Tuesdays with Moron: Chatological Humor Update

Dec 09, 2014

Gene's next monthly chat is Tuesday, Jan. 6 at noon. You may submit questions here.

By now you are probably tired of hearing about the UVA Rape story, and Rolling Stone.   So I am going to make this short.

I contend that this is the worst screwup in the history of modern American journalism.   I don't mean that it is the most damaging, though it is plenty damaging (Arguably, the media's failure to warn the public about the bankruptcy of Bush's case for war in Iraq was more grave). And it's not the "worst" in terms of the outright audacity of the sin. (Janet Cooke and Jayson Blair set out to deceive.)   By "worst," I mean that it represents, more than anything I can think of, a profound, systemic example of journalistic incompetence in an organization with enough resources to have known better. 

Tom the Butcher tweeted this on Monday: "The Rolling Stone editors behaved like middle schoolers left alone in Journalism Club when the faculty adviser played hooky for a nooner with the art teacher."

Tom was too kind.    Erik Wemple deftly summarizes here the breathtaking failures of Rolling Stone to show anything remotely approaching due diligence, culminating in an initial apology that cravenly placed the blame on their source as opposed to their own complete breakdown of professionalism.

But it goes beyond even that. 

Journalists are just exactly like normal people, with a few exceptions.   One of them is that we are trained to be skeptics -- not cynics, though many of us are -- but people who remain professionally skeptical of everything we hear. The old journo expression goes: "If your mother tells you she loves you, get a second source." 

We maintain  that skepticism partially for self-serving reasons, because we live and die on our reputations; getting gulled, getting something completely wrong can be a career-ending thing.   But we also are skeptics because we feel (sappiness alert) that we have a covenant with readers.  We know that, by and large, you trust us.  That carries a responsibility, and most of us really feel it.  

To meet that responsibility, we have to do a few things that we are uncomfortable with.  We sometimes have to become pricks.  We have to doubt people who may be vulnerable. We have to pry, even when it feels icky.  We sometimes have to ask questions we'd NEVER ask as a private citizen.  We have to challenge our own assumptions and world view, especially when we know we are writing a story that is confirming that worldview.  We have to get that second source, to back up mom. 

The editors at Rolling Stone dropped all of that.  It's tempting to say they were incredibly naive, and they were, but it's worse than naivete.  It's a character flaw.  It's naivete coupled with a strange sort of arrogance: They decided they had the story mostly because it was the story they wanted, the one that confirmed what they set out to prove.  In return for a deeply provocative interview, they agreed to ground rules that so handcuffed them, it guaranteed a credulous, under-reported, unconfirmable story.  No competent editor would ever agree to that.  It's journalistic malpractice.

Journalists have an expression: That some stories are just too juicy to check out, lest it fall apart and we can't print it. It's meant, of course, as a joke. 

That's what happened here.  No joke. 

Every editor involved with that Rolling Stone story -- every one who helped push the button -- has to be fired.   It's that big a deal.

Already, some revolting online journalist -- he runs a far-right blog that is also trying to smear Eric Garner -- has published Jackie's full identity, linked to her social media, resulting in a hemorrhage of the worst sort of poison against her.   The comments section has been taken over by people who hate women.  To read it is to bathe in filth.

Please remember we still do not know what happened at UVA, or whether Jackie deliberately misled anyone; stress and trauma can do freaky things to memory -- I have studied this, and I know.  It is way too early to conclude that there was no serious sexual crime committed against this woman. Or that she is a "liar."  It may be much more complicated than that.

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Gene Weingarten
Gene Weingarten is the humor writer for The Washington Post. His column, Below the Beltway, has appeared weekly in the Post's Sunday magazine since July 2000 and has been distributed nationwide on The Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. He was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.

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