Search Results for: Sabrina-Rubin-Erdely

The Fault in Our Stars: On Fake Celebrity Interviews

Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | November 2018 | 11 minutes (2,670 words)

“I play with my breasts, not to show off but to demonstrate a kind of revulsion. I simply transform myself into a voice for all the tormented souls of this world.”

That’s Courtney Love in 1996 in SZ, the magazine belonging to one of the largest newspapers in Germany, Süddeutsche Zeitung. It sounds a little crazy, but then, she’s a little crazy. And anyway, Tom Kummer, the Swiss journalist who attempted to style himself after Hunter S. Thompson, always filed outlandish exclusives and cover stories like this from Los Angeles — Pamela Anderson on her aching implants, Mike Tyson on eating cockroaches, Bruce Willis on immorality. From the mid-nineties to 2000, he was kind of a celebrity himself. Beloved by editors, he also wrote for the German magazines Der Spiegel and Stern and Switzerland’s Die Weltwoche. In fact, it was in the latter that, roughly two years before the Love interview, he wrote, funnily enough: “She plays with her breasts not to show off but to demonstrate revulsion. She wants to embody the voice of all tormented souls in the world.”

Tom Kummer had been flagged for fabrication before, but it wasn’t until an exposé in Focus magazine in 2000 that it was confirmed: he had never interviewed Love, or Brad Pitt or Sharon Stone or Kim Basinger, or anyone really. SZ followed with a breakdown of his deceit, like The New York Times would with Jayson Blair in 2003; it published an apology for the “falsified” stories and fired editors Christian Kämmerling and Ulf Poschardt. You would think Kummer would at least nod at contrition — like Janet Cooke in 1982, like Stephen Glass in 1998 — but he took the Jonah Lehrer route instead and talked boundaries. He even had a name for his approach: borderline journalism. “I wrote impressionistic, creative, literary descriptions of the life of stars in the form of so-called interviews,” he told The Guardian in 2011, adding, “Everybody loved my stuff and I guess they were addicted to some kind of illusion that stars should talk like I made them talk.” He claimed he was never asked for proof, that his editors had approved of his methods. As Stern’s publisher told the Times, they — Kummer and his editors — “appeared to have a different idea of journalism.” Read more…

What Columbia University’s Investigation Reveals About the Rolling Stone UVA Rape Story

Columbia University’s School of Journalism has released its report investigating what went wrong with Rolling Stone’s story of a rape at UVA, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. Among its conclusions:

Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,” Dana said. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, said, “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”

Yet better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors. The checking department should have been more assertive about questioning editorial decisions that the story’s checker justifiably doubted. Dana said he was not told of reporting holes like the failure to contact the three friends or the decision to use misleading attributions to obscure that fact.

Stronger policy and clearer staff understanding in at least three areas might have changed the final outcome:

Pseudonyms. Dana, Woods and McPherson said using pseudonyms at Rolling Stone is a “case by case” issue that requires no special convening or review. Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism. They introduce fiction and ask readers to trust that this is the only instance in which a publication is inventing details at its discretion. Their use in this case was a crutch – it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps. Rolling Stone should consider banning them. If its editors believe pseudonyms are an indispensable tool for its forms of narrative writing, the magazine should consider using them much more rarely and only after robust discussion about alternatives, with dissent encouraged.

Checking Derogatory Information. Erdely and Woods made the fateful agreement not to check with the three friends. If the fact-checking department had understood that such a practice was unacceptable, the outcome would almost certainly have changed.

Confronting Subjects With Details. When Erdely sought “comment,” she missed the opportunity to hear challenging, detailed rebuttals from Phi Kappa Psi before publication. The fact-checker relied only on Erdely’s communications with the fraternity and did not independently confirm with Phi Kappa Psi the account Rolling Stone intended to publish about Jackie’s assault. If both the reporter and checker had understood that by policy they should routinely share specific, derogatory details with the subjects of their reporting, Rolling Stone might have veered in a different direction.

