Is the Rolling Stone Gang Rape Story “the Worst Screwup” of Them All? Maybe Not.

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 9.47.41 AMGene Weingarten, winner of two Pulitzers for the Washington Post, yesterday said:

“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.”

Weingarten, a newspaper guy, is right that the Washington Post’s Janet Cooke embarrassment (“Here’s your Pulitzer back”) and the New York Times’s Jayson Blair disaster were memorable.  But there was a spectacular magazine screwup that parallels what has happened to Rolling Stone.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 11.16.49 AMGo to Google Books and read pages 399 to 409 of Carol Felsenthal’s 1993 book, Power, Privilege and the Post: The Katharine Graham Story. Felsenthal lays out in wonderful detail what happened at Newsweek in 1983 when the magazine played a major role in the disaster called the Hitler Diaries. The cast of characters in the Newsweek screwup included Ben Bradlee, Rupert Murdoch, Rick Smith, Maynard Parker, and Bill Broyles. Here are a few grafs that set the stage:

“Kay had more on her agenda than hiring a top-notch Newsweek editor. With encouragement from Ben Bradlee, she also wanted to send a message: No more old-boy network. Broyles, a native born Texan, was the outsider brought in to shake things up, the cowboy who was going to saunter into town to show all these used-up New Yorkers how to do it….

“That Bradlee was so vocally delighted with Broyles annoyed the magazine’s old guard, who wondered why the executive editor of The Washington Post should have any role in the selection of the editor of Newsweek. ‘I was always shocked when I [talked] to Ben about it,’ says Kermit Lansner. ‘He’d say, ‘Washington is really going to take control of this. We’re not gonna have you bastards up in New York run it your own way.'”

Felsenthal goes on to describe what happened when Broyles, the founding editor of Texas Monthly, took over Newsweek and let Maynard Parker, his number two, bid $3 million for the American rights to the Hitler Diaries. Newsweek lost out to Rupert Murdoch on the rights to publish excerpts from the diaries but the magazine went ahead with a cover story, which, Felsenthal writes, “reported on the finding, on its significance—the diaries would, some said, rehabilitate Hitler by showing that he knew nothing about the Holocaust—and which featured diary excerpts obtained during the failed negotiations.”

As it became clear that the Hitler Diaries were one of the great frauds ever perpetrated on journalism, Broyles quickly departed Newsweek, Maynard Parker barely survived, and Rick Smith took over the magazine.

I asked Ed Kosner, who edited Newsweek before the Hitler Diaries fiasco, and then went on to edit New York and Esquire, how he saw the Rolling Stone gang rape story in the context of other journalism disasters. Here’s what he said:

“I suppose it depends on whether you think it’s worse for a publication to fail to detect fraud by its own reporters (Jason Blair, Janet Cooke, and the Glass guy at the New Republic) or to commit incompetent editing (the Rolling Stone and Hitler Diaries episodes).

“In any case, I think the Washington Post, New York Times, and Newsweek meltdowns were worse because these are/were more important publications with even higher standards than Rolling Stone.

“My larger theory is that legacy journalism is being driven crazy by digital journalism and in desperation abandoning the sound practices that led people to trust these publications over the years.”

I then bounced what Ed said off another longtime magazine editor:

“I’d say Ed’s right, but if the scale were astonishment, the Rolling Stone article would win hands down. It’s such an unthinkable fuck-up. As far as I can tell, there wasn’t even circumstantial evidence backing up the story. The thing that really gave it away for me was the screwy tale of the three friends Jackie called after the alleged rape. By her account, they found her hysterical, bleeding, traumatized by a gang rape at 3 a.m., then didn’t even take her to the hospital out of fear their social standing would be harmed. What 19-year-old would make that decision? And then the reporter couldn’t get any of the three to substantiate it.

“I must say, the story has turned into a valuable teaching tool.”


  1. Consider the following three points.

    First, Jackie claimed that the “room was pitch-black inside” and that “a body barreled into her, tripping her backward and sending them both crashing through a low glass table”. She then lay there, for three hours, while seven (originally five) men raped her, with shards of glass cutting in to her. Thus, according to Jackie, the men who were in a room so dark that they could not see, would be largely naked lying on a floor with lots of broken glass—for three hours. It is extremely implausible that the men would do that to themselves, even if they were evil: the men would surely risk getting severely cut by the glass.

    Second, Jackie claimed that, later on, some man “flung a bottle at Jackie that broke on the side of her face”. Bottles break easily in Hollywood movies, but special props are used then. Bottles do not break easily in real life: try it for yourself, or watch this video test—

    Third, the claim that ritualized rape could be part of a fraternity pledging/initiation process is extremely implausible. All those fraternity guys participating and keeping the secret of a horrendous felony? None of the raped girls (previously) going public? Such a process would eventually be exposed, and at least some of the perpetrators would get long prison sentences: that is virtually certain, and the guys would know so.

    The three points together demonstrate that the story is extremely implausible even on its own terms. Although the research that the Washington Post did was certainly highly valuable, no research was needed to see that the story greatly lacked credibility.

    And, people who believed this story effectively put their presumption of male guilt before logic and reason. Extreme feminists even seem to be upset that people are questioning a woman’s right to condemn men: according to them, a woman’s word by itself should be enough to find a man guilty.

    An additional point is that the Rolling Stone said they did not contact the alleged perpetrator because of Jackie’s wishes. Yet the story effectively identified the perpetrator: a handsome lifeguard at the university swimming pool who was a member of Phi Kappa Psi and was then in his third year at UVA—that is easily enough information to identify someone. Of course, it has since turned out that there was no such person. Rolling Stone, however, say that they believed Jackie’s story. If so, then they were willing to publically identify a man they accused of orchestrating a gang rape without contacting the man or giving the man any opportunity to defend himself.

  2. Thanks, Jack Limpert for the reminder of the Hitler diaries screwup. I wrote the book and I must admit that it didn’t occur to me to think of the Rolling Stone UVa rape story in the context of that earlier journalistic disaster. Coincidentally, when former Newsweek editor Lester Bernstein died on Thanksgiving day, i went back to my biography of Kay Graham and read the index items on Bernstein. I had interviewed him, along with Kermit Lansner and Ed Kosner, and, if my memory serves, a couple of other Newsweek editors hired and fired by Kay Graham. Reading these pieces of my book–i guess one can do that on Google Books–reminded me of just what a dysfunctional place the Wash Post/Newsweek was during the period when Kay was finding her footing in a difficult and hostile environment. The confluence of personalities and egos and competition and self-confidence deficits made the Hitler diaries mess a fiasco waiting to happen. Carol Felsenthal, Chicago

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