On The Cover-Up Of The Rolling Stone

It seems the organizations that are worst at handling a media crisis are the media

Rolling Stone

(WTNH)  Apologies to Dr. Hook & his Medicine Show for that headline (google it, young people), but if cover-up isn’t quite the right word to describe the magazine’s underwhelming response to the overwhelming criticism of how it handled the UVA rape story…well, it’ll do until the right word comes along.

Now on the heels of Monday’s withering take-down of what some are calling Rolling Stone’s journalistic malpractice, comes new insight into the Brian Williams debacle at NBC in a just-released story on the Vanity Fair website.  The article by veteran VF writer Bryan Burrough tells of failures at just about every level of NBC’s chain of command in the days leading up to and during the career meltdown of the man who had assumed the title — ratings-wise, at least — of “the most trusted man in America.”  Burrough looks into the network’s in-house investigation of Williams’s Iraq War fabrications, and paints a picture of an organization without a clue on not just crisis control, but also Corporate Hierarchy 101, ego management, and how Brian Williams didn’t seem to understand his head was on the chopping block until the ax was halfway down.

The Rolling Stone case was different in its particulars, but much the same in the scandal handle department.  An independent investigation by the Columbia School of Journalism, commissioned by the magazine, found its reporter and editors behind “A Rape On Campus” failed epically on every aspect of the story about the University of Virginia co-ed who claimed she was gang-raped at a fraternity house.  Especially the part about how it probably never happened. It would be a good real-life case study for an Introduction to Journalism class, except no one would believe a real news organization could get anything that wrong.

Read up yourselves on the latest developments in these stories. I merely wanted to note today the sad irony of major league news organizations mishandling crises as badly or worse than those they’ve reported on over the decades involving the government and other companies. Witness how NBC and Rolling Stone are dealing with the immediate aftermath of their respective train wrecks:

— NBC is still keeping Brian Williams in limbo with a six-month unpaid suspension.  Is he coming back?  Ever?  Two months after the story broke, no one has clue. Although one top exec was moved, no one has been fired. Maybe that will change with the return of Andrew Lack as head of NBC News, a job he had from 1993 to 2001.  This is his first week on the job.  Welcome back, Andy!

— Rolling Stone’s response to the scathing Columbia report was basically a shrug.  No one involved in the campus rape story has been fired or demoted, and the magazine says it has no plans to change the way it operates.

You don’t need to be a professional crisis consultant to know that rules 1 and 1A are get the truth out there, and take immediate responsibility and action in response.  The result is another black eye for the journalism profession.  Make that two black eyes.

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