Dear Jann Wenner, Sabrina Erdely, and the other editors and writers for Rolling Stone Magazine,
As you continue to deal with the fallout from A Rape On Campus, which was published in your December 2014 issue, you are obviously busy, and concerned, but I have something I need to say. As you know, The Columbia University report released shows that the report of a horrific gang rape on the University of Virginia campus, and the events which followed that rape were a total fabrication, and the most basic principles of journalism were not followed. I would like to say on behalf of the American public…this is why we don’t trust the media.
Mrs. Erdely, you are a University of Pennsylvania School of Journalism graduate, and after this whole debacle, I’m thinking that the University of Pennsylvania wants they diploma they issued to you back. You frequently write about rape and bullying, and your methods are more suited to an online message board, than to a legitimate news organization.
There was a warning sign that your style could be toxic, specifically in 2011. You wrote about a man named “Billy Doe,” his name changed to protect his identity. He had been an altar boy in the St. Francis Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia, and came forward to say that he had been sexually assaulted by a priest. You then allege that there was a “high level conspiracy” within the church.
It was a great article…provided you ignore some facts. Ralph Cipriano wrote in Newsweek that “Erdely didn’t know or bother to find out … that Billy had already told his story to the archdiocese, police, and a grand jury, and would subsequently retell it to two different juries in two criminal cases. And every time he told his story, the details kept changing.” The story changed every single time he told it to the authorities, and the fact that he was arrested six times before he told his “story” to you. It should also be noted that your husband was criminal prosecutor for the District Attorney of Philadelphia which was overseeing the case. While Rolling Stone stated it wasn’t a case of conflict of interest, anyone with a brain could see otherwise.
In December 2014, history repeated itself. You wrote an article about a woman named “Jackie” who had supposedly been gang raped by 7 members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia. Her story was she went to a party with her date “Drew,” and during the party, Drew and six other members of Phi Kappa Psi brutally raped her. You then go on to allege that the university did nothing to fix the situation, and their response was insufficient. It was an article that made national headlines. UVA suspended all fraternities, and cancelled the charter for Phi Kappa Psi. The members of Phi Kappa Psi had to go into hiding after their building was vandalized. But like Billy Doe, your methods did you in.
Like the Billy Doe story, there is no evidence that you did any investigation to find the truth, you just took Jackie’s story at face value, along with an assistant editor, who did no more fact checking that talking to Jackie. Had she followed the rules of journalism, she would have learned that “Drew” was a figment of Jackie’s imagination. His “real name” was Haven Monahan but that name was a combination of two students from high school who hadn’t talked to Jackie after she left. You had a bias against men, and had a theory that none of the males involved would tell you the truth. To borrow a quote from the Wall Street Journal, in your article, there was no attempt to “construct a story based on facts, but went looking for facts to fit [your] theory”
When your story hit the press, people began to talk, specifically about the inconsistencies in Jackie’s story. The Washington Post, ABC News, and The Washington Times all found some form of inconsistency, but these were done using legitimate journalism methods. As these inconsistencies mounted, your story began to fall apart. UVA asked Columbia University to investigate your article, and they concluded that your article was everything we thought it was.
Earlier this week, in the wake of the report being released, you issued an “apology” and I use quotes because you DIDN’T apologize. Here is the text, as quoted from The New York Times:
“The past few months, since my Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus” was first called into question, have been among the most painful of my life. Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience. I want to offer my deepest apologies: to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the U.V.A. community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.
Over my 20 years of working as an investigative journalist — including at Rolling Stone, a magazine I grew up loving and am honored to work for — I have often dealt with sensitive topics and sources. In writing each of these stories I must weigh my compassion against my journalistic duty to find the truth. However, in the case of Jackie and her account of her traumatic rape, I did not go far enough to verify her story. I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts. These are mistakes I will not make again.
Reporting on rape has unique challenges, but the journalist still has the responsibility to get it right. I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard.”
Umm. Why didn’t you apologize to Phi Kappa Psi or its members? You did them more damage than anyone else. They were the victims of a false accusation, had their building vandalized, and had to go into hiding after an inflammatory and untrue article. If I were you, I would resign from Rolling Stone. Innovators like Annie Leibovitz, Dana Leslie Fields, and Caroline Kennedy helped to create Rolling Stone as an institution, and you have spit on all of them with an article that doesn’t follow the most basic rules of journalism. Where ever you are, I hope you read this, and I hope you never write for a real publication again.
Now on to Mr. Jann Wenner. Mr. Wenner, you were a visionary for your time. You founded one of the most legendary pop culture publications of all time. But your time has passed. Your magazine has shown a bias against modern forms of music, and shows an obvious bias towards 1960’s and 1970’s music. You live in the past, and your morals from the past have little value in 2015. You are generally credited with lobbying to keep bands you feel don’t fit these “rules” to not be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You fired Jim DeRogatis for writing a negative review of Hootie and the Blowfish…because their label bought a lot of ad space and thought they should get a positive review as a result.
One of the most renowned authors of the 20th Century was Hunter S. Thompson. He wrote for you and helped put you on the map. You, in turn, sent him to stiffed him $75,000 in 1975 when he was going to a book concerning the Presidential Election between incumbent Republican Gerald Ford, and challenging Democrat Jimmy Carter. After that, you sent him to Saigon as it was falling to cover the story, and then cancelled that deal as well. You left him in Saigon at a very dangerous time with no financial support or health insurance. It is a miracle he made it out alive, and it is a wonder he ever wrote for your publication again after that.
Yes I get you founded Rolling Stone, and yes I know it is your baby, but you are the reason Rolling Stone has gone from a respected pop culture publication to little more than an overpriced grocery store tabloid. Rolling Stone is, in 2015, little respectable or better than The National Enquirer. A Rape On Campus is proof that facts can’t get in the way of a good story. Only one side of the story was discussed, and it wasn’t true at all. This is why America does not trust the media. This is why journalism is no longer a respectable profession in 2015. Sometimes in life, you have to walk away from a project to save it, and this is one of those times. Rolling Stone can survive without you, and it needs to survive without you. The fact that you chose to keep Sabrina Erdely tells me what I need to know.
In conclusion, you made a series of terrible decisions in regards to A Rape On Campus. Your magazine is now a laughing-stock, and the subject of ridicule. Phi Kappa Psi and its members will have to live with the fallout from your article, and a costly lawsuit will soon follow. You will lose a lot of money, from the ridicule, the lawsuit and, hopefully, from loss of advertisement revenue as a result of this article. Yet you stand by those who made it a laughing-stock and cost you this money for reasons I can’t begin to understand.. Mr Wenner, I wish you and Sabrina Erdely would resign and at least try to bring some respect back to Rolling Stone, but since I realize it will never happen, I will simply walk away from Rolling Stone, I will never subscribe to it, visit your website, or pick up a copy of Rolling Stone again for the rest of my life, and I encourage all my readers to do the same.
David G. Firestone