A Rolling Stone gathers no facts

The venerable music publication gets a story wrong. Again.

The 21st century has been bad for almost every print publication, but it’s been especially rough for Rolling Stone magazine. (Most will blame the internet, but I like to think the turning point was this cover.) Not only is circulation way down - and its biweekly publication schedule switched to monthly - it’s been embarrassed several times by high-profile stories that didn’t pan out.

In 2005, they published an article by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (uh oh) alleging that vaccines cause autism. They were later forced to retract it. (RFK Jr., not surprisingly, still has it up on his website, because lying grifters gonna lie and grift.)

The magazine’s notorious 2014 article “A Rape on Campus” led to the magazine paying out seven-figure legal settlements to a fraternity and a university administrator it had defamed. And then there was the recent Oklahoma Ivermectin fiasco.

When country singer Morgan Wallen was caught using the N-word on video earlier this year, part of his damage-control strategy was to pledge half a million dollars in donations to African-American causes. Rolling Stone is now reporting that he has only donated a fraction of the promised funds and you can probably guess where this is going can’t you

On Monday, September 20th, Rolling Stone posted a breathless and impassioned article called “‘Exceptionally Misleading’: Morgan Wallen Pledged $500K to Black-Led Groups, But the Money Seems Largely M.I.A.,” claiming that Morgan Wallen had only delivered $165,000 of the $500,000 he had pledged to black charities in the aftermath of the N-word incident. The pledge came in an interview Wallen gave to Michael Strahan on July 23rd on Good Morning America. But just like much of the reporting coming from the once respected Rolling Stone outlet, the article was designed more to sow shock and outrage as opposed to educate and inform. And most important to note, it was also patently and verifiably false.

The Rolling Stone article authored by Jason Newman went out of its way to pat itself on the back for the depth of its research. It did give credit to Wallen for donating $165,000 to the Black Music Action Coalition. But Rolling Stone also claimed that’s where the Wallen donations ceased. How did they know this for sure? They claimed to reach out to “56 state, regional and national Black-led or Black-founded charities. None of them reported receiving any money from Wallen.” But this brag is also the folly of their reporting. Even Rolling Stone admits in the article that these 56 charities they chose to query came from a “compendium of Tennessee charities amassed by Give Blck, an organization that has compiled more than 700 Black-founded nonprofits nationwide.”

In other words, Rolling Stone only reached out to 8% of the known black charities in the United States, yet touted their research as thorough, and used it to levy a false accusations against Morgan Wallen. Furthermore, Rolling Stone admits that the donations could have come from Morgan Wallen through an intermediary, or could have been made anonymously. Rolling Stone says, “While it’s possible Wallen made donations anonymously, it would signal an abrupt about-face to his previous, conspicuous public mea culpas, financial declarations, and charitable endeavors.”

[…]

Saving Country Music also reached out to both the Black Music Action Coalition and Entertainment Industry Foundation to attempt to independently verify those donations as well, but did not hear back from either organization before the publishing of this article. However, USA Today was able to obtain paperwork and verify that on Morgan Wallen’s behalf the Big Loud label distributed $135,000 to several smaller charities of the individuals’ choice, including the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, which provides children from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds a musical education, Teen Dream Center, a Nashville ministry for inner-city youth, and the Beatrice W. Welters Breast Health Outreach & Navigation Program.

That means that $400,000 of the $500,000 pledge has indeed been distributed, with the final $100,000 to be distributed in the coming months—much farther north than the $165,000 Rolling Stone claimed Morgan Wallen had donated.

But the bigger implications of this falsely-reported Rolling Stone article is the continued journalistic malfeasance at the once venerable music outlet, and how it is sowing distrust in media in the public, and hurting the causes the outlet purports to be championing. Nobody will be persuaded towards a disfavorable view of Morgan Wallen by the Rolling Stone article that doesn’t already dislike Morgan Wallen, while his fans who believe his punishment doesn’t fit the crime, and that he’s the target of an agenda-driven media looking to exploit the situation for clicks, will have further and warranted ammunition.

The Rolling Stone article isn’t keeping Morgan Wallen accountable, it is making Rolling Stone less accountable and trustworthy. Rolling Stone seems to believe that as long as they’re on the right side of an issue, they can be on the wrong side of the facts, and corrections and controversy are just ways to drive even more traffic to stories.

Yes, Saving Country Music, a website best known for pushing back against the scourge of Florida-Georgia Line, is better at this journamalism thing than Rolling Stone.

No one ever went to Rolling Stone expecting straight-down-the-middle unbiased reporting - except for the occasional P.J. O’Rourke piece, it’s always been an unabashedly progressive, pro-Democratic Party publication - but it seems like its standards have deteriorated badly these past few years. Maybe it doesn’t have the resources it once had, so the reporting is getting sloppier. Or maybe it’s all about getting that sweet social media engagement and cleaning up any messes afterward.

This is a good time for anyone who wants to promote a narrative at the expense of reporting all facets of a case. Case in point: yet another New York City dog park race-related controversy.


A few days ago I wrote about John Eastman and other experienced lawyers who’ve gone all in on supporting Donald Trump at the expense of their reputations and credibility. David Lat went further and reviewed the sad cases of four highly respected attorneys and academics who chugged the MAGA Flavor-Aid.

And, believe it or not, Rudy Giuliani isn’t the worst or even the second-worst case of what Lat diagnoses as a pro-Trump strain of Trump Derangement Syndrome. (Lin Wood didn’t make the cut, as his legal background wasn’t as prestigious as Giuliani et al.)

