PBS’s News Hour accomplished the near impossible last Friday. In the matter of Rolling Stone’s discredited article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia, the News Hour covered itself in even more discredit than did the disgraced magazine.
As holes appeared in the reporting, and the account of “Jackie’s” night of horror and violation in a frat house fell apart, Rolling Stone retreated. Managing Editor Will Dana issued a statement disavowing the story. “"In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced." Rolling Stone apologized to the people “affected by the story.”
The statement included the startling information that Rolling Stone had promised Jackie not to contact any of the accused rapists because she claimed she feared retribution. That raises the ethical question of reporting conclusions that represent only “she said.” It also raises the logical question of how a story that more or less identifies the accused, and results in repercussions against fraternities, could avoid triggering the retaliation Jackie feared. Dana admitted Rolling Stone should not have made the promise.
This is dramatic stuff. A storied publication reports a hideous sexual assault, prolonged ordeal, and a callous response by the University and students alike. The story gains global attention and sets punitive wheels in motion at UVa. Then under scrutiny, the story implodes and is disavowed. That’s certainly worthy of scrutiny on the News Hour, which had been one of the outlets breathlessly covering the scandal. It shouldn’t take a journalism professor, however, to see that upon Rolling Stone’s walkback, the real story became about the practice of journalism and the standards for investigating and reporting explosive accusations. It’s important to know how such serious falsehoods made it through the process and smeared a campus and a community.
That would be an important and interesting segment. But, that’s not the story the News Hour’s Judy Woodruff aired. Instead, viewers received an incoherent mash of inconsistent messages. Woodruff didn’t even lead with the magazine’s stark and unambiguous statement. Instead, she opened with a recounting of the “horrific” allegations and the global response to the story. Then she acknowledged the magazine had issued a note to its readers saying new questions had been raised. She minimized its expression the story was wrong.
Woodruff asked Washington Post reporter T. Rees. Shapiro about the "new questions that have been raised." The surreal dialogue felt as if Woodruff were clinging to the spirit of the account, but as a matter of due diligence, was open to considering new questions. Rolling Stone had already abandoned its own article! But, the News Hour was double checking dates and times either to bolster the account, or at least satisfy itself rehabilitation was hopeless.
Woodruff and Rees repeatedly referenced the “horrific story” and solemnly addressed what they seem to see as the higher meaning. They assured viewers that other cases of alleged sexual assault were still being investigated. The university wasn’t abandoning the “soul searching” and commitment to respond more effectively that had been occasioned by the story’s publication. It would follow through on it chastened resolve to respond more effectively to the important issue of sexual assault on campus.
Woodruff and Rees fretted that the unraveling of this case might deter other victims of sexual assault from coming forward to press their allegations. “What are the lessons, here?” Woodruff queried Rees. It didn’t seem to occur to her the lessons might be about journalism, not a college rape culture. Throughout, her consternation and disappointment were palpable that the awful story wasn’t true; a college freshman didn't actually get gang raped in a frat house on top of broken shards of glass for three hours. A legendary magazine lit a fire of scandal and sensation and the national media including the News Hour got burned.
Woodruff, however, did not see this as an opportunity for journalists to reflect. She kept the focus on issues of sexual assault on campus and how the system responds. PBS decided it would rather re-warm and savor its own left over spew than flat admit that it and the rest of the media got the story wrong, and consider the implications of that. It was a missed opportunity and a bizarre performance.