Still Employed

work-677582_1280   The news landed with a resounding thud this week: Rolling Stone, with the smudge of “avoidable journalistic failure” on its hands, officially retracted its headline-making story about a student who was allegedly raped at a University of Virginia fraternity house in 2012. Not surprisingly, the journalism world is aglow with incredulousness about the fact that the article’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and Managing Editor Will Dana managed to keep their jobs. Ditto for the fact checkers and everyone else who was supposed to be verifying the explosive details of the story. After all, how can a screw-up of that magnitude go unpunished?

It’s not just social media and internet message boards that are piling on. “Rolling Stone just doesn’t get it,” the venerable Guardian laments. “Months after the magazine published a widely-criticized article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, the details of which proved unverifiable, those responsible still refuse to take any real responsibility. Instead, editors at the magazine once again placed the blame for their errors where it so often ends up when it comes to sexual assault: on a young woman who alleges she was raped.”

It’s a difficult decision to understand from a journalism standpoint, but let’s look at it from a legal point of view. The bottom line is that Rolling Stone is facing massive financial liability from aggrieved parties (the fraternity in question has already filed a high-dollar lawsuit), and keeping Erdely and Dana on staff may be part of the publication’s strategy to avoid paying millions of dollars in damages. Paradoxically, firing the people who were responsible for the biggest journalism fraud since the New York Times/Jayson Blair fiasco would have made it more difficult for Rolling Stone to defend itself.

Rolling Stone HAS to deflect as much blame as it can while absorbing as little damage as possible to its reputation as a journalistic magazine. Because its main mission right now is to avoid more lawsuits, the magazine has to convince the world (and the courts) that it is guilty of sloppy reporting. Rolling Stone needs to protect itself by copping to “avoidable” lapses – honest mistakes – in its reporting because the only alternative is that its writer and editors acted maliciously in publishing known lies. That, friends, is libel. And THAT carries a hefty price tag. Firing Dana and Erdely could be construed as an admission of their wrongdoing.

So far, Rolling Stone is pushing all the right buttons to pave the way for a defense against lawsuits claiming that the story was the result of intentional malfeasance. This week a scathing 13,000-word report prepared by investigators from the Columbia School of Journalism at the behest of Rolling Stone threw the magazine under the bus but did not conclude that Erdely or Dana acted with malice. In the coming months we can all look forward to an “incompetence defense” as Rolling Stone tries to convince juries that the story was bad journalism but not an intentional attack. Let’s see how it plays out.

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