You could call it the year of the “too good to check” story: a blockbuster article in Rolling Stone magazine on a brutal alleged gang rape fell apart a couple weeks after it sparked national outrage, and a New York Magazine story on a teen rumored to have made $72 million on the stock market was debunked in little more than a day.
Alternatively, you could call it the year of the conspiracy theory. CNN spent weeks airing roundtable discussions with everyone from ex-pilots to psychics speculating on where a jetliner that disappeared over the Pacific Ocean may have ended up (a black hole? North Korea?), while some renowned journalists openly questioned whether videos showing Americans being beheaded in the Middle East were staged in a Hollywood studio.
But journalists’ screw-ups weren’t limited to just bad fact-checking and embarrassingly wild speculation. Here are the worst media fails of 2014.
1. Rolling Stone’s explosive story on rape at UVA implodes
In November, Rolling Stone published a lengthy investigation into the University of Virginia’s inadequate response to a brutal, alleged gang rape at a campus fraternity. The piece instantly went viral and scores of other UVA students came forward to share their own accounts of being sexually assaulted at the school and finding little support from administrators in the aftermath. The article prompted UVA to take real action, too: all fraternities and sororities were suspended through January.
But as reporting by other news outlets revealed, the story of “Jackie,” as told by Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was too perfect — “perfect” here meaning gruesome and morally repugnant enough to spark change — to be true.
Amid mounting evidence that Jackie had either misled Erdely or Erdely hadn’t checked her facts adequately enough, Rolling Stone acknowledged the discrepancies in Jackie’s story and said it had “misplaced” its trust in her. It later clarified that the failure was on the magazine, not on Jackie.
Columbia Journalism School is now conducting an independent review of Erdely’s reporting, which the magazine plans to publish when completed. But just as the story’s publication took its toll on fraternities, the unraveling of the story had real consequences for other victims of sexual assault.
Experts told TPM that due to the Rolling Stone dispute, other rape victims may choose not report assaults out of fear of not being believed. Similarly, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) declared in a Senate judiciary subcommittee hearing that the magazine’s “bad journalism” was a definite “setback” for all victims of sexual assault.
2. CNN’s wild, fruitless search for MH370
CNN became the laughingstock of cable news once it started doing wall-to-wall coverage of the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370. Anchor Don Lemon quickly emerged as the most egregious offender, apparently sourcing theories from Twitter to suggest the plane’s disappearance was some sort of “supernatural” event.
But Lemon wasn’t content with just one wild theory. He speculated as to whether a black hole could have swallowed the plane or whether it was hiding in North Korea. Not to be outdone, CNN’s sister network, HLN, even brought a psychic on air to explain what happened to the missing jetliner.
Whether or not CNN’s MH370 coverage was a bust is a matter of perspective, though — it crushed rival Fox News in the primetime ratings war as a result of its commitment to finding the missing plane, wherever the search happened to take them.
3. New York magazine ‘duped’ by phony teen stock whiz story
New York magazine was forced to admit it had been “duped” by a high school student from Queens who was rumored to have made $72 million on the stock market after the teen admitted he made the whole thing up.
The magazine and the reporter on the story, Jessica Pressler, stood by their reporting on 17-year-old Mohammed Islam based on a bank statement he provided to a fact-checker showing his net worth was in the “high eight figures.” But Islam reportedly falsified that bank statement.
As part of defending the piece, Pressler defended the piece by saying it shouldn’t be held to the standards of a financial publication. But in a twist, the phony story ended up reportedly costing Pressler a job with Bloomberg News’ financial investigations team.
4. Breitbart attacks the wrong Loretta Lynch
Conservative news website Breitbart thought it was on to something when it published an article noting that President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Eric Holder as attorney general was connected to the Whitewater scandal.
But there was a problem: the Loretta Lynch who served as a defense attorney for President Bill Clinton during the Whitewater investigation is not the same Loretta Lynch who currently serves as U.S. attorney in Brooklyn.
