More canaries in the media coalmine

Two big journalism stories broke today that seem to have nothing to do with each other, but are actually the same chicken coming home to roost and coming home to roost. Rolling Stone’s University of Virginia fraternity rape story in Rolling Stone is falling apart, and as it happens, so is The New Republic.  Why are these chapters of the same book?  Because both are what happens when text, in a digital world, has no viable economic framework.  Magazines used to pay fact checkers and editors to ride herd on reporters and skeptically demand backup, sources, confirmation, and evidence: Rolling Stone can’t afford that stuff any more and left its reporter out on a limb without an essential support system.  The New Republic is a whole enterprise, a paper magazine, that can’t support itself the old fashioned way, so a tech millionaire who knows about journalism from Facebook is going to take the name and use it for something completely different.  How different? His new CEO admits he can’t read more than 500 words of anything at a time, and the staff has all hit the street.  I predict with confidence that the new New Republic will cost Hughes so much money to keep afloat that he will euthanize it within two years, unless he just want to pay for a hobby mouthpiece.

These are not the first nor the last times we will see the reality that content is a non-rival public good will make itself known.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

8 thoughts on “More canaries in the media coalmine”

  1. Why is it chickens. that can't fly away from home anyway, that proverbially come home to roost? The metaphor makes more sense with doves, swallows, rooks or eagles.

  2. I'm actually not sure that's what happened at Rolling Stone; their early responses seemed to suggest that they did have fact checkers working on the story, and their current response suggests that editors were involved in the decision not to contact the accused. Though of course, we don't have all the details yet.

  3. The Rolling Stone story didn't make any sense to me when I first read it about a week and a half ago, so I was entirely unsurprised when it started to come apart.

    Early in the piece, the author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, describes the victim of a horrific gang rape as being eager to share her story but as it goes on the picture that emerges does not fit the description of someone who wants to make it public. How are we supposed to reconcile someone eager to have their real name attached to the story in a national publication with someone who doesn't want to report the incident to the local police? If you read the Washington Post's piece from yesterday, the victim says that she feels betrayed by Erdely and tried to get her not to go forward with it.

    It infuriates me that Erdely pressured someone into going public who clearly didn't want to. Again, if you read the Post's piece, it's pretty clear that something happened to the woman around the time of the alleged gang rape. Her friends describe someone who was upbeat suddenly becoming sullen and withdrawn. I have no idea what happened to her; it could have been a rape; it could have been mental illness; and I can come up with a number of other possibilities. But something happened and she told a story to Erdely that doesn't check out. Because Erdely couldn't be bothered to do the slightest bit of fact checking herself, a young woman who seems to be dealing with some sort of trauma that has made her unstable is now going to have to deal with ridicule on top of that. It's disgusting.

    That wasn't the only problem with the piece. Erdely and her defenders say that the things that I consider to be basic fact checking about the case weren't necessary because it wasn't about that incident; it was about how the UVa administration mishandles rape cases. That's specious because if you make a specific incident the core of your deeper piece, it is about both your purpose and that case. But even ceding that ground it was a terrible piece.

    UVa had a moral and possibly legal responsibility to report the incident to the police as soon as they heard about it, whatever the victim's desires were but they didn't. Yes, that's an example of them handling rape cases poorly but they did so by going too far to follow the victim's wishes. If you believe Erdely (and I'm not sure why anyone would at this point but let's assume), she says that she had plenty of other cases in which the victims wanted to prosecute and in which the administration stonewalled them. Any of those cases would have made her point at least as well and without giving the administration a sympathetic excuse for their inaction.

    The other thing that struck me as I read it originally was that the piece got maddeningly vague at various points. The most egregious is in a section that describes the victim's friends' reaction to the rape. If you read it closely, it's unclear whether Erdely is quoting the victim's friends or is quoting the victim describing her friends' reactions. She wants you to believe it's the former but I suspect that it's the latter. That's reinforced by her freinds; statements in the post piece that she didn't tell them about the rape until months afterwards.

