrongly Compares Duke and UVa
USAToday, who criticized the Rolling Stone's journalistic failings, deserves criticism for its own journalistic failings in stating the cause of the Duke lacrosse scandal to the UVa rape case were the same. While there were many commonalities between the two cases, including a false allegation of rape and rushes to judgment by those involved, its conclusion that pre-conceived notions were involved in the two cases was indeed wrong.
From the closing of USAToday's op-ed:
"If there is an overriding lesson to be learned from this debacle, and a similar case several years ago involving members of the Duke lacrosse team, it is that everyone — from journalists to advocates to administrators — should avoid a rush to judgment based on preconceived notions."
Anyone who knows the facts of the Duke case also knows that it wasn't a case of pre-conceived notions that drove the rush to judgment and media frenzy. A reporter didn't show up on the Duke campus with an agenda to report about privileged white males raping poor African-American strippers.
No, the Duke media feeding frenzy was caused by a false rape allegation and its backing by an overzealous prosecutor (Mike Nifong) with an ulterior motive. And those who actually know the facts of the PSU scandal, know that the Duke and Penn State cases are almost carbon copies -- except that the media malpractice in the PSU case is far worse.
The differences in the media’s response to the PSU case versus the Duke case were dramatically different. In the Duke case, when accuser Crystal Mangum's story kept changing and when the specter of evidence suppression was raised, the media changed course.
When similar events occurred in the PSU case, USAToday (and others in the media) did minimal fact checking and selectively used facts to keep the Penn State cover-up narrative alive. In other words, they used the Rolling Stone's methods from the UVa story.
From the Columbia report:
Erdely’s reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths...
The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error...
The reference to "pursing important reporting paths" translates to Rolling Stone accepting the accuser's story without any corroboration by her friends or by the accused (Phi Psi members).
Similarly, the media accepted Crystal Mangum report against Duke and the grand jury report's version of McQueary rape allegation without any corroborating evidence.
That brings us back to the beginning of USAToday's Op-Ed....
"Journalists know that a juicy tip often falls apart once they begin digging into the facts. That possibility has given rise to a cynical saying about a story that's "too good to check."
The point is that the more sensational the allegation, the more scrupulously it needs to be investigated. And if the original tip doesn't survive scrutiny, so be it."
The statement shows just how oblivious USAToday is to its own lack of scrutiny and failure to scrupulously investigate the allegations of a Penn State cover-up.
Sandusky Grand Jury Report Too Good To Check
In the PSU cover-up hoax, the original "tip" - which was the "rape" allegation in the Sandusky grand jury presentment - certainly fit the description of a "sensational allegation." And the media's coverage of it reflected the sentiment that the "story" in the grand jury presentment was "too good to check."
From the presentment (pages 6 and 7):
"He saw a naked boy, Victim 2, whose age he estimated to be ten years old, with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky."
The image of Sandusky (forcibly) anally raping a little boy became anchored in the public's minds by continuous repeating of the allegation by the media. There was no ambiguity at all about what the word "rape" meant in the Sandusky case in November 2011. But by June 2012, that would all change to ensure the Penn State cover-up story remained.
Between November 2011 and June 2012, there were ample opportunities for the media to poke holes in law enforcement's version of events -- as they did in the UVa and Duke cases -- but they didn't. To pull that off, the media selectively believed the parts of narrative that fit and threw away the parts that didn't.
First, it was completely out of character - and a sensational story -- for a forthright person like Joe Paterno to turn a blind eye to a report of rape. However, it was not just Paterno who was alleged to have done so. At the time of the presentment, six different people were named who were told of the incident by McQueary -- and none of them called the police.
Apparently, the collective judgment of six people was trumped by a grand jury presentment that stated that a 28 year old eyewitness to a rape, who didn't report the crime, was "extremely credible." Yes, the media believed that story.
But it gets better.
On November 16th, McQueary added new information that he contacted the police about the incident and stated he broke up the "rape" before leaving the locker room. The media didn't embrace the part of McQueary's story about contacting police, which would have blown away the cover up story. They quickly cross checked to see if a police report existed. It didn't.
Sara Ganim, the lead reporter on the case, then somehow "surfaced" McQueary's original handwritten statement to the police, which made no mention of contacting police about the incident or that he had intervened to stop the alleged incident in the shower.
Under normal circumstances, the credibility of McQueary's rape allegation would have been questioned, given that none of his new statements could be corroborated. But the "too good to be checked" story drove reporters to abandon journalistic ethics and do what it took to keep the cover-up story alive.
Just weeks later bigger news would come (and be ignored).
At the December 16th preliminary hearing for Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, McQueary admitted he did not provide specific details nor use the words "anal sex," "anal intercourse," or "sodomy" when making his brief report to Paterno or other PSU officials.
McQueary at 72: "I never used the word anal or rape in this -- since day one."
It was as if McQueary's testimony didn't happen. The story of Paterno and PSU officials not responding to a report of a "rape” persisted up to and even after the not guilty verdict at the trial.
A "Cover-Up" Story That Was Too Good To Check
From the outset, the preposterous story of a PSU cover-up was kept alive by the media's flat out refusal to logically evaluate evidence that was present in the grand jury report.
Again, in a commonality among the three cases, emotion, not facts and logic, ruled the day.
First, why didn't McQueary - a 28 year old graduate assistant at the time of the incident - not immediately report the rape of the child to the police himself? Why should a 28 year old man need the advice and counsel of a then septuagenarian football coach in order to know what to do?
