Former Rolling Stone Writer: Mag Is No ‘Bastion Of Great Journalism’

Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
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Rolling Stone writers are more likely to be fired for giving a popular band a bad review than for completely flubbing a major feature in which a university’s image is tarnished and college students are falsely accused of rape.

Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner made that much clear after Columbia Journalism School released its scathing report on the magazine’s Nov. 19 article, “A Rape on Campus.” The 69-year-old co-founder told The New York Times that none of the major players involved in bringing the 9,000-word lie to print will lose their jobs.

Managing editor Will Dana will stay on. Sean Woods, the article’s lead editor, will keep his job. And perhaps most shockingly, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the article’s writer, will continue to write for the storied publication.

“Like many, many things in the long history of Rolling Stone, the perception here — that the magazine is a bastion of great journalism — is very much undeserved given the reality,” Jim DeRogatis, a former music critic at the magazine, told The Daily Caller Monday morning.

DeRogatis has insight on what it does actually take to get fired by Wenner, who started Rolling Stone in 1967. He’s one of the relatively few who has actually been fired by the magazine for performance-related reasons.

DeRogatis — who left the Chicago Sun-Times for Rolling Stone — was let go from the magazine in June 1996, just under nine months into the gig.

His firing involved a review of Hootie and the Blowfish’s album Fairweather Johnson. DeRogatis did not like the music, but Wenner liked the band’s popularity. Fairweather Johnson sold more than 8 million albums.

Wenner reportedly pulled DeRogatis’ article and replaced it with more favorable coverage from another critic. When DeRogatis told reporters about the incident, Wenner fired him.

“During my brief experience as deputy music editor at Rolling Stone — 8.5 months — it was not uncommon for Jann Wenner to meddle with the music coverage, stressing favorable stories and reviews for his personal, Boomer/’60s-centric heroes and/or bands that were moving a lot of units, and discouraging unfavorable reviews of the same,” DeRogatis told TheDC.

Wenner didn’t meddle in non-music journalism as much, DeRogatis said. He left the straight journalism to people he knew and trusted.

But that trust was misplaced, Sunday’s report from the Columbia Journalism School makes clear.

Columbia, which Wenner hired to investigate Erdely’s reporting, found plenty of blame to go around at the magazine. Erdely was faulted for failing to vet claims made by Jackie, the UVA student who claimed that seven members of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brutally raped her on Sept. 28, 2012.

Erdely failed to try to contact three friends Jackie said she met on the night she claimed she was attacked. Had Erdely found those friends, they would have completely obliterated Jackie’s story. She was also vague when seeking comment from the fraternity. Erdely gave the frat little background information about the allegation. And some of the information she did provide was inaccurate. That deprived the fraternity of a fair chance to respond to Jackie’s claims.

Erdely and Rolling Stone’s editors also failed by allowing Jackie to dictate terms. The magazine staff agreed not to name the man she said organized her gang-rape. In fact, Jackie did not even provide Erdely with the alleged attacker’s full name until days after the article was published. When Erdely finally obtained the name, she realized that the man did not exist. That troubled Erdely, she told the Columbia Journalism reporters.

In the Columbia report, the players involved denied that the failure is indicative of systematic problems. According to Wenner and Dana, because the system and process by which their journalism is produced is not flawed and because the story was an uncharacteristic flub, nobody will be fired.

Instead, Wenner directly blamed Jackie. He called her “a really expert fabulist storyteller” and said that “obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”

Wenner did allow that Erdely “was willing to go too far in her effort to try and protect a victim of apparently a horrible crime.”

“She dropped her journalistic training, scruples and rules and convinced [editor Sean Woods] to do the same,” Wenner said.

“There is this series of falling dominoes.”

Rolling Stone issued an apology to its readers, staff, the falsely-accused fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, UVA and survivors of sexual assault late Sunday. Despite that, observers questioned Wenner’s comments and his refusal to punish staff who oversaw the production of the report.

“The University of Virginia story seems to show him meddling for the worse in the news coverage, and desperately defending the magazine’s reputation rather than taking action to restore the integrity of its journalistic coverage,” DeRogatis told TheDC.

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