5. Speculation about whether ISIL beheading videos were staged
For some reason, both television channel Al Jazeera and author Naomi Wolf separately came to the conclusion that videos of Islamic State militants beheading American journalists may have been staged.
The typical reaction to the videos, which were released at the end of last summer, was a blend of outrage and disgust. Yet Al Jazeera ran an article in September claiming that journalist James Foley probably made the video of his beheading himself, citing eye movement that looked like “he was reading text from an autocue” and an executioner that looked more “like a Hollywood actor” than a jihadist. The outlet later took down the story and apologized to the families of the slain journalists.
A month later, Wolf similarly cast doubt on the authenticity of the videos. After her comments were picked up by multiple news outlets, the author slammed the media for “distorting” her position and labeling her a conspiracy theorist.
6. The Economist withdraws review that slammed book on slavery as “advocacy”
The Economist apologized for and withdrew a book review that sharply criticized a book on slavery as a work of “advocacy” in September.
The venerable British magazine ran an unbylined piece that argued Cornell historian Ed Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told” as biased because “almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.”
On the upside, Baptist told TPM that the whole controversy boosted sales of his book on Amazon. The dustup also inspired the truly great satirical hashtag #EconomistBookReviews:
Dickens focuses too much on the plight of the workers & not the industrialists who were stimulating the economy #economistbookreviews
— Nyasha Junior (@NyashaJunior) September 4, 2014
The author has not considered that as a free citizen of a liberal society, Wally/Waldo has the right not to be found #economistbookreviews
— Vanessa H (@HPS_Vanessa) September 5, 2014
7. Deadspin falsely accuses Senate candidate of lying about teenage football career
Deadspin jumped into the heated Colorado Senate race in October with a story that accused the Republican nominee, Rep. Cory Gardner, of lying about his high school football career.
The sports website was unable to dig up any evidence that Gardner played football in Yuma, Colorado, and a local football historian told them that he didn’t remember Gardner suiting up for the gridiron, either. But Gardner quickly produced old photos that showed otherwise:
— Cory Gardner (@CoryGardner) October 15, 2014
The historian Deadspin spoke to for the story reversed his comments, and the website published an extended apology admitting that it “fucked up.” Gardner went on to handily defeat incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D) in the midterm election.
8. Charles C. Johnson pays source for discredited Mississippi Senate vote-buying story
Conservative writer Charles C. Johnson has made a series of mistakes in his reporting this year, the most recent being a piece at his fledgling news site, Gotnews.com, that misidentified a rape victim in a viral photo as the “Jackie” in Rolling Stone’s disputed article on rape of the University of Virginia.
But his most ridiculous reporting failure was surely paying a source for evidence showing Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) bribed black voters to turn out for him in this summer’s hotly contested runoff election. The source, Steve Fielder, changed his story often, and at one point said he was paid by an aide to state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R-MS), Cochran’s rival, to go to Johnson with the allegations.
That story was challenged over doubts about Fielder’s credibility, and it even motivated Mississippi’s attorney general to look into whether Johnson paid Fielder to make a deliberately false claim. Regardless, McDaniel lost numerous legal challenges to Cochran’s runoff victory.
9. Minneapolis TV station accuses mayor of throwing ‘gang signs’ in #Pointergate
TV station KSTP was widely mocked after it ran a story accusing Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges of flashing “gang signs” while posing for a photo with a man it identified as a convicted felon.
The station’s reporting came to be called #Pointergate because Hodges and the neighborhood volunteer she posed with really were just pointing goofily at each other. It snowballed even further when KSTP doubled down on its accusation, and it went viral from there.
— Ken Paulman (@kenpaulman) November 7, 2014
— Than Tibbetts (@thanland) November 7, 2014
Minneapolis’ police chief was actually standing near Hodges and the volunteer off-camera, but that information never made it into the original report. Hodges suggested that local police union officials tried to discredit her efforts to improve community policing by going to the already-hostile territory of KSTP with a “non story.”
Hodges has vowed not to “stop pointing,” and KSTP is still defending its story.