    It's inaccurate to blame this on Rolling Stone not being able to afford fact checkers because it's clear that Erdely didn't bother to even basic journalism here. She pretty clearly made no attempt to contact the alleged rapist, given how easy it would have been to learn that the person in question wasn't a member of the frat that was accused; I find her claim that she didn't do so because she was honoring the victim's wishes to be implausible given that she didn't seem to have any hesitation about violating the victim's wishes whenever it suited her. Unless she has had multiple sources completely change their story, she didn't do much talking to the victim's friends, either. She pretty much just heard the victim's story and ran with it. I suspect that she knew that it was dodgy and made sure that she didn't learn anything that would contradict it. Her editors were complicit in that they didn't require her to do any follow up at all, but the story as written should never have made it to the point of needing additional fact checkers.

    This isn't about cheapness; it's about the desire of an author and publication to produce the most sensational story they could. They ignored better cases, that were more solidly sourced and with more cooperative victims, because none of them were as dramatic as the story of a violent gang rape. This is hardly the first time that I have been less than impressed with Rolling Stone's journalism; they employed Matt Taibbi, after all, but it is the most inexcusable and the most infuriating.

    1. UVa had a moral and possibly legal responsibility to report the incident to the police…<\blockquote>

      I'm not certain about the University's responsibility, but having just gone through my new University's (mandatory) new faculty training on this stuff, it was made eminently clear that we faculty have a moral, policy and legal responsibility to report sexual harassment among students and to intervene if we witness it. We have the same obligations with respect to sex crimes. I don't know about the situation at UVA but most large public campuses have a uniformed police department. Both here and at my former campus the University Police would be charged with investigating a rape on campus. Reporting to the Administration is reporting it to the police.

      1. I think that except at the University of California, you should be reporting rapes to actual police offices and not fellow employees of your university. Leaving the specifics of University of Virginia to one side, my very definite impression is that to report a rape to the administration is basically being complicit in covering it up. When you report a crime to the people who are more interested in covering up to protect the institution than in seeing justice down, you are guilty of helping to cover-up up the crime.

        Rape is a crime. It is not an administrative matter like cheating on an exam. Possible crimes are investigated by the police and are prosecuted by the state in the name of the people.

        1. Like it or not, most universities have their own police forces and they are the ones that have the most direct jurisdiction over crimes committed on campus. In most instances there will also be a municipal police force that has authority on campus but if you report an on-campus crime to them, they are most likely to turn it over to the university police.

  4. It wasn't clear to me what the issue was at TNR. I only read the first bit about it on Slate. It can't just have been a rebellion against the web — those folks are too smart for that. My guess is either a huge character issue (ie plans to turn it into People), or seriously bad personnel management. Or both. What's weird is, if you're a complete lightweight, why would you buy TNR? A serious magazine. So that makes me think it could be more of a chemistry/personality problem. Don't know though.

  5. History repeats itself at TNR.

    By the late 1960s, TNR had long since lost its cachet as the voice of re-invigorated liberalism — a cachet that was perhaps best illustrated when the dashing, young President Kennedy had been photographed boarding Air Force One holding a copy. When he sold the magazine to Peretz, Harrison believed he had secured Peretz's promise to let him continue to run the magazine for three years. This plan quickly foundered, however, when Peretz got tired of reading rejection notices for articles he hoped to publish in the magazine at the same time he was covering its losses. Soon Harrison's Queen Anne desk and his John Marin paintings were moved out of the editor's office. Much of the staff, which then included Walter Pincus, Stanley Karnow, and Doris Grumbach, was either fired or chose to resign. The staffers were largely replaced by young men fresh out of Harvard, with plenty of talent but few journalistic credentials and little sense of the magazine's place in the history of liberalism.

    My Marty Peretz Problem — And Ours: Thirty-three years after he bought The New Republic, it is no longer as influential, or liberal, or even weekly.

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