"As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul." -- Edmond Jabes, from The Book of Yukel, Return to the Book

Monday, April 6, 2015

In journalism, it's trust but verify

Columbia University has issued a 13,000-word dissection of Rolling Stone's now discredited bombshell campus rape story, a story that was originally published in November. I still need to digest the whole thing, but based on a reading of news reports -- The New York Times, NPR, Buzzfeed -- two things seem clear:

1. Rolling Stone failed to follow solid reporting practices, failing to gain independent verification of any of the story's elements and, in the process, pretending that a single source was good enough for a 9,000-word piece designed to demonstrate how American universities are not handling rape accusations properly.

As Buzzfeed writes:
The publication of “A Rape On Campus” prompted protests on campus, but soon fraternity members and people who knew Jackie began to come forward disputing her account. The fraternity did not hold a party on the night in 2012 she said she was raped, and none of its members matched the description of her attacker. Her friends later told reporters their memories also didn’t match up with the Rolling Stone story. The magazine never contacted them before publication, they told the Washington Post.

The Columbia report identified this failure by Erdely and her editors as the most critical.

“In hindsight, the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped,” the report said. “That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine’s editors to change plans.”
This would seem to be Journalism 101 -- you can believe your source, but you still need independent corroboration or, at the very least, other voices that support and/or contradict the main narrative. The Rolling Stone piece, however, lacked any of that.

2. The magazine, even as it offers its mea culpas, continues to point the finger at its source, calling her a fabulist and manipulator.

Here is Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone founder and its current and long-time publisher, discussing the Columbia report with he Times:
The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. When asked to clarify, he said that he was not trying to blame Jackie, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”
From a journalism standpoint, this is nonsense. Sources lie all the time. They misremember. They make things up. Our job as reporters is to sort through the stories as we collect information from multiple sources in an attempt to verify. Sometimes, we are successful -- Rolling Stone has done some very good work over the years and still has a solid reporting team in place -- and sometimes we fail. But our failures should never be based on a lack of reporting. And that is what happened here.

Perhaps "Jackie" did "manipulate the magazine's journalism process," as Wenner says. But that is mostly because the process was flawed, as other Rolling Stone staffers involved in the story admit. I think that's always a possibility -- we have to start by believing women who say they were raped, but before we run their stories in our magazines or on our websites, we should make a concerted effort to verify those stories. If we can't -- well, that raises a set of other questions. Why not? What impediments may exist that prevent verification? Do we have enough to at least support the accusations? What other voices do we need in the story? Should we run the story with a counter-narrative to show that there are doubts? And so on.

There need to be strong processes in place to ensure all questions are asked and answered before anything moves forward. Columbia apparently found that it wasn't the case at Rolling Stone, at least on this story, which is why Rolling Stone has to bear the blame for what went wrong.

Everyone makes mistakes -- Rolling Stone is not alone in this and piling on is far from useful. It also is not useful to point the finger at "Jackie" -- that is a different issue, a different story. This story is one of journalistic failures. Rolling Stone deserves credit for inviting in an outside "investigator" and opening its processes up for review. It deserves credit for publishing the full report on its site and a long excerpt in print. The hope is that it fixes the flawed processes identified in the report and that other news organizations can learn from Rolling Stone's mistakes.

The hope is that we can prevent these kinds of mistakes in the future. Wenner's comments, however, leave me wondering if that is possible.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Playing the blues

Saw this guy jamming on his harp on Woodbridge Avenue. Couldn't tell what he was playing, but I'm going to pretend it was the "St. James Infirmary Blues."

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A gripping set of music

My Time Off piece on The Grip Weeds' new record and upcoming show in Bordentown is up on the website.

On the album, How I Won the War, the band explores conflict as it works toward resolution -- doing so brashly, melodically and with a renewed vigor born of renewed commitment.

Send me an e-mail.

The Menendez conundrum: A problem of succession

The indictment of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez on corruption charges was not unexpected -- we'd been hearing about it for weeks via anonymously sources stories tied to the senator's history of questionable conduct. But it hit yesterday like a bomb.

