As the UVA rape story falls apart, and Rolling Stone‘s disregard for journalistic ethics has become a topic of national conversation, some journalists are still desperately clinging to the idea that the reporter behind the hoax, Sabrina Erdely, did nothing wrong and was the hapless victim of a massive con job. One of these journalists is Geoff Mulvihill, an Associated Press writer for the New Jersey area.
This week, he wrote “Retracted Rolling Stone story is rare demerit for its writer.” The article, which borders on the hagiographic, is an attempt to rehabilitate Erdley in the eyes of the public after her disastrous journalistic failure. Mulvihill says, “Some of those who have worked with her see her as diligent and sensitive.” He quotes an additional source:
(The revelation of the hoax) was very painful for (Erdely), and I think more painful than all of the things written about her was the feeling that she had been betrayed by a source that she trusted and invested a lot of time and emotional energy on.
And another source:
As an editor, if I had to pick a reporter to nail a story based on their reporting chops, Sabrina would have been right up there. She’s just dogged.
The message of the article is perfectly clear: Erdely isn’t to be blamed for publishing a story she certainly knew was false, and that she knew would have tremendous consequences for the falsely accused. This was a temporary lapse by an otherwise shining star of a reporter. Mulvihill wants the reader to know that she was duped by her source, “Jackie,” whom the article describes as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who “manipulated the magazine’s journalism process.”
Lying by omission?
Mulvihill’s piece is not an editorial, but rather an Associated Press news article, and as such it is seemingly carefully written to avoid giving the direct opinion of its author. Associated Press guidelines call for its articles to be strictly written to be as free of bias as possible, so that they can be used by any newspaper regardless of its position. It’s clear, however, that Mulvihill is being very picky as to what facts he decides to present to the public.
For example, while he quotes a former co-worker of hers as saying, “Except for this — and that’s a big exception — her work is solid,” he does not tell the reader that Erdely has previously been accused of falsifying stories and undisclosed conflicts of interest. These accusations were not made by a fringe, unreliable source either—they came from a former writer for the Los Angeles Times and Philidelphia Inquirer (the same paper Mr. Mulvihill used to work at), and appeared in major national magazine Newsweek.
There are additional charges from other reputable sources as well, none of which Mulvihill sees fit to share with the public. All these charges have been in the media since late last year, and were well-known to anyone who’s been following the case closely. It is unlikely, to say the least, that Mulvihill was not aware of them, which makes his decision not to include any reference to them in his story puzzling.
Why did he write the article at all?
The most puzzling question, however, is why Mulvihill, a reporter for the New Jersey area, is writing about this story at all. Rolling Stone is headquartered in New York, not New Jersey. Nor, obviously, is the University of Virginia located in New Jersey. Mulvihill has not written on the UVA rape case before, nor does he have any special expertise on the matter.
A list of his columns can be found here, with titles like “Developer who didn’t repay loans gets New Jersey tax credits” and “Late winter snowstorm blankets South, Northeast.” So why is he suddenly writing about events that occurred far outside of his usual territory?
A look at his LinkedIn biography provides a possible answer: both Mulvihill and Erdely are long-time residents of Philadelphia, and his writing career began in that city more or less contemporaneously with hers. While they never worked for the same magazine or paper, they’ve traveled in the same journalistic social circles for almost 20 years.
The odds that after almost 20 years Mulvihill is not personally acquainted with Erdely are slim to none. He may very well be a friend of hers. If this is the case, it makes his motive in writing the article quite obvious—it’s an attempt to rehabilitate the image of a longtime friend, whose failures and biases are now the talk of the nation.
He is, of course, free to say whatever he likes about his friend or close colleague. If he wants everyone to know he thinks she’s a good person, or a good reporter, he may tell whoever he likes. Problems arise, however, when he conceals his own relationship with the subject of the piece, and attempts to use the reputation of the Associated Press for unbiased reporting to help someone he knows. While it does not rise to the level of Erdely’s libel, if this is true, it is still a serious ethical breach.
Many of Erdely’s failures were lies by omission. For example, she didn’t tell the reader that she’d never verified that the rape took place with anyone but her source. It is ironic that, in defending her, Mulvihill may have lied by omission himself.
(I’ve reached out to Mulvihill by Twitter for his response to these accusations, and have heard nothing as of the time this article was filed.)