1. JEFFREY BOSSERT CLARK

Pre-Trump respectability: Jeffrey Clark has compelling credentials. After graduating from Harvard College and Georgetown Law, he clerked for a highly regarded jurist, Judge Danny J. Boggs (6th Cir.). From 1996 to 2001, Clark worked at Kirkland & Ellis, one of Biglaw’s most prestigious and profitable firms, where he made partner. From 2001 to 2005, Clark served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Environmental and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). He then returned to Kirkland as a partner, working at the firm until he was nominated by President Trump and confirmed by the Senate to serve as the top lawyer—assistant attorney general—at the ENRD.

Hints of future lunacy: Not much. Yes, Clark could be pushy and power hungry; former DOJ colleagues told me about how he often tried to get in on high-level meetings, whether or not they involved his portfolio. But “pushy and power hungry” isn’t the same as “willing to overthrow the Republic”; if it were, half of D.C. lawyers would have been involved in the events of January 6. Instead, Clark was viewed as “unassuming,” even “nerdy.” His friend and former colleague Ted Frank described him to the New York Times as “a rumpled, thoughtful lawyer who is an intellectual—not a Machiavellian backstabber.”

Trump-driven descent into madness: Alas, “Machiavellian” is what Clark allegedly became. According to the Times, he conspired with Trump in a frankly bizarre scheme in which Trump would fire Clark’s friend and former Kirkland partner, Jeffrey A. Rosen, as acting attorney general, then install Clark in the role. As acting attorney general, Clark would then use the power of the DOJ to try and force Georgia state lawmakers to overturn their state’s 2020 presidential election results. The plot was foiled only when Jeffrey Rosen and other top DOJ officials threatened Trump with a 2021 “Saturday Night Massacre,” declaring that they would resign en masse if Trump and Clark went proceeded with their plan.

Derangement score: 6. Why only a 6? It’s all relative. Unlike the others on this list, Clark never publicly spouted conspiracy theories involving rigged voting machines or dead dictators, nor did he appear in a court or lie to a judge in his pro-Trump advocacy.

Where is he now: Clark landed on his feet. Although he didn’t make it back into Biglaw, he did find gainful new employment. In July, Clark was hired as chief of litigation and director of strategy at the New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA), a prominent, right-of-center legal group that fights alleged overreach by the administrative state.

That’s actually the least severe case Dr. Lat has examined. With Lin Wood disqualified, you can probably guess whose case was the worst.

Trump-driven descent into madness: Oh goodness, where to begin? Sidney Powell appeared alongside Rudy Giuliani at the notorious November 19 press conference, but a few days later she got dumped from the “elite strike force,” apparently because she was too crazy even for them.

Working independently from Giuliani, Powell promised bombshell revelations about election fraud that she infamously compared to the kraken, “a legendary sea monster of gigantic size and cephalopod-like appearance in Scandinavian folklore.” Dominion, Smartmatic, the liberal billionaire George Soros, the former (and dead) Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez, the Clinton Foundation, Cuba, China—is there anyone who wasn’t involved in Powell’s elaborate conspiracy theory?

Powell’s craziness came at a cost. Last month, Judge Linda V. Parker (E.D. Mich.) sanctioned Powell, Lin Wood, and seven other pro-Trump lawyers, declaring that their challenge to Michigan’s election results was “a historic and profound abuse of the judicial process.” Judge Parker ordered them to pay the attorneys’ fees for the defendants in the case, the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan, and to undergo continuing legal education (ouch). She also referred them to local authorities in their home states for possible suspension or disbarment—which means that Powell could end up losing her own law license over lies.

Derangement score: 10. #ReleaseTheKraken, or #ReleaseTheCrackpot? Of all the lawyers on this list, Powell advanced the most detailed—and therefore most deranged—theories about the election.

Every lawyer has, at some point, gone beyond simply advancing their client’s interests and actually forced themselves to take their cases personally. I’ve fallen victim to that on more than one occasion - only to be embarrassed when my client’s story falls apart under cross-examination - and I’ve worked on cases where the opposing, unsuccessful lawyer stormed out of the courtroom and slammed the door after they lose. There’s always a fine balance between identifying with the client to take his or her case seriously, and maintaining some emotional distance to make sure it’s not clouding your judgement.

Lat suggests that Powell, Eastman et al. made it so far - and were then brought low - because they went all-in on believing everything their clients told them:

…far from being immune to TDS because of their brilliance, highly accomplished attorneys might be more susceptible to the disease. Why? It has to do with what made them successful as lawyers.

When I went from being a law clerk to a litigator years ago, I had to change my mindset from arbiter to advocate. For my first few months as a law firm associate, I’d say things to the partners like, “This is a close case, but I think our opponents have the better argument.” But impartially evaluating arguments was no longer my job; my job was to advocate zealously for my clients. Over time, I noticed that the best litigators were ones who believed deeply in their arguments—whether because they believed in them all along or had convinced themselves of them along the way.

Talented litigators use their intellect and creativity to develop arguments on behalf of clients, and to present those arguments most effectively, litigators need to believe them. Part of being a great litigator is drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid. This form of motivated reasoning is adaptive for litigators, helping them do their jobs. The problem is that if taken too far or applied to meritless claims, it can lead to disastrous consequences—as it did in the case of the Trump election challenges.

When people ask me how I can defend a criminal client whom I believe to be guilty, I always respond that it’s actually much easier than representing clients whom I sincerely believe to be innocent. I’ll always do my best, within the limits of the law, but I think I’m less likely to mess up when I’m not so emotionally invested in the case.


“I can’t understand why Americans won’t get vaccinated” department: