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Rolling Stone's journalistic credibility is called into question

The implosion of a Rolling Stone story describing an alleged rape at the University of Virginia has dealt yet another blow to the American press, which was already held in suspicion and low regard among much of the nation's reading public.

The article in question, "A Rape on Campus," which appeared in the magazine's December 2014 issue, has been investigated and criticized by the Columbia Journalism School, eliciting apologies from the magazine and its author. Publisher Jann Wenner told The New York Times that the Rolling Stone editing team failed in "basic, even routine journalistic practice" in checking out and reporting the story.

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Yet Mr. Wenner said neither the author, contributing writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, nor the editor, Sean Woods, would be fired. Rather, he blamed the single source of the story, identified by the pseudonym "Jackie," as "a really expert fabulist storyteller" who had taken advantage of the magazine's flawed checking process.

A cardinal rule in professional journalism is that intentional misrepresentation is "a firing offense," because the reporting craft's entire credibility is based on the public's confidence that what it is being told is true.

The recent suspension of "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams after he "conflated" his story of being in a helicopter shot down in Iraq was partially in keeping with that rule. Other journalists have been fired for committing rank plagiarism -- taking someone else's writings as one's own.

Rolling Stone's failure, however, was that the writer and her editors swallowed whole a possibly fictional story without adhering to the most basic tenets of professional journalism.

In the wise-cracking banter of the old-time newsroom, the rule was reduced to the hard-nosed editor's instruction to the rookie reporter: "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out."

That, in a nutshell, was what Rolling Stone failed adequately to do in its vetting of the alleged brutal rape of "Jackie," the article's subject, at a weekend fraternity party. Friends whom the alleged victim said she told of the episode were never questioned by the reporter, and the fraternity said no such party was held at its house on the weekend specified.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the whole business is that Rolling Stone, after its earliest years as a respectable voice for the young, hip music culture, had come to be regarded as a legitimate source of enterprise journalism. It had the necessary editing review process in place, but the editors didn't make thorough enough use of it.

With the old print media in decline, professional editing as an integral safeguard against factual error, misrepresentation and plagiarism has been eroding as well. Newsroom economic cutbacks have targeted editors as well as reporters, and the result has been sloppiness and worse in the daily print product.

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Most seasoned reporters have learned, gratefully, how essential fact-checking is; thorough editing prevents mistakes, unintentional or otherwise, from appearing in print and causing embarrassment or graver consequences.

In the age of social media and the Internet, free-wheeling reporting, gossip, rumor and partisan ranting have leaked into public discourse, and are consumed without the benefit of skilled vetting for accuracy.

At the same time, the growth of transparently partisan reporting and commentary on cable television, as seen on the right on Fox Newsand on the left on MSNBC, tends to draw viewers to the sites that reflect their already formed opinions. It increasingly becomes electronic preaching to the choir, rather than the open exchange of differing views from which light may just sometimes emerge.

We expect more from a publication like Rolling Stone, which has a professional editorial apparatus in place. When it doesn't use it adequately, that is really disturbing.

Sorting out fact from fiction and reasoned argument from polemic is difficult enough these days for readers and viewers. They don't need journalistic credibility further undermined by foot soldiers who, for whatever reason, don't adhere to the fundamental safeguards of their own so-called profession.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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