By Tim Hayes
Lately, much has been written and discussed nationally about an article that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine a few months ago, describing the rape of a student at the University of Virginia by members of a fraternity there.
The story has since been proven false. The magazine asked the Columbia Journalism Review – one of the most respected voices in journalism – to conduct an examination of what went wrong, and the resulting report pointed a harsh finger at the reporter, the editors, and just about anyone at Rolling Stone who had a hand in developing and approving the article for publication.
This fiasco brought to mind an episode that I thought I had stuffed into the farthest recesses of my memory, but I hadn’t hidden it well enough, for it popped up to the surface again the other day. While not anywhere near as far-reaching, and not dealing with anything as provocative as an alleged rape, my story carries many of the same lessons and cautions as the Rolling Stone mishap.
Fresh out of college, on my first professional job as a newspaper reporter, my “beat” required me to cover the campus from which I had just graduated. Still in the afterglow of Watergate, I fashioned myself as a budding investigative reporter. Eventually, I began hearing about some possible financial shenanigans related to the Student Co-operative Association, a standalone entity funded by student fees to run the bookstore, student activities and organizations, student government, the student newspaper, and so on.
Setting to work to pull the covers off of this small-town conspiracy, I interviewed student officers and others with an ax to grind against the executive director, a full-time adult employee of the university. And, man, was I digging up the dirt! Seems everybody had something to say, or allege, or accuse this person of doing some underhanded, potentially illegal, certainly unethical things with the Co-op’s money.
The story got written up, submitted to the managing editor, and appeared on the front page of the next day’s paper. Woodward and Bernstein could hear footsteps gaining on them down there at The Washington Post, I was sure of it.
As I arrived at the newsroom the following day at 7 a.m., the managing editor met me before I even reached my desk. “Come with me,” he said. “Where to?” “The publisher’s office.”
We reached the corner office of the publisher, a very nice, soft-spoken older gentleman, who rarely came out of that office. To be summoned there meant something not very pleasant was afoot. What made it worse – I saw the executive director of the Co-op sitting there too, looking furious.
“Tim, we’re looking at this story you wrote in yesterday’s paper,” said the publisher. “Just have one question. Did you talk with our friend here? I don’t see his side of the story at all. He’s pretty upset. I don’t blame him. So, did you?”
Images of a young career crashing and burning before my eyes, I admitted, “No, I didn’t. That was wrong. I apologize, and promise that I’ll never do anything like this again.”
After pledging to run an apology and a correction in that day’s editions, the publisher said I could go. He, the Co-op fellow, and my boss stayed behind to continue smoothing feathers. I felt sure I would be fired, but my managing editor told me later that day that he took as much responsibility for the unbalanced story as belonged to me. Many lessons learned that day, all around. I had committed a rookie mistake, but one of the most serious ones in journalism.
But the thing I remember most powerfully? An awful, acrid burning deep down inside that I had not only dropped the ball as a reporter – intentionally, selfishly failing to follow through pursuing a part of the story that could have squashed my first big scoop – but that I had truly hurt and harmed someone’s reputation in the process. Not all that different, really, from what happened to those University of Virginia frat boys.
As it turned out, a few minor sloppy financial indiscretions had occurred at the Co-op, so my story hadn’t been a total bust. More important, though, as far as I can recall, I have lived up to the promise made in that publisher’s office when I thought my career had been clipped. I have never done anything like that since. Let’s hope the folks at Rolling Stone, and all journalists, take the same lesson.
Copyright 2015 Transverse Park Productions LLC and Tim Hayes Consulting