Senate Democrats have remained quiet, aside from fellow N.J. Sen. Cory Booker, though New Jersey's Democratic establishment has been quick to jump to Menendez's defense (I received a slew of press releases yesterday). The Star-Ledger was quick on the draw, calling in an editorial for the senator to resign, as was The Asbury Park Press. (The Record says it is too early to make that call.)

I'm conflicted -- having a senator stay in office while he fights corruption charges means the state will lack strong representation, but pushing him out the door before he gets his day in court means we would be convicting him before a trial. For now, I think I agree with The Record -- not today, but not necessarily never.

The split between the GOP and Democrats on this is not surprising -- though it may reflect issues that reach beyond Menendez's alleged conduct and instead be a response to this question: What happens if Menendez resigns? The process is less than straightforward -- as this NJ Spotlight story by Mark Margyar following Frank Lautenberg's death points out:
Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who led the state’s political establishment in eulogizing Lautenberg’s accomplishments yesterday, has the right to appoint an interim senator to succeed the self-made multi-millionaire from Paterson who has represented New Jersey in the Senate for 28 of the past 30 years.

But it is not clear from the language in New Jersey’s election statute whether Christie’s choice can serve for 17 months until November 2014, as Christie would prefer, or will have to run in November, as Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the state’s Democratic chairman, are already demanding.
The key issue, Magyar writes, is "conflicting statutes":
Both the U.S. Constitution and N.J.S.A. 19:3-26 allow Christie to appoint a successor to Lautenberg who would serve until the next general election, which is scheduled for November. However, N.J.S.A. 19:27-6 holds that if the vacancy occurs in the 70 days before a primary election -- as is the case with Lautenberg’s death the day before today’s primary -- the new appointee can serve until the second succeeding election, which would be November 2014. Under that statute, the governor has the right to call a special election, but is not obligated to do so -- an interpretation that the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services agreed with in an advisory opinion issued yesterday.
Christie ultimately appointed his attorney general, Jeffrey Chiesa, and scheduled a special election for three weeks before Election Day -- when he was atop the ballot and seeking re-election. It was widely speculated at the time that Christie's decision was designed to appease Democrats while limiting the Senate race's impact (the assumption was that Booker would draw more Democrats to the polls and eat into Christie's likely margin of victory). Little thought appears to have been given to Republican politics.

That is not likely to be the case this time, if Menendez resigns. We have no way of knowing what Christie might put on the table, but one can assume that his presidential aspirations -- and the need to appeal to conservatives -- will create a different calculus this time out. Republicans control the U.S. Senate 54-44, with two independents caucusing with the Democrats, and adding a 55th to the tally can only help the GOP cause. His audience has shifted, which could alter his approach.

Has this played into the Democrats' thinking? We can't know for sure, but it wouldn't surprise me if it has. After all, a neutered Menendez is better for the Democrats than a GOP replacement, even if the replacement will only serve temporarily.

The situation may be rare -- a confluence potential senate vacancies and divided government -- but it also is problematic: On the one hand, the state is left with a compromised senator; on the other, the state gets an unelected senator from the opposing party who is serving primarily to further the national ambitions of a sitting governor. Given the choice, it's easy to see why the Democrats are rallying around Menendez.

Were this a state senator or assembly member -- or even a local council member -- the vacancy would be filled temporarily by someone of the same political party, as spelled out by the state constitution. Is this perfect? No. But it comes closer to respecting the wishes of the electorate than what exists now and might remove the disincentive currently in place.

As the National Council of State Legislatures points out, there are numerous ways this can be done, ranging from pure gubernatorial appointment to the calling of a special election.  And it's not like the current arrangement is writ in stone -- it is based on conflicting statutes and can be changed, as the creation of a lieutenant governor's position shows.

Nothing is going to change in the short-term -- the political interests of both sides are too great. That doesn't mean it can't change down the road.

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