After Rolling Stone Campus Rape Debacle, Can the Magazine Recover?

“What they shouldn’t do is slink off into the shadows and wait for the next celebrity scandal,” Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins tells TheWrap

Can Rolling Stone recover from”A Rape on Campus,” the investigative story retracted on Sunday after an investigation concluded there was an institutional failure from top to bottom at the magazine?

One media veteran says the nearly 50-year-old publication will never live down the stench of this story.

“I think this is a huge scar; it starts as a black eye and becomes a scar for Rolling Stone,” Frank Sesno, Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University told TheWrap. “The New York Times has never lived down Jayson Blair and won’t. The Washington Post has never lived down Janet Cooke and won’t, and they won’t live this down.”

The fallout has been fierce. In the hours after the review was released Sunday, Rolling Stone came under heavy criticism on social media and from respected pundits. Now the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi, named as the fraternity where the alleged rape occurred, has announced it will be pursuing all legal options against the magazine.

The immediate aftermath of a media scandal of such proportions is always the worst, as pundits and competitors shout loudly to throw all the bums out, or in this case, anyone at Rolling Stone involved with the flawed report.

Rolling Stone has prided itself on a sense of fearless, muckraking journalism, Sesno said, but that’s now “damaged goods.”

Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren looks at the scandal as Rolling Stone’s “asterisk,” and that outside of who’s to blame at the magazine, the debacle serves as a wake up call to everyone else who relied on Rolling Stone’s reporting instead of doing their own investigations.

The Fox anchor invoked a former president’s infamous phrase to tie a bow on Rolling Stone’s missteps: “As Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust but verify,'” she told TheWrap.

Rolling Stone ran with the story without verifying critical facts, Van Susteren added, causing the media to run with it under the assumption the usually-trustworthy magazine could be believed.

“It’s a wake up call for all of us to do a better job,” she concluded.

But she doesn’t see the story as permanently damaging the magazine: “Everyone loves a scandal today but give it six months, a year, two years—it’s not going to take Rolling Stone down.”

She echoed the authors of the scathing 12,866-word Columbia report, who in their recommendations for what lessons could be learned from Rolling Stone’s mistakes, urged journalists reporting on the sensitive topic of rape to keep the balance between sensitivity to the accuser and the journalistic tenet of verification.

“It does survivors no good if reporters documenting their cases avoid rigorous practices of verification,” the Columbia report read. “That may only subject the victim to greater scrutiny and skepticism.”

NPR TV critic Eric Deggans said he would be surprised if Rolling Stone falls far down the legacy-media pack, but he does think the magazine has to start rebuilding its credibility, “one scoop at a time.”

Rolling Stone's

Rolling Stone

“If they reestablish a track record of breaking important stories accurately, then I think the problems with this story will fade for them,” he said.

The questionable part for Rolling Stone will be whether the magazine can reestablish its credibility while at the same time retaining all staffers involved with the botched story. As the report was released, Publisher Jann S. Wenner made a point to say no one would be disciplined or fired for “A Rape on Campus.” He called the mistakes an isolated and unusual episode, according to The New York Times.

Wenner also continued the magazine’s pattern of pointing to the main source of the story, “Jackie,” calling her “a really expert fabulist storyteller” before backpedaling to say he was not trying to blame the victim.

One journalism veteran says Rolling Stone can come back — but will have to go bold to do it.

“I don’t know if they’d have the courage to do it, but it would be really interesting if they went back after the issue of campus rape and this time did it right,” said Al Tompkins, Poynter Institute senior faculty member for broadcasting and online.

The report itself implores journalists not to give up on the topic, he said, and Rolling Stone can make an awful situation less bad if they go back after it and make a “gutsy” decision to throw everything and the kitchen sink into it.

But can they go back after the rape story with the same editor at the helm? Tompkins suggested the magazine partner with an outlet such as the Center for Investigative Reporting or Frontline to nail down every single corner on the new story.

“What they shouldn’t do is slink off into the shadows and wait for the next celebrity scandal.”