McQueary got a pass from the media because they fell for the emotional ruses used by the Attorney General throughout the case.
The Attorney General softened the backlash that would normally have come down upon McQueary by emphasizing the story that he was distraught and shaken by what he saw. While many in the public didn't fall for the ruse, and labeled McQueary as a coward, the media went soft on him.
Not so ironically, the same sympathy would be shown to an elderly janitor who also allegedly saw Sandusky molesting a child -- and became distraught -- but didn't report the incident. The icing on the cake was that the elderly janitor eventually became stricken by Alzheimer's, providing the media with even more reason to be sympathetic toward the man.
It was truly pathetic that the media didn't see the deflection pattern at play in the presentment, in which no blame was placed on those who truly could have stepped in and protected a child, but instead the focus was put on those who had absolutely no legal means or authority to protect the children from Sandusky.
One of the deflections involved the OAG's emphasis that Penn State's response to the scandal, which was to ban Sandusky from using its facilities with children from The Second Mile, was ineffective. Former AG Kelly's narrative was very convincing, however, making the case that Sandusky's access to the campus as a retired coach contributed to his crimes.
"Sandusky's 'emeritus' position, alleged negotiated as part of his 1999 retirement, provided him with an office in the Lasch Football Building; unlimited access to all football facilities, including the locker room; access to all recreational facilities; a parking pass; a university Internet account; listing in the faculty directory and numerous other privileges – he had remained a regular presence on campus."
All that was missing from Kelly's narrative was evidence that his access to campus had anything to do with his crimes after the "ban" was put in place. The media apparently was too lazy to simply do a chronological review of the crimes in the grand jury report and fell for Kelly's story about Sandusky's access to campus. Had the media done a simple timeline of the crimes, they would have realized PSU's banned stopped future crimes on campus.
The worst case of deflection, however, had to be the OAG's statement putting the onus on PSU officials to learn the identity of the child involved in the 2001 shower incident.
"Although Schultz oversaw the University Police as part of his position, he never... attempted to learn the identity of the child in the shower in 2002."
Apparently, the media didn't question the fact that the police were also unable to ascertain the identity of that victim after attempting to do so for approximately three years. The OAG assertion that Schultz -- as an administrator -- should have been actively involved in police matters and outperformed trained investigators was quite unreasonable. That fact that was completely lost on the media.
Putting all that logic aside, shouldn't the journalists following the "reporting path" on the Sandusky case, at least asked the question how PSU officials (or anyone else) could have identified the unknown victim?
Asking that question provides an obvious answer -- that would have been a dead end for any investigator.
The only person who could have identified the victim was the alleged perpetrator, Sandusky. And, if Sandusky had just raped this child, as the media believed, then what were the chances that he would provide the name of the actual victim?
Those closely following the case know that Sandusky evenutally provided a name and encouraged the alleged shower victim from 2001 to come forward.
As expected, the person Sandusky identified was deemed not credible, as evidenced by his absence on the potential witness lists for the prosecution and defense, as well as him not being presented as a witness at the trial. Moreover, he was not embraced by the defense team for Gary Schultz. The latter point is particularly important, considering that Schultz's legal team had a considerable incentive to believe a victim who refuted the story of that a crime occurring in the McQueary incident.
Ironically, a credible victim never came forward claiming to be the individual seen by McQueary. In fact, McQueary also testified that he had looked this individual in the eye as he exited the shower with Sandusky. Clearly, if this person saw McQueary - who is physically unmistakable - in the shower room, undoubtedly, he would have recalled that and came forward. It strains credulity that the most sensational and widely publicized crime in the Sandusky case didn't surface a credible victim.
So much for USAToday (and others) scrupulously investigating sensational stories.
The Rape That Didn't Happen Didn't Matter
Seven months later, a jury didn't find McQueary's testimony of an alleged rape to be credible. The verdict was not guilty, but the USAToday downplayed the significance of that outcome.
USAToday's trial coverage buried the fact that the jury voted not guilty on McQueary's rape allegation deep into its column. However, to keep the sensational story of a PSU cover up, it cited the four other sex abuse convictions related to McQueary's allegations.
From the article:
In its verdict Friday, the Sandusky jury found the former coach not guilty of sodomy, but convicted him on four other sex abuse charges involving the victim, based on McQueary's testimony.
Let's be clear on this fact.
The Sandusky case became a PSU scandal because of the mental image of Sandusky (forcibly) anally raping a little boy and the false narrative Paterno and other PSU officials watered down McQueary's "extremely credible" report (in order to avoid reporting it to authorities).
In April 2012, the Pulitzer committee awarded its 2012 prize for local reporting to the Patriot News, partly based on that story. That was before a jury concluded what six men concluded in 2001 -- Mike McQueary didn't witness a rape.
Had the Pulitzer Committee done any fact checking at all, it would have found the reporting that established the "Penn State sex scandal" was neither adept nor courageous.
The Rolling Stone story marks a high point, not a low point, for American journalism. While the mistakes of Rolling Stone were egregious, the fact that other media outlets served as a policing mechanism to assess the credibility of "A Rape On Campus" is, in my opinion, one of the high points of journalism in my lifetime.
While USAToday and others piled on to Rolling Stone, they failed to realize that too often they join in the media pack when a sensational story appears and don't review the details with a critical eye.
Take it to the bank that a host of "Media Culpas" will occur when the truth about the Sandusky cover up is revealed.
Updated April 9, 2015 at 6:08AM,