The damning report from the Columbia Journalism School on the Rolling Stone rape story that outlined disgusting events on the University of Virginia campus is in one way no shock to me.
It’s not just that investigators found nothing to support the reports or even that Rolling Stone started to back away from the story after the allegations started falling apart.
No, the report is not shocking to me because Rolling Stone, while an important touchstone during my teen and young adult years, has recently had trouble being relevant in today’s media-saturated world. It was only natural that, with declining relevance, the editors jumped too eagerly on a hot-button subject.
Rolling Stone used to be home to the best album reviews, scathing investigative pieces and unusual voices like Hunter S. Thompson. It was part of the cultural zeitgeist.
Today, the publication, by some reports, has fewer subscribers than either InStyle, Esquire and Good Housekeeping. (Admittedly, subscription numbers can be misleading when you account for Internet readership. But the point still stands.) It is about a relevant today as the eight-track tape.
I’m not suggesting that Rolling Stone intentionally slanted the story to make readers recoil at the actions described in the article. I actually think honest mistakes were made in an attempt to latch onto a story that promised to crack open the very real issue of campus rape.
Because how else can you explain the reporter not talking to the friends of “Jackie,” who said in later statements that they always thought Jackie was fabricating the story? Or even talk to the alleged rapists?
I think Rolling Stone and its editors were always on the lookout for a story that would tap into the cultural discussion, as they should be. When developing this story, I imagine there was a rush to recapture the edgy reporting it was long known for.
But in reclaiming a brand, the editors and the reporter failed to do their job properly. As the report itself said, Rolling Stone “did not do enough…to close the gaps in (the) reporting.”
It was, in a small way, an over-extension by the magazine to reach back and reclaim brand equity. It jumped too quickly.