Read the story

America’s Journalism Scandals Can Be Divided Into Three General Categories

Photo by Bob Mical

Now that the facts have been laid bare, “A Rape on Campus,” published in November, joins America’s rogues’ gallery of journalism scandals. For ease of reference, the scandals can be divided into three general categories (excluding the recent phenomenon of television figures telling tall-tale war stories).

The first two are straightforward. There is pure fabrication, for which high-profile culprits include Jayson Blair (The New York Times), Stephen Glass (The New Republic) and, going back a little further, Janet Cooke (The Washington Post). And there is the act of plagiarism (culprits too numerous to list).

“A Rape on Campus” falls into a third category: lack of skepticism.

It is the most complicated of the three, and in many ways the most insidious. It is a crime no single journalist — reporter or editor — can be completely inoculated against committing.

—Jonathan Mahler, writing in The New York Times about the newly released report dissecting Rolling Stone’s story about campus rape, which the magazine has now retracted. The 12,600-word report was commissioned by Rolling Stone and authored by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Read the story

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Illustration by: John Ritter

Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.

* * *

Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.

* * *

Read more…

Longreads Best of 2013 Postscript: 'The Poorest Rich Kids in the World'

Above: Doris Duke

The Poorest Rich Kids in the World

Sabrina Rubin Erdely | Rolling Stone | August 2013 | 38 minutes (9,653 words)


Sabrina Rubin Erdely (@sabrinarerdely) is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.

I often deal with interview subjects who tell variations of the truth. People don’t usually out-and-out lie, although that happens from time to time. But memory is a flimsy thing. Even a clear-eyed subject gets details wrong: The sequence of events is off, a sweater was blue and not green, that sort of thing. And then there are those people whose emotions or perspectives have put a filter on their recollections, skewing it this way or that.

The teenage twins Georgia and Patterson Inman, heirs to the Duke fortune, were like an exponential version of that latter category. Their memories had been so warped by trauma that they actually couldn’t separate fact from fiction. I’d never encountered anything like it: Two people with shared memories of events which, to them, felt authentic—and much of which did check out as true—but some of which was implausible, and a few which turned out to be false. It was as though their minds were designed less for record-keeping, and more for coping with their tremendous pain—flexible tools which were bending in all directions in an effort to make sense of their pasts.

When I realized the way the twins were interweaving fact and fiction, with no clue they were doing so, I panicked. Double-sourcing wasn’t going to be enough to report this story; I needed to rethink my reporting methods, as well as the way I approached the writing, relying heavily on documents and secondary sources, and opting to include bits of questionable material as evidence of the kids’ shaky states of mind. After the article was published, the twins were worried I’d portrayed them as “liars,” which couldn’t have been farther from my intention. I know they had told me nothing but the truth, as best they could.


Read more stories from Longreads Best of 2013


Photo: Duke University Library

We need your help to get to 5,000 Longreads Members.

Join Longreads now and help us keep going.

The True Story of ‘The Poorest Rich Kids in the World’

Longreads Pick

Longreads Best of 2013 continues with a postscript by Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Erdely, on her story about Georgia and Patterson Inman, heirs to the Duke fortune.

Source: Longreads
Published: Dec 17, 2013

Longreads Best of 2014: Here Are All of Our No. 1 Story Picks from This Year

All through December, we’ll be featuring Longreads’ Best of 2014. To get you ready, here’s a list of every story that was chosen as No. 1 in our weekly Top 5 email.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our free weekly email every Friday. Read more…

Longreads Best of 2013: Here Are All 49 of Our No. 1 Story Picks From This Year

Every week, Longreads sends out an email with our Top 5 story picks—so here it is, every single story that was chosen as No. 1 this year. If you like these, you can sign up to receive our free Top 5 email every Friday.

Happy holidays! Read more…